Risking a Perfect Storm in Social Enterprise

This platform piece was printed in the Newsletter on Tuesday 5/5/2015

Northern Ireland is currently experiencing the Perfect (economic) Storm; if we were to name it; Hurricane Austerity would seem appropriate.  Its arrival in N Ireland followed a path of devastation from GB and now we are experiencing unprecedented levels of cuts, austerity and challenges.  There is however, one certainty: business as usual is no longer an option.  But out of adversity comes opportunity.  We need new business models, fit for purpose that are sustainable, offer value for money, can demonstrate new ways of attracting investment, deliver quality public services and make a real social impact that helps the most vulnerable in our society.

So, how do we weather this perfect storm?  Well in Bryson we think Social Enterprise is one of the new business models capable of making that change.  Sir Tim Smit, CEO of the Eden Project and celebrated entrepreneur has described the global emergence of Social Enterprise as “the most exciting business development in the last 300 years”.  In Bryson’s view, it is the key to rebalancing to a more plural economy providing better social impact for public money and the best way to weather the storm.

So what is a social enterprise?

It’s not complicated: it’s when a Charity trades and competes to achieve its social purpose and reinvesting it revenues in service excellence.  In 2014 five out of N Ireland’s top 100 SMEs were social enterprises and that’s a growing trend.  These organisations like Bryson, work in areas such as social care, housing, employment, and recycling – they are tackling the big social issues affecting our society.  Currently 49% (£590 million) of N Ireland third sector turnover comes through social enterprise; they employ over 12,200 people which is 40% of third sector jobs.  In recent years, social enterprises have grown in strength and impact and are making a real difference to the lives of adults, children, young people, families and older people across Northern Ireland but as with all sectors they are currently feeling the pain of austerity.

Bryson Charitable Group has developed its social business model over the last 15 years and is now a major social enterprise operating across the UK and in RoI. Bryson has grown its turnover each year from £6m in 2000 to almost £37m in 2014 but the future for all of our sector is looking bleaker as we become the ‘easy option’ for spending cuts.  Our work takes us into homes affected by fuel poverty, health issues, and unemployment.  Our aim is to supportbuilding a better future for these people and in the last 6 years we have helped over 21,800 households tackle fuel poverty, we have supported 20,000 people to develop their skills and find new employment and we have recycled over 310,000 tonnes of materials supporting local jobs and the environment. On any given day Bryson staff and volunteers are delivering over 23,300 services.

Now back to the perfect storm: the real danger is battening down, waiting for it to abate and believing that’s a strategy.  This misses the point but more importantly the opportunity.  After the storm, our economic and social landscape will have fundamentally changed; it won’t be the same place – business as usual just won’t cut it.  We are however in real danger that mindless, policy myopia and protectionism will kill the very thing we need; innovation, new ways of working and greater partnership working between the public, private and third sectors.  We need strong leadership and vision; one that can see the changes needed and is willing to nurture social enterprise as a vibrant part of a new pluralist social economy but who will begin the difficult conversations?

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