If we want the UK to be better prepared for crisis, the pandemic proved that social entrepreneurs are the ones to back

At UnLtd we believe that social businesses based in, and working for, the benefit of local communities deeply understand the specific needs of their area, enabling them to respond effectively and innovatively, to challenges that arise. However, none of us expected their capacity to be tested or relied upon as much as it has in the last couple of years.

During the pandemic we saw those place-based social entrepreneurs we’ve funded and supported over the years step up to an unprecedented collective emergency. As COVID-19 influenced many people to support their communities and volunteer or participate in mutual aid, social entrepreneurs were in a position to welcome their involvement and lead rapid, coordinated responses. 

Their ability to pivot and put social mission first; their deep local knowledge; their capacity to act as hubs for bringing people together; and their ability to motivate communities to get involved, put them in a unique and powerful position. 

Research from sociologist Eric Klinenberg showed how “social infrastructure” leads to communities being more aware of each other’s needs, and more able to survive crisis. He examined why different areas of Chicago, with the same demographics, had much better survival rates during the dangerous 1995 heatwave. To summarise his complex findings, a surprising thing they had in common was places to gather, particularly a local library. He called these “palaces for the people”, acting as hubs for connection that meant local people knew and understood each other’s needs, and were able to support vulnerable members of the community when disaster struck.  

The social entrepreneurs we’ve supported have shown us that social ventures frequently are that local “social infrastructure”, acting as critical hubs of community response, and providing vital services. Their interventions ranged from social entrepreneurs setting up and managing local food banks in Keighley, Tang Hall, Little Hulton and Berwick Upon Tweed; from expanding a local volunteering scheme at a community allotment in Leeds with the Killingbeck Community Project, to providing online counselling and opportunities for new mothers in Rhondda Cynon Taff to connect. 

During the pandemic we saw social ventures and pivoting, particularly where traditional business may have opted to furlough their staff and hunker down. For social entrepreneurs, prioritising people and purpose over profit meant they could, and frequently did, change how they delivered services, or trialed new services or products.  
For example, Paul Fletcher, of Business English Study based in St James Street, moved their services online to be able to continue offering their English language support, job application, and interview advice to people who might otherwise struggle to afford it. Business English Study began by providing evening classes for low-to-no income individuals in Paul‘s local community in and around Walthamstow. Pivoting online has meant that the scheme has been able to impact thousands of people – both in the local community and globally – with over 50,000 downloads of their lessons to date.  
Social entrepreneurs told us how their communities became more aware of local struggles and rallied around to help each other. Those who are well known and trusted in their communities, become an avenue for people interested in supporting local work and businesses. Millie Stanford, a social entrepreneur on our Spaces 4 Change programme and founder of Northern Soul Kitchen believes that, “more people want to help their community and see their communities and local areas thriving, I think [Covid] has actually been a weird motivator for people to actually want to do these things”. 
In 2020 there was also significant impact in places where social entrepreneurship emerged around particular themes. In Brighton over the last 3 years a strong network of social business has developed around creating a sustainable food ecosystem. This includes an ethical supermarket HISBE, a ‘food factory’ which provides consultancy services to groups tackling food poverty, and The Bevy, a community-owned pub. 
With deep links to each other, the people behind these ventures worked together to meet community needs during COVID-19. The Bevy provided healthy “meals on wheels” for vulnerable and shielding people, supported by others in the area. The Brighton Food Factory ran online events passing the lessons onto other cities; and various social entrepreneurs, such as Joydeep Dutta, of Brighton Cauldron, worked to provide emergency food parcels.  
The cohesion of local social entrepreneurs and community organisations contributed to the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership receiving the first Sustainable Food Place Gold Award in the UK in recognition of “their outstanding achievements on a range of key food issues”, including “tackling food poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic”. 

As we look to the future, there are huge challenges facing our society – whether the climate emergency, the cost-of-living crisis, or the need to better support victims of conflict. Bolstering and working alongside social entrepreneurs is vital to create the conditions needed to prepare us for these crises, and whatever may follow.  

The forthcoming Spring Statement on 23rd March is a clear opportunity for Government to do just that. 
Social entrepreneurs need more equitable access to the right finance for them. Decisions aren’t set to be made until around a year from now on future dormant assets – which could be used to help meet this need. We’re calling on the Government to fill the gap, so that all social entrepreneurs get the financial backing needed to respond to the cost of living crisis this year. 

Social entrepreneurs shouldn’t be unfairly held back when they’re striving to increase their trading and impact. Key business support, such as Help to Grow: Digital, must be available to social ventures so they are not held back from meeting society’s needs in the challenging times ahead. Those commissioning services in local and national government need to take further steps to level the procurement and contract playing field. 

The value of social entrepreneurs is undeniable, delivering beyond the immediate need and creating more cohesive, empowered communities. We will continue to hold policy makers to account to give the right business support that recognises their role as critical social infrastructure. 

Learn more about our place-based work

  • The Resilient Communities programme supported 23 areas in England, Wales and Scotland between January 2018 and December 2020, in partnership with Local Trust and People’s Postcode Lottery. It celebrated the importance of identifying local people with great ideas who want to make a difference in their community. As part of the programme, 325 social entrepreneurs received awards that helped them to create social impact in their communities. They forged networks with their communities and in local systems to work together for social change. 
  • The Spaces 4 Change programme funded, supported and connected over 80 young social entrepreneurs with ideas to unlock the potential of unused and under-utilised spaces for the benefit of their community. Over £300,000 of awards were given across the five years of the programme and all award winners were supported by a dedicated Social Entrepreneur Support Manager, given access to peer networking opportunities and were offered bespoke workshops to help them grow and share their knowledge and learning. Spaces 4 Change was funded by the National Lottery Community Fund as part of the ‘Our Bright Future programme’.

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