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Here to stay - social enterprise in the East Midlands of England

SEEM (Social Enterprise East Midlands) brought together a region’s key stakeholders to create a sustainable support system for social enterprises. It tested the new signposting system called ‘IDB’ (information, diagnosis and brokerage) with social enterprises, in order to link mainstream resources for business support with a variety of services required to reach diverse target groups.

The East Midlands of England, whose main urban centres are Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Lincoln, has a population of over four million people and a diverse economy based on engineering and textiles. It has a healthy population of co-operatives and voluntary organisations, but support to social enterprises has been fragmented.

EQUAL has changed that. The social enterprise movement and other key stakeholders in the region set up the ‘Social Enterprise East Midlands’ Development Partnership to make sure that social enterprise in the region flourishes and grows. SEEM itself, as lead partner, has for the first time brought together the key stakeholders and given them a collective mission – 'to create an environment in the East Midlands where social enterprise is encouraged to develop and enabled to grow‘ – as well as the means to achieve it.

Enterprises that can change the world

SEEM’s goal is to enable social enterprises to create a wide range of public and community benefits such as local economic regeneration and a fairer and more inclusive regional economy. It has done this by working on a wide range of initiatives in business support, investment, policy, networks and a special project to stimulate social enterprise in the sports sector. The SEEM EQUAL partnership has helped 540 individuals to develop their ideas for social enterprises, thereby helping to establish or improve 260 businesses. Among them is STRIDE, which the Inner City 100 ranks as the fastest-growing inner-city company in the East Midlands in 2004. STRIDE is the trading arm of a charity, the Shelter Housing Aid & Research Project. This Leicester-based social enterprise recycles, manufactures, distributes and retails furniture, and won the Leicestershire Business Awards 2005 for its contribution to the community. Through EQUAL, STRIDE developed TRAM Maintenance, a new trading activity employing hard-to-reach groups and involving opening up the public procurement market. Public sector procurement was recognised as a major opportunity by many SEEM EQUAL partners and SEEM has taken it forward in EQUAL’s second round under a new partnership called BEST Procurement.

Much of the partnership’s work was carried out by a score of specialist partner organisations such as Social Firms East Midlands (which promotes labour market integration enterprises), Voice East Midlands (on behalf of Black and Minority Ethnic community social enterprises), East Midlands Co-operative Council, Credit Union Network East Midlands and East Midlands Development Trusts. Its broad and active partnership also included a local authority and business support agencies including three co-operative development bodies.

The partnership has produced a large number of useful publications, which are available on a CD-ROM. For policy-makers, these include a study on business support for social enterprises, a study of social enterprise within Black and Minority Ethnic communities, and a report on barriers to the transfer of assets to social enterprises. Of more immediate use to those working on advising social enterprises are diversity and equal opportunities toolkits written specially for social enterprises, a social firms toolkit which helps business advisers to work with this part of the social enterprise movement, interviews with project managers, video footage of the projects, a handbook on how to write a business plan, and a blueprint for a village ‘shop in a box’. The project also published a quarterly newsletter.

Overall, one of its most useful outputs has been its website, which acts as a single contact point for information on the sector. It includes a searchable database of social enterprises in the region as well as one of business advisers. However its online discussion forum has not been so well used.

The fact that SEEM is here to stay is shown by its permanent corporate status – it was legally established as a company limited by guarantee in 2002. Its decision-making structure combines democratic accountability with business efficiency. And it has achieved a broad base of acceptance: SEEM now has about 100 members, both organisations and supportive individuals. These elect a board, currently comprising 12 directors, which takes strategic decisions. Operational decisions regarding the development partnerships in rounds 1 and 2 of EQUAL are delegated to dedicated steering committees, made up of a combination of board members and managers of projects within the development partnerships. SEEM employs 12 staff, including specialists such as the people responsible for business support, the development fund and the sports sector. EQUAL’s pump-priming support has allowed SEEM to grow to the point where now the second EQUAL development partnership accounts for less than half its activity.

Information, diagnosis and brokerage

The success SEEM has had in securing its own survival as a promotional body for social enterprises at regional level has changed the institutional landscape and increased the capacity of the support system. It has also broadened the horizons of local business advisers, according to SEEM programmes manager Jennifer Inglis: “One problem we had to overcome was that the publicly funded business support providers – known as ‘Business Link Operators’ – had a blind spot about social enterprise. And they had a bad reputation within the movement, so much so that only 17% of social enterprises had even approached Business Link for help.”

SEEM’s work in EQUAL helped its partners to understand what special support needs social enterprises have, SEEM says: “Business support for social enterprises is effective when brokered and delivered by agencies that understand the unique incorporation, governance and cultural drivers of social enterprises. The business support needs of social enterprises are broadly similar to those of commercial businesses in terms of content. The difference is the distinctive ways in which social enterprises operate, their value-led nature and the need for a balance of economic, social and environmental outputs – the 'triple bottom line'.” This was reflected in the specialist provision developed under EQUAL, within the three co-operative development agencies and beyond.

The partnership has continued to make innovation work in the provision of business support. When the public agencies introduced a new way of offering business services by separating information, diagnosis and brokerage (IDB) services from ongoing support such as mentoring, counselling and training, SEEM was ready to ensure that the new system met social enterprises’ needs. “We thought this IDB service could cause further problems if the people carrying out the diagnosis did not understand social enterprise. So we agreed funding for a pilot project to cover the costs of specialist social enterprise advisers delivering the service and research to establish what difference this makes,” says Ms Inglis. At the start of the EQUAL programme it would have been very difficult to be sure of the capacity of the advisers or to establish the support of the public agency for such a pilot. “The business support climate has definitely changed over the three years of the EQUAL project,” she affirms.

