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Business excellence in the social economy

If you're going to provide advice to would-be social entrepreneurs, then it ought to be good quality advice.

That's why Co-active, a Plymouth-based not-for-profit organisation that encourages entrepreneurship in Devon and Cornwall, set about a two year project to upgrade and improve every aspect of the service it has offered since 1986.

That included a major revamp of the website, the production of a CD-Rom, and the development of an assessment framework that allows Co-active to measure how well the businesses it helps are actually doing.

"Effectively what the Phoenix money allowed us to do was to improve the quality of the tools we use to provide our services;' says research and development services manager Dave Kilroy. "To use an analogy, it means we've now got bigger hammers and sharper chisels, and as a result the quality and speed of our service has improved. In turn that has meant that the services provided by the social entrepreneurs we advise should also improve:' The newly-developed assessment framework, christened the Business Research Information Analysis Navigator - or BRIAN for short - helps Co-active measure and monitor both the business and social capital of an enterprise.

A "before and after" study of 34 businesses advised by Co-active has already shown measurable improvements in their performance over a 12-month period. The website is now packed with new information on issues such as how to deal with VAT payments, national insurance and statutory sick pay, and has links to other social entrepreneurs, plus news stories on the subject area. By the end of the project the number of people using the improved site had risen to 1,100, a five fold increase.

"We've now got bigger hammers and sharper chisels, and as a result the quality and speed of our service has improved:'

The project also allowed the development of an electronic newsletter, plus a CD explaining what Co-active has achieved through the project, lessons learnt and a showcase of some of the projects it supports. This has been sent to potential funders and other interested parties. And in a bold move, it has even led to the production of a specially tailored 13-week NVO Level 3 course in social entrepreneurship, called Enterprise for Everyone, which has proved popular in the two counties.

Putting together all these innovations was a challenge to Co-active's nine staff, who often had to learn fast in areas that were new to them, while also providing their normal day to day advice and support. "Many of these things involved a huge learning curve, and they stretched the capacity of the staff to the full - it was really hard work;' says Mr Kilroy. "But they have improved the reach and the quality of what we do.

That helps us to move social entrepreneurs away from being just voluntary or community projects to being run in a more businesslike manner:'