Before COVID-19, the social enterprise sector was growing rapidly. In 2019, start-up rates were high — 42% of social enterprises were under five years old — and the sector was contributing around 60 billion pounds to the UK’s GDP. Less than a year later, with the advent of COVID-19 and in the face of an oncoming recession, the future of many social enterprises is increasingly uncertain.
What this future might look like and how it will be shaped was the topic at ‘The Future of Social Enterprise’, a recent event hosted by Supply Change and the Community Impact Partnership. The online session was attended by over 70 representatives from the social enterprise sector, central and local government, and housing. The panel was chaired by Rachel Woolliscroft, Director at BayNel Advisory and included Sam Scharf, Director of Community Investment at Orbit Housing; Lucy Findlay, Founder of the Social Enterprise Mark; and Robbie Davison, Founder of Can Cook CIC. This event proved to be a timely opportunity for the social enterprise community to share their hopes and fears for the sector.
Initially, the panel and participants faced up to the very real dangers posed by the current crisis. Open discussions were had about the existential threat facing many social enterprises, with the acknowledgement that some may not survive the year. There was also a consensus that the government support on offer lacks the longevity needed to protect vulnerable organisations. Even so, there were also discussions on how this crisis has revealed several new reasons to be optimistic about the future of social enterprise.
Many social enterprises, it was said, have shown to be highly agile and adaptive in terms of pivoting their work. Organisations have moved services online, and have been able to form new connections and alliances within the sector (having been motivated to build solidarity through mutual support). What’s more, participants also noted signs of an increase in consumer consciousness in relation to the social and environmental impacts of what they buy and where they buy from.
Looking to the future, the discussion focused on what businesses and government can do to support the social enterprise sector throughout this period. Sam Scharf shared his insights from Orbit Housing’s social procurement efforts, emphasising this as a means of sustaining social enterprises. With or without COVID-19, embedding social enterprises in supply chains provides them with reliable revenues and market presence, and thereby expands social impact. With this in mind, Sam addressed business leaders, advising on the importance of getting internal buy-in from procurement teams, and of researching supply chains thoroughly to make sure social enterprises can be brought in to achieve maximal impact for both parties.
Attendees also agreed that local councils could take a more partnership-based stance towards social enterprises, collaborating with them and sharing resources, rather than engaging on short term projects only. Similarly, Lucy Findlay pointed out that central government should also be committing more to social enterprise, by viewing the sector as an integral component of the UK’s economic recovery. Lucy suggested that social enterprises, for their part, should be reaching out to corporate partners and ‘mainstream’ businesses who might influence the government on their behalf. In each of these instances, participants agreed that the sector has to stress the responsibility of other stakeholders and partners in promoting and incorporating social enterprises. Without reaching out, as a movement, to major industries and institutions, social enterprises will not be able to engender the cultural and commercial shift necessary to push the sector forward.
Echoing the sentiment of the need for greater government support was Robbie Davison, who runs a CIC and has been in the sector for over 30 years. According to Robbie, social enterprises have been viewed as “irrelevant” by the government throughout his time spent within the sector, and this needs to change. As a solution, he stressed the importance of social investors and umbrella bodies in allowing social enterprises access to finance so that they can meaningfully expand (and protect against economic slumps). Robbie’s view is that, with sufficient access to finance, the social enterprise sector has the potential to grow to such an extent that the government will find it impossible to ignore.
Other key issues raised by participants included the need for social enterprises to build a diverse and inclusive sector, which reflects its social agenda in employment and work culture. This discussion was spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd, and the ensuing anti-racist movement — the panel recognised this as a moment which required the sector to be introspective and to bring a candidness and renewed focus to matters of diversity and inclusivity.
None of us know for certain what the future might look like after COVID-19. But the vulnerability of many social enterprises, revealed in this crisis, has demonstrated inarguably that the sector must act as a movement. This is because, while the innovations and lessons of the lockdown period have brought many new opportunities into focus, the sector as a whole will fail to fully utilise these without a coordinated strategy. How this can be achieved is an ongoing conversation, in which events such as this — bringing the sector together with major stakeholders and supporters — must continue to play a crucial role.
If you’ve got something to add to the discussion on what the future holds for social enterprise, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below. You can also watch the full webinar here.