2020 has been a turbulent, unpredictable year for the social enterprise movement but across all the home nations, social enterprises have been going above and beyond to support the communities they work with. Whilst social enterprises across the UK faced common challenges, differences in the support available and regional context did affect how the crisis affected different businesses. In this piece membership bodies from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales join us in sharing their reflections on the year of the pandemic.

The social enterprise community is known for its resilience, its dynamism and its commitment to not shy away from using business to address the big issues we face. 2020 has challenged social enterprises like no other year ever has but, when faced with this historic crisis, the sector responded in the only way it knows how – with innovation, bravery and sheer determination to keep on helping the people it supports and represents.

Many of our members pivoted their businesses models through selling new products such as face-masks or sanitiser and shifting their programmes online. Social enterprises were at the heart of community responses to the pandemic – delivering food and vital supplies to people who were isolating, finding new ways to combat loneliness and isolation and of course being on the medical front-line. A third of all community healthcare providers are social enterprises and many found themselves at the forefront of this public health emergency – when we were all out clapping for keyworkers and our NHS, this included those working at social enterprises.

Our research showed that social enterprises were often going beyond ‘normal activities’ to directly respond to the fallout of the crisis itself. 30% of respondents to our monthly sector survey stated that they were providing new or additional support directly targeted at those in need due to COVID-19. A clear indication that social enterprises are businesses putting people before profit.

At a time when many businesses were cutting jobs, we found that social enterprises were often going above and beyond to retain and support their workforce. Employment is a common social mission with social enterprises being set up to hire staff who struggle to enter the labour market, as such their continued well-being and employment were seen as an organisational priority.

When the scale of what we were up against became apparent in March, the team at SEUK also had to quickly adapt, drop many existing plans and figure out how we, as a membership body for the sector could best support the social enterprise movement over the coming months. That said, nobody expected that nine months on we’d still be working from home.

We quickly set up a COVID resource hub on our website to keep our members up to date with the latest support available and also to connect our members to each other to share their experiences of our dramatically changed world. We made a point to directly call as many of our members as possible to find out what they needed, where they were struggling and just to say that we are there for them, even if that was just to let them know we were fighting their corner.

As the first national lockdown stretched on beyond the initial 3-weeks suggested by the PM, the situation kept changing at pace and it became vital that we had up-to-date information on what issues social enterprise were facing. To do this we created the Social Enterprise Advisory Panel (SEAP) – a monthly survey asking our members about what support is and isn’t working, how they are coping and their expectations for the future. This information has been vital for lobbying for effective support for the sector.

If became apparent early on that we would indeed have a fight on our hands. Whilst the pandemic saw unprecedented government support for businesses, as is too often the case, social enterprises found themselves falling through the cracks in available support. At the start of the pandemic we found that half the sector was at risk of running out of money if urgent action wasn’t taken.

Data from the SEAP surveys uncovered notable gaps in the provision of support and criteria that restricted access for social enterprise. Using the information our members were telling us we made access to grants, as well as other policies that would help with cash flow, a central point of our campaigning.

Throughout the last year we have been working hard to lobby government to both recognise the immense contributions social enterprises have been making to communities and also to push for adequate support for the sector – taking the voices of our members to those in power.

This has resulted in a number of significant successes including in us playing a big role in ensuring that social enterprises got access to the £310 million in grants for civil society, distributed by the National Lottery, and the release of £150m of funds from dormant accounts which provided emergency access to finance to social enterprises. With over a third of social enterprises using the furlough scheme we also made the case to extend it, helping influence the Chancellor’s decision to keep the scheme running till Spring 2021.

Our healthcare members also found themselves left out of official support schemes to help front-line organisations. Many health and social care providers have struggled with PPE supply, with those initially prioritised by NHS Supply Chain including NHS Trusts providing Community Healthcare.  Despite a significant number of community healthcare being provided by social enterprises, many found they were missed off the list of PPE push pallets (supplying large quantities of PPE) despite  previously being NHS customers. This was raised by SEUK with NHS England and NHS Improvement, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and with cross party members of the lords, Lord Victor Adebowale, Lord Bethel and Baroness Glenys Thornton. This enabled Professor Jo Pritchard, who leads on SEUK’s work in this space, to establish  a good relationship with the senior team at NHS Supply Chain and ensure that all our eligible members’ were registered correctly and were receiving sufficient and appropriate PPE, to the right locations. Unfortunately not all our members were of sufficient size to be eligible for PPE deliveries from NHS Supply Chain and they had to look elsewhere for PPE provision. As a result SEUK set up our own dedicated webpage to link them to social enterprise providers of PPE.