The SEEM partnership also worked hard to understand and cater for the needs of social enterprises set up by different sections of the community. Voice East Midlands carried out a study of black and minority ethnic (BME) social enterprise in the region and appointed an adviser to work in this field, while Leicester and County Co-operative Development Agency also did some targeted work. “We found for instance that the Somali community are particularly interested in social enterprise as a business form, and the partnership supported initiatives in areas like childcare and extra-curricular education,” says Ms Inglis.

Empowerment has been an active principle too. An example is the Peak District Rural Deprivation Forum, which is active in the scenic strip of hilly country that sits in the centre of England between the heavy industrial areas to its east and west. “They noted that local women made ends meet by doing a number of different jobs, mostly tourism-related,” says Ms Inglis. “They also observed that they had a lot of ‘social capital’ – that is they had a strong sense of community and good networks.” So these were fertile conditions for the creation of social enterprise – if only the women could be persuaded to overcome their aversion to risk. Client involvement was the key that enabled the real problems to be identified. Through EQUAL the Forum established a mechanism for enabling the women to test their social enterprise for some time, with peer and professional support, before establishing themselves as independent organisations.

Capturing the "so what?" factor

SEEM runs a £2m (€3m) grant programme for social enterprises, which will invest sums of up to £100,000 (€150,000) for start-up, capacity building, growth or capital investment. In the way it manages the fund, SEEM wanted to encourage long-term thinking and non-financial results. It therefore drew up new fund application guidelines, drawing on the work on quality and impact measurement being done by the Social Enterprise Partnership as part of a national EQUAL project NEF website. “The new model uses criteria that go beyond the simple measure of jobs created in the short term: they look at the theory of change that underlies the project,” Ms Inglis explains. “This helps us to focus on applicants who have an idea that can really make a difference and articulate the difference that has been made when it comes to monitoring.” The new application development method apparently works well, and the results of SEEM’s financial support have exceeded all its targets so far. By the autumn of 2005 the fund had supported 56 new enterprises and 140 new jobs.

Creating a partnership atmosphere

It was the government-backed East Midlands Development Agency (EMDA) that took the lead in creating the EQUAL partnership in 2000. “Initiatives in the social economy area have come and gone over the years here. The opportunity of EQUAL had a catalytic effect in bringing the partners together to create something longer-lasting,” says Ms Inglis.

The big difference that SEEM makes is that it has created a partnership dynamic among the organisations in the region. “When we started, we found that there were a good number of organisations in the social enterprise sector, but they did not work together,” says Ms Inglis. “And some important families of organisations like development trusts were present, but with no one to represent their particular style of asset-based community development. So this partnership helped to fill that and other gaps. We created a forum within which people with similar ideas to understand each other. In fact the people who set it up probably underestimated how hard it would be for a new organisation to lead such a high number of partners.” It took an immense amount of effort to persuade people to adopt a coherent approach. ”We found the most successful meetings were where one partner presented what they did to the others through examples of their work, a visit, or some kind of participatory exercise, and it was then discussed.”

The partnership’s regional focus fitted well with the trends in local government systems, and has enabled it to overcome some previously frustrating local government boundary divisions of responsibility – for instance agencies that work only within one specific city but not in its suburbs. “Regionalism is the new orthodoxy,” Ms Inglis says. “The enterprise agenda is in the hands of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and they work through the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). So we have intervened at the right level; our work in changing the RDA’s perceptions of social enterprise and building the sector’s recognition has paid dividends. This is especially true for the most enterprising of social enterprises, which can now raise investment capital much more easily, but it has also benefited smaller organisations, which can find the support they need without so much confusion.”


DP name: SEEM – Social Enterprise East Midlands
DP ID: UKgb-51
National partners: 20 organisations including lead partner

  • Social Enterprise East Midlands,
  • a local authority (Ashfield District Council),
  • a housing association (Leicester Housing Association), local social economy federal bodies (East Midlands Co-operative Council, Voice East Midlands,
  • Social Firms East Midlands, Credit Union Network East Midlands),
  • Local co-operative development bodies (Northamptonshire, Leicester and County and Lincolnshire *Co-operative Development Agencies),
  • a national social enterprise federal body (Development Trusts Association),

partners directly running social enterprises (Nottinghamshire Rural Community Council,

  • STRIDE, Groundwork Creswell,
  • Peak District Rural Deprivation Forum, Co-options,
  • Tuxford Mine of Information) and
  • social enterprise/social entrepreneur support organisations (East Midlands School for Social Entrepreneurs, Leicester Community Action Network, Amazon Initiatives).

Transnational partnership: TCA 1499 Transnational Initiatives. Partners: BEfr-9 Plate Forme pour l’Egalité des Chances pour l’Emploi, FR-BNR-2001-10314 Territoires Solidaires, FR-BNR-2001-10555 Apprendre pour Entreprendre Ensemble, IT-IT-G-EMI-021 Nuove Frontiere per l’Imprenditorialità Sociale
Contact: Jennifer Inglis
Address: SEEM, Suite 28 Minerva House, Spaniel Row, Nottingham NG1 6EP, UK
Telephone: +44 115 871 4760
Fax: +44 115 871 4768