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Business support services are often reactive and demand-led. New approaches developed through EQUAL demonstrate that business support services can reach clients who face many difficulties in the labour market. The article shows how six different approaches to outreach can improve the ability of organisations to reach their clients.

The original of this minibrief, also by Peter Ramsden, first appeared on the European Commission EQUAL website in early 2008.


Business support services are frequently desk- and office-bound. Only the clients who are most confident and aware of what is on offer are reached as the service is largely reactive.

To reach disadvantaged groups such as the long-term unemployed or migrants, and to support groups who are under-represented in enterprise such as women, more proactive techniques are needed - otherwise enterprise remains the preserve of the advantaged and those born into it. Without good outreach, people are dependent on informal sources of advice, usually developed through the social capital of family and friends. However, these can be a source of misinformation and lead those groups, especially when relatively recently settled, to trade illegally and be at risk. Good quality support and advice in the early stages can mitigate this risk.


EQUAL has successfully tested a variety of outreach strategies for engaging business support with key target groups such as women, ethnic minorities, refugees and people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods of cities. Each of these approaches has different advantages and disadvantages.

  • Setting up offices in disadvantaged areas: this has been the approach adopted by Enterprise Agencies in the UK and other Member States. They are often described as “one stop shops”. The work of Verbund Enterprise in Berlin (part of EQUAL) has led to the opening of several one stop shops in disadvantaged areas of cities in Germany. Their biggest challenge was to support entrepreneurship among the young unemployed. They demonstrated a good social return on investment with costs of about €6,000 – much less than the money needed to maintain a young person on welfare benefits.
  • Going to where the client is based: With EQUAL, EVU in Copenhagen spent the first six months of activity getting out to its client base in ethnic minority dominated areas of the city. It built trust and rapport for business support services. The approach developed by EVU has now been successfully mainstreamed and the Copenhagen Business Centre started in January 2008. Seven business advisors have been employed. The number is to increase to a total of 25 employees by 2009. The outreach advisors have been integrated into the new mainstream organisation. One example of their approach was to target a particular street of shops with outreach. The goal here is to create local attention about the existence of the advisory service where there are many minority-owned businesses.
  • Partnering organisations that specialise in working with hard-to-reach communities. Many organisations are already successfully plugged into specific local communities. The EQUAL Cyfenter project in Wales used this model to reach women and ethnic minorities through a women’s support organisation called Chwarae Teg. It is perhaps the most clearly braided approach in which specialist business support is linked explicitly to a mainstream backbone service – in this case Business Eye.
  • Embed your advisers in community based organisations: this is the radical approach used by the EQUAL project called SIED in North London. It identifies a member of a community-based refugee or ethnic minority association and trains them as an accredited business adviser. It has trained 45 advisers and recently saw its 1,300th client. In order to continue the work after the end of EQUAL, a new grouping named the Association of Community Based Business Advisers (ACBBA) has been established. This will provide support services and training to advisers based in the community. ACBBA is already active in five boroughs of London both North and South of the river. It is in expansion mode and is looking to win contracts elsewhere.
  • Piggyback community based organisations: many successful models use existing community capacity to reach out. This approach can range from ‘finding women where women meet’ by targeting day care centres, health facilities and cafés. Pastors in African Caribbean Baptist churches are also a vector to reach the congregations as Faith in Business run by ABI Associates did in North West London.
  • Operate from public and community spaces: Bizfizz, a community based coaching approach developed in the UK, suggests that its coaches base themselves in community centres and cafés. It uses free publicity in local papers and word-of-mouth to recruit new clients.

Although these approaches are very different, they share some common approaches. Whereas most mainstream systems can appear bureaucratic and often require extensive form-filling or ‘diagnosis’, these approaches treat the client on their own terms with a minimum of fuss. José María Menéndez from Transformando, a social enterprise consultancy operating in Madrid with migrant communities, starts up conversations on the street with potential clients who would not be prepared to come into a formal office. He avoids asking for identity or nationality papers which can cause resentment among long-established migrants and suspicion among newcomers. The attitude towards client recruitment is respectful and proactive. Many approaches rely on word-of-mouth to spread the message and to recruit new clients.

Often these approaches are described as ‘holistic’, meaning that other factors besides business issues need to be taken into account when providing support. These factors can range from housing to childcare. Many successful approaches recognise that they cannot provide expert support in all these areas but create a virtual ‘ring’ of advisers who can be called in as needed.

Working with people who are excluded requires that a trust relationship is built. This calls more upon sensitive inter-cultural and inter-gender behaviour and greater empathy and understanding of the client’s situation.


Policy-makers should be aware that engaging with different target groups may require a range of different approaches. EQUAL has demonstrated that many groups can be reached by specific approaches:

  • Be proactive to reach specific groups and to go to the places where they meet;
  • Look for innovative approaches to reaching particular groups;
  • Offer non-business support in conjunction with business advice;
  • Link outreach services in to mainstream organisations in a ‘braided’ approach.

Notes and References