South East the capital of social enterprise – it’s time to “make it happen”

On 19th May I attended “A Bridge to Social Investment” which brought together over 100 delegates from across Essex and beyond with an interest in the role of social enterprises and charities in the County.

While nominally an event focused on social investment the scope was far broader (the full list of sessions and links to the presentations is available on the Social Enterprise East of England website).  We experienced a packed agenda – a blend of external context, discussion and learning workshops.  The event was also a chance to get an early insight into some exciting emerging initiatives aimed at strengthening social enterprise in the area.

Looking back through my notes it’s a challenge to give a true flavour of all that arose from the day but my broad overview of the sessions and the key takeaways goes something like this:

Adam Bryan, Managing Director of South Essex Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), spoke of the vision for the South East to become “the capital of social enterprise” and the collective challenge now to “make it happen”.  Having spent the early years of SELEP building the strong infrastructure needed to make this a success the body is now looking outwards to more transformative place-based work and has committed to seek social enterprise representation in taking this forward.  I’ll be really interested to see how this evolves as it seems to be a key opportunity for social enterprise to take a central role in developing a strong and socially aware business sector in the county and as a central pillar of change.

Peter Holbrook, CEO of Social Enterprise UK zoomed us out from this local focus to give insights into the evolving external context and how social enterprises are responding.  Against a challenging backdrop he highlighted where he sees opportunities for those social enterprises that “expect no favours” but are adaptable in pursuing opportunities to compete with more commercial businesses.   Key emerging factors he highlighted include two particular areas of interest for me: increased participation through models such as crowdfunding and community shares and the opportunities offered by harnessing the potential of emerging tech.

Nicky Stevenson of Social Enterprise East of England (SEEE) gave us the highlights from a recent study by SEEE on awareness and experience of social investment among local organisations. While the findings broadly reflected messages from the national context the study forms the underpinning evidence for broader policy discussions and as such was a key driver behind the whole day.  One early initiative is an upcoming investment readiness support programme for 20 organisations and once full findings are published it looks likely they’ll stimulate some further developments.

Paul Dodson, Head of Commissioning, Growing Essex: Economic Growth and Communities and previously Chair of Cumbria Social Enterprise Partnership introduced us to a his successor Rob Randall who gave us some fascinating insights into the development of the partnership in Cumbria and prompted us all to consider how the lessons learned there could inform the development of a similar framework in Essex.

This question formed the impetus for breakout discussions where attendees had the chance to discuss the potential benefits, functions and next steps for such a support structure.  For me, this session was all too brief but showed a shared enthusiasm for this development with key themes being the development of knowledge sharing networks, the importance of mapping what’s happening to gain a shared understanding, the potential to develop a shared voice and the development of localised solutions.

Along with the SELEP developments outlined on the day, this highlighted that now could be the best opportunity yet to co-design the infrastructure to support the many social change initiatives already making a difference in Essex and give new ones an opportunity to start strongly.

Returning to the order of the day, Melanie Mills of Big Social Capital demonstrated the potential benefits of social investment as a tool to create impact rather than an end in itself.  Her 3 “early considerations” questions particularly resonated with me as a simple way of starting internal discussions about the need for and suitability of social investment.  Robert Pollack of Social Finance then helped to bring this to life by sharing some examples of social investment in action.

And this was all before lunch!  The afternoon was made up largely of two workshop sessions – for me the first of these was an overview of Access Foundation’s Growth and Reach Funds by Seb Elsworth including another call to participate, this time in their review of support provided and how this could be developed.   Next stop was a practical session by Nicky Stevenson on evidencing social value.

Beyond all of these programmed sessions, the opportunity to meet up with others with a common interest in social enterprise was another key benefit.  For me this included meeting some guest delegates from Georgia on a whistlestop trip to the UK to gather ideas for how to best support the evolving social enterprise sector in that country.  While the event was focused on the work still ahead to truly realise the potential of social enterprise in Essex, this highlighted how far we’ve come in the UK and reasons to be optimistic about the emerging opportunities to build from this established base.

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