Toby Johnson
30 June 2014

SEN reviews support structures in Glasgow

Support infrastructures were the subject of the SEN’s 4th peer review held on 16th and 17th June in the elegant West End of Glasgow. The participants of the SEN's 4th peer review compared independent sector-specific educational institutions in Scotland and Andalusia and a project to upgrade the skills of business advisers in Finland.
Helped by the unusually warm and sunny weather, the review established an excellent learning dynamic, with most of the 1½ days being devoted to four sessions of small-table discussions. The many insights these yielded were expertly summarised in real time by the facilitator, Roger Spear of the UK’s Open University, so that they could be fed back in the closing session and subsequently elaborated.
(See the presentation of Scottish approach to the supporting social enterprises shown at the beginning of the seminar >)
Dedicated social enterprise education
The first was the Social Enterprise Academy, presented by Neil McLean. The academy was set up 10 years ago and aims to fill the gaps it identified in education on leadership, entrepreneurship and social impact measurement. It has 5,000 alumni and now delivers all over the country and accredits at degree and master levels.
It works by first creating a high level of support – a safe space within which groups of social enterprise leaders at a comparable level can give each other peer support – and then supplying a high level of challenge. It thus aims to turn managers into leaders. Revenue comes half from fees and half from grants from a Scottish government bursary fund. In the Highlands and Islands, ESF support allows courses to be offered free of charge. Costs are low – €750,000 for 600 learners – which is made possible by economies of scale, low fixed costs and using a panel of 25 associate tutors from the sector. This makes the programme easy to replicate – and indeed the academy has started joint ventures in South Africa and Australia. Karolina Medweska commented that a similar leadership training programme in south-west England was launched successfully but discontinued because of its high cost – €1.25m for 24 trainees.
Samuel Barco described the second case, the Escuela Andaluza de Economía Social (Andalusian School of Social Economy). The school, located in a 15th-century monastery and rather like a boutique hotel, was established 12 years ago. It is important for the sector's ‘symbolic capital’ that the social economy has a school of its own. With 12 staff, it offers training in general management as well as issues specific to the social economy and sector-specific courses in areas such as care. One of its key tasks is to build consortia – Spain’s consortia are only 1/10th size of Italy’s. It is just one part of the social economy ecosystem, supported by the regional Pact for the Social Economy. It exists alongside other training options such as master’s courses offered by universities and training offered by the federal bodies.
Transferability is probably not direct – other regions will have to address their own political contexts. One lesson to be learnt from the creation of the school is that in building a coalition of support you should focus on the process and not the objective.
Mainstreaming co-operative support
Finland’s Yhdessä Yrittämään! (Enterprising Together!) project, according to Ulla Leppänen, took the opposite approach and aimed to mainstream co-operatives into the general business support offered by Enterprise Finland. Run by the Tampere Regional Co-operative Centre, Enterprising Together aimed to raise awareness of the co-operative option by skilling up business advisers. It opened an internet portal, launched an advertising campaign and set up a network which reached 146 of the 831 business advisers working on the Yritys-Suomi (Enterprise Finland) scheme, they are the first point of contact with the public. It organised training, produced videos and ran a telephone advice service. This is a sustainable approach (unlike some ESF projects) because the business advisers are in permanent posts, employed by the municipalities. It also has a good multiplier effect and helped advise 500 co-ops over 5 years. 140 new co-operatives were set up. (Read the case study >)
Nine key points
The bulk of the peer review was spent in four small-table discussions, with each table feeding back its main conclusions at the end. Roger Spear summarised these in real time and they are too numerous to list (see the peer review report when it is published).
Some key points I took from the event are:

  • support organisations are only one part of the social enterprise ecosystem. A comprehensive strategy also needs to address public awareness (branding), interministerial co-ordination, finance, public procurement and networking;
  • governments wanting to see social enterprise grow should work in partnership with organisations from the sector to create support organisations that are responsive to social entrepreneurs’ needs;
  • governments that may be reluctant to finance infrastructure should realise that funding strategic partners from the sector is extremely good value. Core funding should come from national funds, with an ESF add-on if possible;
  • mainstream business advisers need to be aware of social enterprise too and to refer relevant case to specialist advisers;
  • some sort of mixed financing is desirable, with affordable user fees as well as grant aid and volunteer mentoring and pro bono professional advice;
  • asset-based structures, which repurpose unused buildings, can be a useful part of local regeneration strategies;
  • replication (e.g. social franchising) and business acquisition offer less risky business development propositions than start-ups;
  • a thematic approach may help to bust silos and convince authorities of the contribution social enterprise can make (e.g. to Roma inclusion);
  • government can do something about bad co-ordination between social and economic ministries, and social entrepreneurs can do something about weak federal bodies.

The final review – identity and programming
The meeting closed by refining its plans for the fifth peer review, to take place in Cyprus on 7-9 October. It will discuss not only the identity of social enterprise but also give time to more hands-on discussion of the operational programmes the partners are preparing for the next six years.
And a final piece of good news: SEN has another opportunity to get its message across to policy-makers at a high-profile event. It has been invited to make an input into the Italian EU Presidency conference on social enterprise and corporate social responsibility in Rome on 17-19 November, just as the new Commission comes into office.
Toby Johnson