Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Looking back, looking forward: how 2012 has changed social enterprise

Allison Ogden-Newton examines the fundamental shift the sector has experienced and how it can prepare better for harder times in 2013
Alison Ogden-Newton
Allison Ogden-Newton is chair of the Transition Institute.
It's a brave new world. Social enterprise is an enduring principle but if you believe, as I do, that there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of most financial support to the social sector, then you know what an impact 2012 has had.

People still need help, understanding and guidance, more so than ever, and social entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly inventive in their solutions to perennial problems but being able to get the numbers right, above all other measures of success, will define their future.
This year we have seen many social enterprise support agencies close as investment in services like state sponsored business support ended, starting first with the regions. Social Enterprise London, the organisation I led for nine years and which represented the finest group of social enterprise business specialists I have ever met, closed its offices along with others offering social enterprise infrastructure. We merged the membership team with Social Enterprise UK to create the largest social enterprise membership in the UK. I have been delighted to hear from some of the old members that formed part of SEL's community of over 3,200 social enterprises that they welcome the move and enjoy being part of a national movement. But what all of them wanted, at some critical point and benefited from, was a level of business support that is no longer available anywhere. Like lamplighters and telegraph operators, business support advisers are a thing of the past, only time will tell if this will affect growth.
I now work for the Transition Institute, based at the Royal Society of Arts. The institute supports and informs independent public service providers. We have had an inspiring first few months at the RSA working in partnership with the 2020 Public Service Hub and University of Northampton to build a clearer picture of the environment in which this new generation of innovative, community-based service providers are operating. Our survey, which is available for all social enterprises, CICs, mutuals, co-ops and charities operating within the public sector to participate, will reveal the most accurate picture to date. Our sights are set on a social value commissioning framework, which will be key when the Public Services (Social Value) Act comes into effect in January 2013 and commissioning bodies will need to consider social value in the contracts they offer.
But I do worry about the effects of the ongoing cuts, like many I don't believe we have seen the worst and think 1 April 2013 will witness another wave of frontline organisations close. It isn't just that grants are becoming a thing of the past, or that many of the organisations that used to support the social sector like regional development agencies, local authority community teams and regional government offices have closed, or even that national support programmes such as Futurebuilders and Change-up are also gone, but that the contracts that are now available are beyond the resources or expertise of many organisations in their complexity and demand for access to capital. What is needed is a new approach, and fast.
The UK is recognised as a world leader in social innovation, our models of social enterprise, social investment and support for the social economy are unique and strong and the envy of many in the rest of the world. That means that there are some real experts, knowledge and know-how at the heart of the brave new world. My hope for 2013 is that there is a wider recognition of the gold that we have and that those that can effect change draw on what has gone before, look at where success has been found, believe in what made the difference, and choose the wondrous complexity of social enterprise over the simplicity of service monoliths and self-help rhetoric.
Allison Ogden-Newton is chair of the Transition Institute and visiting fellow of Northampton University
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