VAC Enterprising Communities

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Enterprising Communities focuses on supporting new and existing social enterprises in rural Cumbria. It had 9 staff in a team headed by Viv Lewis. Enterprising Communities was set up and hosted by Voluntary Action Cumbria or VAC

The project commissioned a legacy website to pass on its own learning this can be seen at [1]

As well as the reports of the project the website contains detailed accounts of five case studies

Melmerby and Fellside Village Shop Melmerby and Fellside Village Shop is a social enterprise that was set up in a Cumbrian village to replace the old shop which had closed due to the retirement of the owners. This case study shows the process involved in setting up a social enterprise of this kind and the unique character of the business support needed to help the villagers’ dreams become a reality.

Eden Artisans Eden Artisans is a group of Artists and Craftspeople who have joined together to form a co-operative with the objective of displaying and selling their work. The group all live close by Kirby Stephen in the Upper Eden Valley in Cumbria, and have a collective commitment both to keeping craft skill alive, and to producing arts and craft works of the highest quality using locally sources materials wherever possible.

Lowick cluster of social enterprises Lowick cluster is an important project because it is a project that nearly reached fruition, but failed: a local community developed a social enterprise model for maintaining a near viable village school, but the model failed to become a reality. Unfortunately the odds were stacked against them and the Local Authority proceeded with closure. Lowick shows that with enough imagination schools in rural areas are capable of building up complementary income streams and remaining viable. In other EU Member States (e.g. France) much smaller schools with rolls as low as ten are kept open because municipalities believe that a school is the centre of a village.

Growing Well was founded as a social enterprise in 2003 with the aim of helping people recovering from mental health problems to become ‘work ready’ in a supported workplace providing a therapeutic environment that focuses on horticulture. The company is based at Low Sizergh Farm in the South Lakes.

Watchtree Nature Reserve Watchtree Nature Reserve is an example of community, national and regional organisations and countryside agencies working in active partnership to benefit the environment and education of future generations.

The project had other special aspects. It used the logical framework to organise the project from the outset and returned to the same tool during implementation. [2]

Enterprising Communities took a serious view of lesson learning and published these lessons on its legacy site. Articles include One size does not fit all: the case for specialised social enterprise support


The project received £286,000 from the PDF during phase 1 and also receives support from ERDF Funds (£ 224,782), Cumbria RDP (£ 233,212) and Barclays Bank (£119,000). It was later supported under Building on the Best round of Phoenix.

Economic Impact of EC Services on Job Creation and Rate of Development

On average enterprises estimated that their growth had been accelerated by 9 months due to the total enterprise support and services they had received. Answers on this question ranged from 3 months to 5 years, with some saying they would not be here at all without the support. At an average of 5 days per intervention this represent very good value.

Overall, clients estimated that EC provided 80% of the business support they had received. Other support agencies of advisors made up the balance. Advisory boards and committees were the most important personal form of support, beyond agencies. 10% said they wouldn’t be here without EC. This confirms the unique contribution EC is making as a support service in the social enterprise sector in Cumbria.

Client Satisfaction & Needs

Overall, EC is clearly a highly capable and specialised team which has evolved exactly the kind of intensive approach that any start-up social enterprises could hope for. They have achieved excellent satisfaction.

Over 80% were very satisfied with the services, while 100% were at least satisfied. In addition, 100% of clients thought the EC intervention had significant impact on the organisation. This is an excellent customer satisfaction record.

The most appreciated part of EC’s service was their overall, wide-ranging knowledge and expertise, and their the multiple skills available through the team. If one officer did not know the answer, there was always someone else in the team who did. EC has a reputation for good team working and knowledgeable staff.

Clients’ most common praise was related to the softer parts of the services and the way in which the manner and style in which services were delivered. EC excels in providing enterprise coaching, mentoring and moral support in a friendly, accessible and dedicated manner.

EC’s friendly and personable style, and the simple, clear language makes them particularly good at providing moral support and encouragement while listening to and understanding the clients’ problems. Moral support and a friendly ear is an often under-rated critical success factor that can make or break survival during the first few difficult years. EC have recognised the often critical role that moral support and business counselling provide in young social enterprises, and made it count.

