By Pat Colgan, former SEUPB Chief Executive
I owe my participation in the Unusual Suspects Festival 2015 in Glasgow to Nigel McKinney and Paul Braithwaite of Building Change Trust and John Peto of the Nerve Centre in Derry.
Along with six other members of the group, thanks to their initiative, Northern Ireland was well represented at the two day Festival of Social Innovation and Social Enterprise.
With a menu of 20 events over two days in locations spread across the city, choosing where to be and what to take part in was a challenge in itself. One great advantage of this form of organising a festival is that it gets you into many of the interesting nooks and crannies of a city that was in full bloom for two perfect Indian summer days in Glasgow.
There is a real buzz about post-referendum Scotland.
Of the six events I signed up for, one of them stands out in my mind. It boasted the ambitious title of The Future of Social Enterprise in Scotland and around the World.
The event was facilitated by Eddy Adams of the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), one of the organisations behind the planning and staging of the festival.
Eddy used an interesting fish bowl discussion methodology – eight chairs in the middle, four of them occupied by the first four contributors and four empty; all other participants sit on chairs in an outside perimeter circle; if you wish to make a comment or get involved in the discussion, you must occupy one of the chairs in the inner circle; when you have spoken you move back out to the outer circle.
The participants from Northern Ireland who were at the session were in an out of the inner circle regularly over the 2 hours plus that the session lasted.
At the beginning of the session we heard about research carried out in Scotland by the Social Value Lab on the size of the social enterprise sector in Scotland: The Social Enterprise in Scotland: Census 2015.
There are over 5,000 social enterprises in Scotland alone, employing over 112,000 people. Every year 200+ new social enterprises are formed. Women lead over 60% of these enterprises and over 68,000 volunteers support the delivery of social enterprise activity.
The annual income of these social enterprises amounts to £3.63 billion and 54% of them generate half or more of their income from trading. The stated objective of 45% of these enterprises is to create job opportunities.
Many of these social enterprises are very small – 60% have a turnover of less than £100,000 and 30% less than £25,000.
Increasingly, in many countries throughout the world, many services in sectors such as the arts, culture, community amenities and services that were traditionally provided by the public sector are now being delivered by social enterprises.
Pressure on public bodies to reduce expenditure is leading to more contracting out of services and a significant increase in competition in the pricing of service delivery.
During the session we heard from social enterprises where many of the employees are living on the minimum wage or the living wage and on zero hour contracts.
The widespread use of volunteers also dilutes the real cost of the delivery of these services. This generated an interesting debate about the sustainability of this model of public service delivery.
A number of the social enterprises present expressed considerable frustration at The Funders – the ‘men in suits’ requiring the filling-out of long application forms and provision of copious reports and documentation on the way funding is being used.
Many of those involved in the creation and delivery of genuinely innovative social enterprises within their communities felt that the bureaucracy was getting in the way of their ability to achieve their objectives.
Following a lively debate however, it was generally accepted that to build a successful social enterprise it was essential that it be run as a business with excellent governance and financial control disciplines in place.
It was also agreed however that there was a need to challenge the funders about the manner in which funding is made available to social enterprises.
There is a great need for social innovation within the public sector itself, to challenge old ways of working and to build dynamic models of cooperation with the private social enterprise sector. Many of the participants spoke about good practice in the public sector that was already doing this.
A much livelier, challenging debate with public sector funders is required. One of the disappointments of the week for me was that the first scheduled session of the festival ‘Collaborating to become better funders of innovation – an international conversation’, had to be cancelled with no clear explanation why.
This is precisely the kind of debate that is needed at events such as this one in order to inject a realistic awareness of the need for genuine cooperation between the public and private sector in the building of social innovation and social enterprises.
This blog first appeared on the Building Change Trust’s website here