Social enterprise solutions in a time of crisis

Posted: 15 May 2020, in News

Versions of this article appeared in Third Force News on 21/05/20 and in The Scotsman on 02/06/20.

Even in normal times social entrepreneurs demonstrate incredible creativity. 

Since the beginning of the current crisis we’ve seen more inspiring examples than we ever thought possible. Immediate action to change services, to quickly adapt and get things done, in extremely difficult circumstances, has been the hallmark of recent weeks.

Social Enterprise Scotland spent two weeks calling and listening to every one of its members to find out what was happening on the ground, to ensure they got the right financial and business support. 

The resulting report, though just a snapshot in time, offers valuable insights into the wide-ranging issues so far.

Of course many social enterprises have suffered heavily. Sudden loss of income and contracts, furloughed staff, the list is endless. Indeed some social enterprises, like many other businesses, will not survive.

The situation has also exposed the many flaws in our broken economy and monetary system. A bizarre system where – in the UK in the year 2020 – some people struggle to afford even basic food and housing.

However, there’s much we can learn, not only from how we’ve all handled the current situation, but also how we could implement social enterprise solutions in our own organisations. Technology has been a big part of the response.

Sara Hawkins of Projekt 42, the social enterprise gym and wellbeing centre in Edinburgh:

“We’ve increased our online fitness and yoga classes and online video counselling, introducing text and e-counselling. In addition, we’ve launched our accredited fitness academy plus online physio exercise platform, to provide a complete end to end digital support for a client’s rehab needs. Though Projekt 42 has lost over £70,000 of revenue that would ordinarily have been used to pay for staff and charitable activities. Unfortunately, we didn’t get funding and have had to be creative in the way we try to increase revenue during this time.”

Adapting to home working, for example, has been a bit easier for those who already had systems in place. However, there have still been major and immediate impacts on business.

Susan Aktemel is Executive Director of Homes for Good, the social enterprise letting agent and property management company:

“The key challenges have been potential loss of rental income, due to tenants falling into financial hardship plus our inability to go into our tenants homes. This has impacted on core income, albeit less than we planned for. Repairs and maintenance had to stop, apart from emergency and safety issues. We had to furlough 8 of our team, which has been really hard for all of us. However, this has helped protect our long term sustainability.

“On the other hand our tenancy support team has never been busier, with a sharp increase in the needs of tenants, including those who have lost jobs for the first time. We’ve kicked off online tenancy support, with cookery, films, art workshops and afternoon tea, and we’re talking to our tenants more. Especially now, home is the foundation of all our lives, and the role we play in that can only grow.”

Some social enterprises have seen a complete, sudden halt in business – with serious concerns about future viability. Funding has arrived quickly for some while others have slipped through the cracks. 

For some organisations there’s been a dramatic increase in business to respond to growing need, producing goods as diverse as face masks, furniture and food.

Fiona Rae, Depute Chief Executive of Community Food Initiatives North East says:

“Since the start of Covid-19 CFINE’s enterprise activities have ceased by around 90%. The long-term impact of this will have a significant effect on income and development. It’s hoped we can start to engage with our customer base again soon, however it’s likely that some may have to cancel on-going business. 

“In turn, CFINE has adapted very quickly and deliveries of emergency food have increased dramatically. Prior to this, there were around 100 people accessing the food bank daily, with a few home deliveries. These people are now all receiving deliveries of emergency supplies and in addition we’re delivering to older people and others, where supplies are desperately needed. During April we delivered well over 163,000 meals and we’ll be launching our fruit and vegetable scheme “Vegaroonitoon’ very soon. We’ve been overwhelmed by the public response with an army of volunteers coming forward.”

As we move forward to the next phase, from survival to recovery, we’ll certainly need to adapt business support to ensure the long-term viability of our social enterprise community. 

However, we should remember one vital point – the future is whatever we want it to be. The old economic rules no longer apply. Social entrepreneurs can and should be leading the way out, working in close partnership with other innovators. Now is in fact the ideal time to build a better economy that works for everyone.

Duncan Thorp, Social Enterprise Scotland