The clients appreciated the professionalism and commitment of the team, and their speedy response rate plus ability to meet clients in their own premises.

Officers were able to show moral support by mucking-in and providing guidance and leadership without taking over control of the enterprise.

The business coaching and counselling approach – with its friendly, approachable, simple language, yet professional service - is at the heart of the EC model of working. It is highly effective at supporting those with little business experience or low confidence. It could be very effectively applied to some of the most hard- to- reach and struggling groups in the County if social inclusion became a high aim of the EC project.

EC staff are becoming stretched, and are taking longer to return enquiries.

Client Satisfaction & Needs: One-to-many approaches including technical training, group work and funding

There is high degree of grant funding among many of the social enterprises that EC supports, and a need to secure development ‘investment’ or funding early in the life of an enterprise perhaps through fast-track access to finance and coaching combinations. 39% highlighted funding as the major constraint and need.

Other technical needs related to marketing (24%), legal advice (18%), legal structures (12%), management of staff (12%), facilitation (9%) and volunteer recruitment (6%)

There is a gap in training provision, only currently filled by Organisational Workshops. Self-selecting training provision or self-diagnostic tools could help to reach more people with useful content in an efficient manner.

Client Satisfaction & Needs

One-to-all Services including Newsletter, Web and Networking

The client base doesn’t use the web in general, those that do go directly to info sources they want. The website, although of high quality, is not working to its full potential as a signposting site, or as a resource for tools and information.

Several clients requested more opportunities to meet other entrepreneurs: to remove isolation, gain advice, contacts, and encouragement. Training opportunities were seen to be a key way to meet other people.

Several clients suggested that more could be achieved if social enterprises and entrepreneurs, who had been through the trials and tribulations of start-up, could put more back into helping those who were just starting out.

Working with the Sector – Partners, Promotion and Mainstreaming

EC has made some progress with 12% of clients said EC didn’t have a high enough profile or visibility. Several stakeholders felt the social enterprise sector suffered from both low profile, and a poor image. This is a major constraint to growing the sector, both in term of geographic and social reach to potential clients from the public, but also in bringing on board more mainstream, ‘traditional’ private and public bodies who could be very important partners in scaling up support to the sector.

More than one stakeholder commented on the need to build trust, and bridge cultures, between mainstream and social enterprise sectors. EC has made good progress in working with the sector but it can still tend to be openly critical of the mainstream, which does not help to build the basis of new working relations.

EC’s leadership role in developing Growing Well, Lowick School and Bolton Nursery are to be applauded. EC has taken leading roles in establishing flagship social enterprises which fill a market gap, have the potential to bring significant economic and social benefits and provide a role-model of social enterprise development. EC needs to consider whether it wants to take this active leadership role in other identified areas or sectors with high potential, and consider carefully the resources that need to be committed against the possible long terms returns.

Internal Team Organisation & Management

The overall impression of EC team is a group of highly dedicated, hard working and capable experts generally working well together.

The team members have been allowed to develop their work program and case load in response to the needs and opportunities arising in the area and in response to their own preferred working style.

However, the physical distance and degree of independence has made it difficult to keep regular communications and different ways of working occasionally lead to hick-ups in everything from administration systems (particular computer related) through to the mutual trust and respect required for the most effective team working.


This was a well managed project which has been exemplary at defining its goals using the Logical Framework approach and has largely achieved them.

The project is very highly regarded by its clients who frequently commented on the high level of expertise and the way that the project has worked with clients. Customer satisfaction comments in both surveys and focus groups were so positive as to be off the scale. But this comes at a price as it is not clear that such high levels of service delivery can be provided for more clients. There is a need to move some services from one to one delivery up to the many level through either using groups or courses.

Although highly dispersed geographically the team is cohesive with the usual levels of tension that can be expected in any organisation. The quality of leadership is high at the technical level but does not always succeed at the personal level (but who does).