One of the few highlights of this year, for us, was undoubtedly Social Enterprise Futures at the end of November – our two-day online conference which we worked on in partnership with all the home nations. It was a fantastic end to what’s been a turbulent and challenging year – bringing together the social enterprise community to celebrate all we’ve achieved and also look to a future where social enterprise is needed more than ever.

2021 will no doubt bring new challenges but we look forward to working with you as we push to place social enterprise at the heart of the global recovery.

Social Enterprise NI

Well, what a year 2020 has been!  When we met together with our members and stakeholders at our Annual Conference on 5 March 2020 at Crumlin Road Gaol, we could not have imagined what the remainder of the year would look like.  It seemed strange that many attendees didn’t wish to shake hands, something which appeared to be really “over the top” at the time and an unnecessary level of caution?

Not a bit of it. Since then, as each day passed, it became clear that we were in unprecedented times as we all had to make sacrifices to stand against the virus. Members began to feel the full force of the pandemic.  Both in their personal and family lives but also in how they operated in supporting their social mission.  Social enterprise businesses came under pressure and needed to completely change the way that they operated in trying to keep staff engaged, keeping their business alive, and generating income to ensure the survival of their organisation.  But where could social enterprises turn to get support?

Social Enterprise NI (SENI) stepped up to the mark by increasing its contact with members and by providing additional help and support. But it became evident that what was clearly needed was some form of financial assistance.  In NI the majority of social enterprises were unable to avail of any of the readily available financial support schemes which were so timely offered to other businesses. SENI lobbied strongly on members behalf and requested to present to the Committee for the Economy in the early days, followed up by regular contact with MLA’s and government officials.  Meetings of the All Party Group on Social Enterprise were held, along with presentations to the Minister of Finance setting out the rationale for a specific Covid Social Enterprise Fund to be delivered to support the growing number of social enterprise operating in NI.

Meanwhile, SENI looked enviously across at our sister organisations in Scotland and Wales, as we heard of how their respective jurisdictions immediately recognised the importance of the social enterprise sector and provided swift and effective financial support, acknowledging the role the sector plays and the contribution that it makes to their national economies.  In NI, we continued to lobby on a daily basis with phone calls, virtual meetings and production of papers to government officials and continued to pursue similar support. But it took a period of 7 months before we received the call from Department of Communities that they had been instructed to work with us to co-design a support fund. This was a huge moment for the sector in NI and we immediately set about to make members and the wider sector aware of this means of support and how to avail of it.

The events of 2020 have shown us that there is a clear need for the development of a government social enterprise strategy for NI, co designed with SENI to highlight and profile the role and benefits of supporting the social economy.  Its is clear to those of us who work in the sector that such a policy document is a necessity, not as a nice to have, but as means to help establish the sector at the heart of the NI economy.  Had such a strategy been in place we do not believe that it would have taken as long for the support over the summer to have been approved, as it took many weeks to convince influencers of the importance of the sector.

Recently SENI were appointed as a representative of business sectors to the newly reconstituted Procurement Board, a great recognition for the work of SENI and also the newly acquired status of the social economy. The new year 2021 will have many challenges however in NI the outlook is positive as the sector begins to position itself at the heart of economic strategy.

The Scottish Government commissioned the Advisory Group for Economic Recovery to recommend a strategy for a post-Covid economic recovery.  I read, with interest, the group’s 77-page report advising on a “Robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland”.  I was encouraged to see the commitment to addressing inequality as well as the statement that their 25 recommendations were an “action list, not a shopping list”.  However, it took me 51 pages to read the first mention of the ‘Third Sector’ and was shocked to see that our growing social enterprise sector wasn’t even mentioned at all.  Furthermore, I read a blog last year highlighting that 2019 was an important year for the responsible business movement globally:  Blackrock, stated that profit and purpose are inextricably linked. The front page of the Financial Times called for a reset to capitalism.  The Business Leaders Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation to include supporting staff and community; and high-profile companies such as The Body Shop and The Guardian gained B Corp certification, committing to independent and transparent impact measurement. Our own First Minister gave a TED talk calling for a shift away from a GDP-focused economy to one rooted in wellbeing and Scottish Enterprise launched a new strategy rooted in driving a more sustainable, inclusive economy.  Last, but certainly not least the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed a bill to build the Scottish National Investment Bank led by social and environmental missions.  Now is the time for social enterprises to shout about what we do and not be left behind: social enterprise is the future of business.

