Rebecca Smith, Deputy CEO of Social Enterprise Kent who is a headline panellist at the Kent and Medway Business Summit reflects on the rich tapestry of social enterprises in Kent and why she believes that a sense of ‘community’ is a vital skill in any workforce.
Rebecca often gets asked what social enterprise actually is. Some mistake it for the charity sector, others for the act of volunteering – in truth it’s many things and, increasingly, social enterprise is a part of wider private business sectors, with a growing demand for community-based impact across all walks of enterprise.
She reflects: ‘While the strict definition of social enterprise is an organisation which trades for a social or environmental purpose, it can be many different things. It’s a business that bridges the gap between charity and profit.
‘As a social enterprise there’s the chance to make money, but it’s what you do with it that makes a difference.’
Social Enterprise Kent helps individuals, businesses, charities and communities through training and one to one support. They aim to assist the start-up and development of social enterprise businesses in the county. Recently, the Chamber of Commerce appointed them as their social business experts.
The sector in Kent is flourishing. Organisations like the RBLI (Royal British Legion) have set up the likes of Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company, ex-army and service personnel who make signs for roads. Food based ventures like Lily’s Social Kitchen in Canterbury provide vital work experience to those with learning difficulties and there are initiatives such as food clubs like Our Kitchen Isle of Thanet that provide a viable alternative to food banks, NBE Fitness that provides accessible fitness activities, Made in Ashford (pictured above) which is a base for creative businesses in Kent to sell their creations and event venues such as Westgate Hall.
Rebecca says: ‘Within Kent you’ll pretty much see a social enterprise for everything. We work closely with many of these organisations to assist and support, and we have also been involved from the ground up, helping many to start and launch. These companies are competing with private sector organisations for business, but the added social value is now seen as incredibly important.’
Social enterprise is vital to the economy. Stats show social enterprises contribute £60 billion to the economy, employ 2 million people and increasingly, private sector businesses are taking their social responsibility much more seriously. The heroic-like grandeur of businesses like Patagonia, who recently shifted all their profits to fight climate change is palpable. Rebecca detects a ‘sea change’ in for-profits wanting to do good things for their communities.
She says: ‘Doing something selfless can really pay off. With social media and news that spreads fast, offering added value to society or the local community is a great way of gaining exposure. Take a local corner shop who started to offer community initiatives during the pandemic such as delivering packages to shielding families.
‘Of course, people appreciated them for what they were doing, but there is no doubt it would improve their brand too by getting their name out there and associated with good causes.”
Covid-19 saw social enterprises having to work doubly as hard, though philanthropic funders were very generous over the pandemic and organisations such as SEK really benefited. But there were, of course, many more hurdles.
‘It was the trading income that we lost,’ she explains. ‘A lot of our b2b training contracts suffered, though we were able to carry these out online, in some cases.’
Brexit has also been a challenge as the organisation relied on EU funding, another setback that threatens to jeopardise their good work.
‘There is a tight labour market currently, and young people, the workforce of the future, have the power to be more discriminating about where they work. Generally social enterprises offer more flexibility and are more diverse – 47% are led by women, 31% are led by people from a Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic background. Furthermore, 72% are living wage employers. For young people, it’s often more than just earning their wage, it’s about making a difference to their community.
Rebecca’s top five tips for setting up a social enterprise:
- Be clear on what your social or environmental purpose is.
- Passion will only get you so far! Write a business plan outlining how you are going to make your dream a reality.
- Don’t do it alone. Find some like-minded people to go on this journey with you.
- What sets you apart from other people doing similar things? Or are you better off collaborating with them rather than competing?
- Get the finance right. Explore how are you going to fund your enterprise initially? Through grants, loans, trading, mixture? Cash is king!
A bonus tip: Talk to Social Enterprise Kent to see how we can help!