The big reserve about the project concerns its cost and sustainability. This is a well staffed project with 9 members of staff. To date there are relatively few clients per person in the organisation and therefore the opportunities for making an impact on the Cumbrian rural economy are necessarily limited. It is unlikely that other funders are in a position to step in to support the project in the generous way that the PDF project has done

The approaches used are not in themselves particularly innovative. For example the help given to clients on legal framework is fairly standard. What is important is that these approaches have been used in a rural context in which they were previously unavailable. They are also provided with a strong element of practical and responsive support from a committed team.

Within the team there is a question about whether the project would be better off being independent from Voluntary Action Cumbria. It might help the project to become more of a social enterprise itself if it became independent. But there is a risk that it would be more isolated, less able to manage cash flow and the real funding issues will be faced at the end of this tranche of Phoenix and ERDF funding in around 2006.

Policy Context

=Background to the Problem Tackled

The Foot and Mouth epidemic had a major impact on the Cumbrian economy. Famers received the most publicity as news broadcasts showed huge burning pyres of cattle and sheep. But Foot and Mouth also revealed how dependant the economy was dependant on tourism which was dramatically curtailed by footpath closures and bad publicity.

VACs Enterprising Communities project can in some ways be seen as a response to foot and mouth. But it is also an attempt to see what can be done through concerted support to social enterprise in a challenging rural setting.

Rural Cumbria is a diverse place. Although the Lake District and its National Park are perhaps the most well known area there are two other areas of great importance. On the West Coast are the former mining and steel making towns of Workington, Maryport and Whitehaven. These betray the classic industrial working class patterns of mining communities world wide. A historic dependence on a single industry. Isolation in a rural setting, lack of formal enterprise, low skills etc. To the East are the Pennines. As wild as the Lake District but less frequented and in some ways more isolated. Not yet affected by the rapid house price inflation and dominance of second homes and incomers that characterises the Lake District. Alston is the main town in this part of Cumbria. Perched on a hill and isolated with a sporadic bus service. It lays claim to have the highest density of cooperatives and social enterprises in the country.

Summary of Project Modus Operandus

Voluntary Action Cumbria have identified that running a social enterprise in a rural location can be an extremely isolating experience unless the individuals concerned have access to a strong business support network. Their solution to this problem is a project titled “Enterprising communities” – Voluntary Action Cumbria’s specialist rural social enterprise agency. Set up in April 2002, the project was developed by Enterprising Communities working in collaboration with the Cumbria Local Enterprise Agency Network, as part of a national network of rural community councils.

The Enterprising Communities Project consists of a team of nine social enterprise sector professionals who include five area officers, each working within one of the five of Cumbria’s five District Council areas. The role of these area officers is to help new and existing social enterprises to develop through providing appropriate business advice. This advice includes group development work, strategic and business planning, advice on funding, legal structures and governance, access to specialist training programmes, and developing links with other social enterprises.

Over the past two years, the Enterprising Communities Project has worked with more than 120 rural social enterprises and sixteen new enterprises have opened. Voluntary Action Cumbria estimates that the project’s activities have helped local community groups attract more that £1.3m of additional grant aid for social enterprise developments in Cumbria, and that overall, the effect of the Project has been to increase significantly, the rate of growth of social enterprise across the County.

The key features of the pilot project are that:

  • specific focus on social enterprise development in a rural location.
  • structured to have dedicated “area officer” function within the Project team.
  • provides appropriate business advice including group development work, strategic and business planning, advice on funding, legal structures and governance, access to specialist training programmes,
  • offers links with other social enterprises.

Background to the Project

Voluntary Action Cumbria’s Enterprising Communities Project defines its current objectives as “to promote & support social enterprise in rural Cumbria as a means of delivering economic & social inclusion”. Originally focusing on assisting the growth of the social enterprise sector across Cumbria, the project noted that it had refined its original operations. This was because an original key objective was to mainstream business development services for social enterprises within Business Link Operators - but this has now been widen to include local regeneration initiatives. In consequence the project’s operations have changed over the period of the Phoenix grant in two respects. These were around the key delivery agents for business support services for social enterprise, and because of the project having under-estimating the difficulties involved in working in deep rural situations. The reasons that the project identifies this issue as important are as follows:

