For those of you who didn't read my post about the HCT Champions visit to Leeds, a brief reminder about this programme - as the HCT group have grown to a large social enterprise bus company with many hundreds of employees, the organisation is keen to ensure that all their people understand what it means to work for a social enterprise. So they undertake a programme with people drawn from across the group's locations, facilitated by us at SEUK.

After getting to grips with social enterprise in Leeds, this time we headed to Bristol for two days...particularly to think about the difference social enterprise can make; about their impact.

DAY 1: First up, we met at the Engine Shed next to the station, where lots of social enterprise types hang out. There we re-grouped and caught up on the group's 'homework' which was to research a social enterprise to talk about this time. It was interesting to hear the sheer variety of what people had found out about, from the very local (Barnsley Credit Union) through to those operating at scale (CASA); from community energy (Bristol Community Energy) through to luxury retail (Elvis & Kresse) and lots more in between.

After a conversation about the differences between social enterprise and 'traditional' charity (and how HCT could be a social enterprise even though it had a charity as its legal structure), we headed off in the Join Book Drive bus to our first stop: Knowle West Media Centre.

It's a really interesting place with, as we found out, a huge amount of activities going on. Having started out as a photography project in the local community, it has expanded in the last 20 years to become a hub in that part of town, just south of the centre of Bristol. Those activities now include digital workshops, exhibitions, a maker-lab factory and citizen-led housing...amongst much else.

The group were interested to learn about the building (designed with young people in the community and to a very high environmental specification) and also to understand the impact it had had on the local area - had the project made things better locally, were there more opportunities now?. They were also interested in their business model and how owning the building might provide a foundation as a community asset for its sustainability and also some earning potential (through renting rooms and event space). But they also noted that the grant-funded projects were inherently looking a bit riskier: even though KWMC has a strong track record of raising money for new projects, it is getting tougher to do so. In a sense, the conversation focused ultimately on things that we all focus on in the social enterprise world - financial sustainability (the money) and the social impact or difference being made (the mission).

We then took our traditional detour to the local HCT bus depot to not only admire the size and space they have in Bristol (viewed with some jealousy by colleagues) but also to understand the nature of the community activities and work of the organisation in the city. Jan and Nicky from CT Plus helped explain to us how BCT (Bristol Community Transport) had grown, won (and lost) different contracts, and what was ahead - including strategic partnerships with other local community transport providers.

DAY 2: After a dinner of conversation and reflection the night before, we rose early to go and visit the Severn Project, a community interest company in Whitchurch, again just outside the centre of Bristol. Here the group heard from the founder and CEO Steve Glover, who gave a brilliant, open and inspiring talk through the social enterprise's progress so far: from a plot of land and £5000 to sales of over £600,000 and a crowdfunded new plot of land in Wiltshire to further develop the enterprise. The Severn Project sells salad, herbs and edible flowers in order to provide healthier food and opportunities for those who wouldn't get the chance otherwise.

Key things the group asked about and took away from the tour included:
- Steve's keen focus on the finances, and on being creative to make best use of resources
- the operational realities of running a social enterprise: HR, finances, cashflow, paperwork, equipment and so on
- the ambition and vision Steve has for the future: his restlessness to grow the impact of what they do
- how to grow commercially in order to grow the social impact (and that that isn't a seamless progression, but up and down with bumps in the road)

Suitably inspired and clutching a bag of mixed-leaf salad each, we headed over to the Asian Day Centre in Easton, which is a local charity which BCT has supported for many years: simply by providing community transport to older people in the Asian community (mostly women) to come to the centre and network, exercise and eat. We did all three too: meeting some of the men and women who come to the centre each week; taking part in their exercise routine (and being suitably chastened at being, at least in my case, less limber than several people over 75); and then sharing a fabulous vegetarian lunch.

It was particularly interesting to chat to a couple of our group who work on purely commercial bus routes and who don't normally get to see this work in the community - but had now more clearly understood the connection between the commercial work they do (which makes a profit) and what it allows the organisation as a whole to do in helping others. In this sense, this visit was a good end to a full two days of information, inspiration and much conversation.