There are 6,025 social enterprises in Scotland employing almost 90,000 fulltime equivalent employees in the sector earning a combined trading income of £3.1bn.  Social enterprises have been some of the most agile businesses through COVID-19, ensuring that they maintained their support for local communities who relied on them.  Similarly, the speed at which the social enterprise community came to the fore at the outset of the pandemic was striking.  Social enterprises led the way in meeting the requirements of beneficiaries, they marched out ahead and led the way.  I believe we will continue to lead the way as the sector must play a critical part in the Recovery Phase.  Economists have long argued that the main benefit of long-term economic growth is expanded consumption however I believe that the economic growth of our country should be inclusive and not come at a cost to some of its citizens:  While a focus predominantly led by GDP has led to a higher standard of living for some it has also increased the divide between the rich and poor. We need to move from rhetoric to action in addressing this imbalance. With unemployment set to rise and young people facing particular challenges we must consider how we can look not just to support existing businesses but look at innovation that may come from Covid-19 and support new entrepreneurs.   

I believe we must study the past to help inform the future.  After the 2008 crash we saw a surge in new startups.  We need to be ready to support them with investment, networks, peer support, leadership & resilience training and business support.  The social enterprise ecosystem has these key services embedded into it and they are never more needed than now.  However, more than anything we need to underpin our economic recovery in the values of our National Performance Framework; creating an economic model that also measures wellbeing as part of our economic output.  It’s time for social enterprises, and their leaders, to be bold and brave; it is exactly what is needed at this point in time.  Let’s make sure we spend the next 20 years embedding our proven business model in economic development strategies and ensuring we support scale and growth as well as empowering local community organisations to continue to make a difference to so many citizens around our country, creating a fairer and more equal place to live.

A terrible year would have been so much worse for many people if it had not been for the wonderful people working in social enterprises across Wales.

It has been so impressive to see how social enterprises have adapted in response to Covid-19 – to keep people in work and to provide crucial community support and vital services. We highlighted some fantastic examples in our #GoodNewsCymru campaign earlier in the year.

There are far too many stories to tell them all here. One great example is Ebbw Vale social enterprise, ELITE Clothing Solutions, that has been producing over 1,000 protective garments a month for the Welsh NHS. Other stories include new social enterprise RareQoL, which only registered as a company in June 2020. The business works to improve the quality of life for people with rare diseases. They have already supported thousands of people, providing additional advice to those who have been shielding and want practical solutions about staying safe during this pandemic.

The story of every social enterprise is different. Many developed new products and services, others were able to move their business online. The high number of start-ups this year is a sign of hope. Some social businesses have fared less well of course, but the overall picture has been one of a sector that is resilient and relevant.

In addition to help from the UK Government, including the crucial furlough scheme, we have been fortunate there has been additional financial support from Welsh Government and the WCVA, where social enterprises were always included in the funding provided to businesses and the third sector, unlike in other parts of the country.

Wales has always recognised the value in dedicated business support for social enterprises, which has been a key factor in the sector’s significant growth over the last few years. Having this service in place meant that social enterprises knew where to go for advice when the pandemic hit. Online guidance, webinar events and one-to-one business support has been provided virtually, and this is on-going. The advice is tailored to the particular needs of social enterprises, which has given social enterprises the very best chance of surviving. The advice is provided by Social Business Wales as well as from bodies such as DTA Wales, Social Firms Wales, Coalfields Regeneration Trust, UnLtd and the Wales Co-operative Centre.

As we cautiously emerged from the first wave of COVID-19, we launched our ten-year vision and action plan for the sector in July. “Transforming Wales Through Social Enterprise” was co-produced by the sector, for the sector. The document positions us not as ‘business as usual’ but as a dynamic, enterprising sector that can really help the country to ‘build back better.’ 

The plan provides a clear sense of direction and is already helping build momentum for further growth. Since the plan’s launch we have seen a wide range of new initiatives, from programmes to promote social enterprise in business schools to work with local authorities about using local food supply chains. It augurs well for the future.

The pandemic has of course changed the social enterprise sector in Wales. It is timely that we are currently undertaking our biennial sector mapping research. In the Spring this analysis will provide us with an accurate picture of the impact of the downturn on the sector and tell us what support the sector needs as it recovers, rebuilds, and grows.

This year it has been a pleasure to work closely with colleagues at Social Enterprise Scotland, Social Enterprise North Ireland, and Social Enterprise UK to make the case for our brilliant sector. The Social Enterprise Futures event was a real highlight.

Next year the work of social enterprises will be important than ever. There will be so much to do – to create jobs, to provide goods and services, to make positive change happen. We must also do better to represent and include the diverse communities of this country. But, working together, we can achieve our goals.

Nadolig llawen and best wishes for 2021.