We talk to Family Fund Business Services (FFBS) about their unique model, and the future of social enterprise
Around a million families across the UK are raising a child with a disability or serious illness. With greater caring responsibilities often comes additional financial strain, adding to the struggles these families already face. Family Fund Business Services (FFBS) is a social enterprise working to alleviate some of this pressure by helping to sustain their parent charity, Family Fund. We chatted with the team about the additional social value they’re creating through their work, their biggest highlights and hurdles, and the support they think social enterprises need in order to go mainstream.
FFBS launched in 2013 — following the devolution of the Social Fund from the DWP into Local Authority management — with the aim of supporting local councils with their newly-created welfare assistance schemes. They now work collaboratively with local councils, combining their buying power to secure better pricing for white goods and essential items for people on low incomes. These savings are then used to help even more people in need. Essentially, FFBS works in close partnership with its customers to help them help others. What’s more, the savings created, (in the form of discounts on volume spend), are gifted to the Family Fund, generating a sustainable source of unrestricted funding to help families raising disabled or seriously ill children in the UK.
“The means by which we do this are really quite simple,” says FFBS’s Head of Business Development, Helen Bradley. “We provide an easy-to-use, online ordering portal where our customers can place orders for items — ranging from energy vouchers to furniture and to washing machines — from a carefully-selected range at a competitive price through our network of trusted suppliers.”
Once a customer’s tailored package of goods and services is set up, all they have to do is place an order for the items they need. FFBS then ensures that supplier contracts are carefully managed, and that pricing negotiations are completed with the customer’s needs at the forefront. FFBS also focuses on selecting from a high-quality range of items that can be delivered quickly, often with extended warranties. This allows customers to benefit from an efficient service, without the hassles of supplier management and the extra time it would take them to shop around.
We talked about what distinguishes FFBS from others in this space. The answer is that their social purpose, and principles, set them apart, underlining every aspect of their work:
“Our uniqueness lies in our reason for being established; to generate unrestricted income for Family Fund and to share social value with our customers. This not only helps to help sustain and develop the work of the charity, but also means that we help our customers extend their support to local communities […] Ultimately, our work helps to secure the future of our charity, Family Fund, and by gifting our profits as unrestricted funding we help them to deliver their core objective, to support even more families raising disabled and seriously ill children” says Helen.
Another unique aspect of FFBS’ work is its ability to share the results of its collective buying power with customers, by sharing supplier discounts via product rebates. Using this model, this social enterprise enables its customers to extend funding and help more people living in hardship. What emerges from this is a unique model that drives real social change through collaborative working.
In 2019/20, FFBS celebrated a record-breaking year in which it raised £1.17m for Family Fund and gifted back £317,000 to its customers. The team have estimated that this has helped an additional 1,668 households across the UK. However, like many social enterprises, they are now feeling the impact of COVID-19: “The impact of the outbreak of Coronavirus has been clear to see across two of our main services”, says Helen. “Now, more than ever, the speed and quality of service truly matters to our customers who rely on the FFBS portal and service delivery to ensure essential cash, energy, and food is being received by people who need it.”
While the challenges presented by the pandemic have certainly placed pressures on their services, the FFBS team remains determined to exceed their customers’ expectations and to place their beneficiaries at the forefront of their work. “The positive feedback we have received from customers has been a testament to our hard work and collaboration with suppliers […] we will continue to work through this crisis together with our customers to ensure vital support is delivered to those who need it the most.”
Given the FFBS team’s close understanding of the pressures and opportunities faced by UK social enterprises, we spoke about the sector more broadly, and how it might establish itself in the economic mainstream. Helen raised the issues posed by a too narrow sense of social value:
“Whilst the Social Value Act has improved the outlook for social value in public procurement, some social enterprises do not neatly slot into an easy-to-demonstrate community or environmental impact. This makes it hard for social enterprises to be considered for mainstream contracts, as they cannot compete with a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to social value. […] Whilst it’s not as easy to quantify as, say, the number of apprenticeships created as a result of the contract, the wide-reaching positive impact of many social enterprises drives real social change.”
In a similar vein, she talked about the need for a fuller understanding of the value (and not just the price) of social enterprise goods and services. Whilst appreciating the importance of competitiveness and affordability, Helen made the point that social enterprises should be viewed as offering greater value for money when viewed in their proper context:
“Weighting contracts heavily on price is also limiting for social enterprises and adopts a narrow sense of value for money. Working with social enterprises promotes economic growth by tackling the key issues that place pressure on public services, such as homelessness, poverty, and supporting individuals who are disabled or seriously ill. So the cheapest item or service doesn’t always represent value for money when considering the wider impacts of working with a social enterprise.”
Add to this the often limited budgets of not-for-profit organisations, (restrictions on paid promotion opportunities, for example); and the barriers to exhibiting at costly sector events, and social enterprises can often find themselves stuck at the fringes. But solutions are emerging, from the social enterprise sector itself: for example, Supply Change improves access by providing a platform for social enterprises, like FFBS, to showcase their services.
This notion of better connectedness and awareness within the sector got us talking about other social enterprises that inspire the FFBS team. One of their favourites is Clear Voice, (another Supply Change supplier): “We first heard of Clear Voice when we were shortlisted alongside them at the UK Social Enterprise Awards in 2019, (in the ‘Tech For Good’ category)” says Helen. Clear Voice specialises in spoken interpreting, providing professional telephone interpreting and face-to-face bookings for charities, businesses and the public sector across the UK. The model is similar to FFBS’, in that Clear Voice has a parent charity―Migrant Help―to which 100% of profits are donated. (Migrant Help supports victims of displacement and exploitation).
Looking to the future, FFBS’ main objective is to continue to increase their financial support for the Family Fund charity, by further developing their procurement service. “Our focus will remain firmly fixed on extending social value by engaging with more customers across the charitable and housing sectors as well as continuing to support local government to help those people who are most vulnerable in society,” says Helen. In turn, they hope to develop a leading national procurement service, which is focussed on helping to drive value and social change, by delivering crisis support quickly and effectively.