Changed our approach in the light of experience VAC are finding that Business Link Operators may not be the key delivery agent for social enterprise buisness development services. We are now looking to work with local regeneration initiatives such as Market Town Initiatives & Local Strategic Partnerships New knowledge of client group VAC are finding it a challenge to develop work with economicaly excluded people in deep rural areas given their relatively small numbers and geographical dispersion

Inputs and Financing

The project received Phoenix Development Funds of £ 286,350. In addition the project was financed from three other sources. European Regional Funds (£ 224,782), Cumbria RDP (£ 233,212) and Barclays Bank (£ 119,000). The total budget for the project was £ 576,994 and the annual budget for the project between March 2002 and March 2003 was £ 259,296. Spending on staffing comprised the major expenditure item of the project.

Total annual expenditure £ 259,296 100 %

Paid staff days per annum in 2002/3 totalled 1870. Salaries related expenditure per annum (which included a number of free-lance and subcontractors) totalled £ 203,397. The Day Rate expenditure for paid staff therefore totalled £ 108.77. There was a small volunteer labour element of the project – mainly for Board Members efforts – but this was not included in either the budget or expenditure in the case of this project.


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Targeting the Benefits

The main work of the project focuses on the promotion and support for the development of social enterprise in rural Cumbria as a means of delivering economic & social inclusion.

Voluntary Action Cumbria was asked to identify the target market for these services in Cumbria. In response VAC identified a total of 260 social enterprises: these comprised the122 existing enterprises identified in VAC’s social enterprise directory; plus twenty percent of the County’s 340 voluntary organisations – an assumed figure based on an estimate of the number that might wish to transform their operations into a social enterprise. Of this total VAC estimates that they have reached about half of this potential market in the course of the project – 140 organisations. Of this number, 55 have become clients of the Enterprising Communities project to date.

= Finally, the project provided information in respect of the types of people benefiting through the services provided by the project. The Phoenix Fund’s priority is to benefit disadvantaged and marginalised groups, so, in consequence, Voluntary Action Cumbria reported on the backgrounds to the individuals assisted under the Phoenix Fund. For a project with a positive action focus and a significant target audience, the results appear poor. Only 38% of beneficiaries were women and participation in the project from individuals from ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities, or ex-offenders, or prisoners, or refugees, was reported mostly at minimal levels. Participation amongst individuals who are long-term unemployed was 13%, and for those living in both disadvantaged communities and rural locations it was both 28% So questions must be raised here about the project’s ability to access its stated audience amongst the most excluded communities and groups in Cumbria.

VAC was asked to identify the numbers of clients benefiting through the project. It was fifty-five, which means that if a simple unit cost per beneficiary business calculation is done, then using Voluntary Action Cumbria’s own figures of 55 businesses assisted directly as a result of the project’s activities, this is a unit cost of a little under £1,500 per business assisted. The project identified that its impact in over-coming barriers to setting up and running businesses, was significant in the following areas: addressing a lack of confidence, addressing a lack of capital for the business, and addressing a lack of business skills. However the project also noted that it did not remove the major barriers experienced by individuals or groups seeking to have new business ideas.

Sustainability and Mainstreaming Best Practices

The project identifies the three most important lessons learnt through the experience and results of the Phoenix Development Funded project to be:

1. Build up a good reputation by doing quality work 2. Be clear about the products and services you offer 3. Gain a good understanding of the sector and work with the clients at their pace.

VAC believes that participation in the first phase of the PDF has enhanced its own capacity to deliver business support services to disadvantaged areas and under-represented groups and that this organisational capacity has grown in two specific ways. Through accumulated knowledge and experience of the sector, and through SFEDI accreditation for VAC’s Business Advisors.

The project has been awarded more Phoenix Development Fund monies through the Building on the Best programme, and believes that this additional funding will assist VAC develop a sustainable forward strategy as a result. The mix of partners in this second phase of activities is not dissimilar to that in the first phase project, and includes the Business Link and some earned income.

VAC enterprising Communities finished working when its Phoenix Fund grant ran out in March 2005