SEP business advice accreditation

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Inclusive standards for business advice

This case study was presented at the EQUAL conference Social economy - a model for inclusion, enterprise, and local development' held in Warsaw on 10-12 May 2006. Full documentation is available at

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Britain’s national Social Enterprise Partnership (SEP) used EQUAL’s first round to put social enterprise at the heart of professional qualifications in business support. To slot into Britain’s well-developed qualifications framework, it developed national occupational standards for both social enterprise managers and their advisers. It went on to create a professional qualification aimed mainly at business advisers, that part of the market that shows the most demand for qualifications.

The Social Enterprise Partnership (SEP) was a national EQUAL development partnership that brought together the key umbrella bodies representing the different families of the social enterprise sector in the UK, to manage a project in the first round of EQUAL. The partnership played a strategic role within the UK government’s social enterprise strategy, which had been launched in 2002, just as EQUAL got under way.

The partnership undertook a number of strategic tasks necessary to establish the sector, which itself was a relatively recent creation. The term ‘social enterprise’ was coined to bring into being a ‘broad church’ defined as businesses with primary social objectives whose surpluses are principally invested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners. This results-based definition takes in existing families such as workers’ and consumers’ co-operatives, social firms employing disadvantaged people, and local development trusts, as well as other non-profit-distributing businesses.

Apart from its national work in areas such as quality and impact measurement and public procurement, and its support for regional support structures, SEP did a major piece of work on management and advisory qualifications.

Survey of needs

Why work on professional qualifications in the first place? Qualifications were put on the agenda when Social Enterprise London, which later became one of the members of SEP, asked consultants Baker Brown Associates (BBA) to conduct a survey of training and development needs. This showed that what was most in demand was a higher-level qualification for people advising social enterprises. “Being federal bodies, SEP’s members knew what their members wanted, and demand was coming mainly from advisers rather than from social enterprises themselves,” says John Goodman, policy co-ordinator at Co-operatives UK, the national federation of co-operatives. “Social enterprises are mostly small businesses that find it hard to release workers to undertake training. And anyway, if I’m running a social enterprise making ice cream, than I’m interested in a professional qualification in ice cream making, not in management. Advisers on the other hand do form a single profession, which ought to have quality standards on which clients can rely. In addition they are often working for public authorities which require quality assurance and have the resources to offer training and want to encourage a career structure.”

The size of the market is considerable. Mr Goodman estimates that if, as well as business advisers working in the public and third sectors, one takes into account those working for accountants, solicitors and other professions, the figure must be in the tens of thousands in Britain alone.

Occupational standards

The first stage of the work was to develop ‘national occupational standards’ (NOSs) [1] for social enterprise managers and advisers respectively. This involved surveys and focus groups drawn initially from the membership of two of SEP’s other members, the Development Trusts Association and Social Firms UK, each of which represents both businesses and support organi-sations. These standards are simply functional analyses, statements of what tasks, knowledge and understanding are required to do a job, and can be used in many ways, such as defining job descriptions, as well as qualifications.

To build up the standards, SEP developed seven new units, three of which are specific to the management standards:

  • improve relationships with stakeholders in a social enterprise: this involves identifying different types of stakeholder and how they might be involved; encouraging them to be involved; making sure they understand what they are supposed to be doing; and settling any conflicts of interest.
  • work with a board of directors in a social enterprise: this involves choosing, training and informing directors, clarifying your and their responsibilities, and presenting information well.
  • monitor the social performance of a social enterprise: this involves making sure the social objectives are right; developing new objectives if need be; avoiding conflict between social and commercial objectives; setting up systems to measure and report on social performance; and deciding how to improve social performance in the future.

The next three are specific to the advice standards:

  • develop opportunities to start social enterprises: this involves promoting social enterprise opportunities, identifying individuals and organisations that might want to be involved, encouraging them to work together, researching what might affect the potential social enterprise, developing a proposal and making sure it is likely to succeed.
  • help to start social enterprises: this involves deciding the purpose, values, principles and objectives of the potential social enterprise; deciding on the right legal and management structure; and developing a business plan.
  • help social enterprises to improve their performance: this involves reviewing social and commercial performance; improving structure and operations; balancing commercial and social objectives; and preparing plans to achieve financial stability and independence.

The final one – social enterprise – knowledge and understanding of key areas of business – is relevant to both. “We define this unit as consisting of the minimum that anyone working with social enterprises needs to know and understand,” says Mr Goodman. “It is purely knowledge, and says nothing at all about someone’s practical or human skills.” It covers the meaning of the term ‘social enterprise’, the values of social enterprise, the circumstances in which a social enterprise may be started, similarities and differences with other types of organisation and between different types of social enterprise, linking social objectives to commercial objectives and including them in a business plan, legal structures, start-up capital, handling mixed income streams and sources of specialist support.

These standards were developed in partnership with the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative (SFEDI), a private company that works under a government contract in this area. They were then approved by the National Occupational Standards Board, the government body responsible for this task.

An accredited qualification

If they are to be eligible for public money, vocational training courses in Britain must lead to a ‘Nationally Recognised Qualification’. SEP therefore next looked for an approved awarding body’ that would take social enterprise under its wing. It found such a body in the form of the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM). “Awarding bodies have to develop qualifications using their own resources and then recover their costs from the fees that students and assessment centres have to pay. Different awarding bodies have different market niches, and the ILM was keen to occupy this one,” Mr Goodman explains. Now, however, other awarding bodies are also showing interest in entering the field.

A single body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), accredits all vocational qualifications in England and Wales with the exception of university degrees. They must match one of nine levels stretching from age-16 school exams to doctorates. “We chose to pitch our qualifications at level 5, which is the equivalent of the higher National Diploma (HND) issued by the Business & Technology Education Council (BTEC),” says Mr Goodman.

The Level 5 Award in Understanding Social Enterprise (USE) [2] is rated at six units, which means that students are expected to put in 60 hours of study to obtain it. Units can be built up a few at a time, making it suitable for part-time study. It has no formal entry requirements, and is targeted at practising managers, consultants or business advisers, with several years’ experience and appropriate training and qualifications. It covers:

  • values and purpose of social enterprise
  • organisational and legal structures for social enterprise
  • finance and support for social enterprise
  • case studies in social enterprise

It is assessed through a live case study assignment of 1,500-2,000 words based on the final, summative segment and direct investigation of an actual social enterprise.

Baker Brown Associates has carried on its work for Social Enterprise London by creating a new training course, also called Understanding Social Enterprise, which can lead to the ILM qualification. This supersedes BBA’s previous six ‘core practice modules’ which it delivered to over 500 people. It is typically scheduled as four full-day workshops, plus action learning and access to one-to-one tutor support as needed. The programme’s clarity, flexibility and the way it is brought to life by the use of case studies have attracted praise from professional evaluators.

Of the first cohort of 26 people that have taken the USE course, all but one has registered to take the qualification, so it looks as if it will prove popular. At least in theory it should aid both job mobility and career progression for business advisers. There is no reason why students from countries outside the UK should not obtain the ILM qualification.

In the mainstream curriculum

SEP’s actions have ensured that any business advisers who want to gain the accredited national qualification will as a matter of course achieve an expertise in social enterprise. “This is serious mainstreaming,” says John Goodman. It has thus achieved one of the objectives set out four years ago in the government’s social enterprise strategy, to “open up mainstream business advice so that providers are able to recognise the requirements of social enterprise, provide what is appropriate and signpost to others for specialist advice.”

What’s next? Mr Goodman sees a growing need for a professional body for social enterprise advisers, which could perhaps form a section of the Institute for Business Advisers or some other professional body. “At present, very few business advisers are in any kind of membership body, but I think it could bring benefits,” he says.

A further stage is to develop new higher-level qualifications, such as the 180-hour ‘Certificate in Understanding Social Enterprise’ that Baker Brown Associates is now developing to take in the three practical units specified in the adviser occupational standards.

Complete documentation on these standards and qualifications is available on a CD entitled Social enterprise – learning and training, which is available from SEP while stocks last.


DP name: Social Enterprise Partnership
DP ID: UKgb-59
Contact: John Goodman
National Policy Co-ordinator
Co-operatives UK
Holyoake House
Hanover Street
M60 0AS, UK
+44 161 246 2933