M&S on the Community Business Challenge, Liverpool

The way the community businesses embraced and supported each other was unexpected and heart-warming

Pete Swallow

M&S Head of Merseyside, Isle of Man and North Wale

Why developing relationships between UK-wide businesses and community businesses is integral to the UK’s economic development.

Earlier this year M&S and partner Power to Change launched the Community Business Challenge, a pilot programme to provide funding and business skills support for a small number of businesses across Liverpool.

As one of our Plan A 10 Communities locations and home to a thriving community business scene, we knew the city would embrace the programme. Even with our local confidence in tow, M&S colleagues, customers and the community businesses showed their passion for supporting local communities in an unprecedented manner. This came further to the fore at a showcase event where the shortlisted businesses told their stories and explained how the programme’s support would make a difference to them and their communities.

Across the showcase we saw each of the community businesses shortlisted make reference to how they had been supporting each other’s endeavours, and how the funding and business skills support would allow them to continue to do so – be that through the ability to be part of each other’s supply chains, support the development of complimentary skills for vulnerable people, or simply be a hand to hold.

We had expected some cameraderie between the organisations, but the way they truly embraced and supported each other was unexpected and heart-warming. They have helped, and will continue to help, each other progress, reach out further into their communities and develop strategies to not just survive but thrive.

Their presentations highlighted the achievements each of the organisations had realised with limited formal support – from accessing funding grants and launching Kickstarter campaigns to outgrowing their current premises. It was clear that with additional business skills support from an organisation like M&S that they would continue to develop their long-term sustainability.

Sustainability of community organisations is crucial. They provide services that support some of the most vulnerable in our society – those that other programmes and larger organisations often cannot reach. Their history and organic growth create a reassuring environment for people to acknowledge and accept the help that they need, and they form the beating heart of their local communities.

The nature of how these organisations appear – sometimes by accident, often significantly volunteer-led – means that there is sometimes limited business skills support to empower the community businesses in traditional business situations. This includes things like pitching for funding, completing business support applications, understanding and implementing large scale processes (health and safety, food safety etc), and developing business plans for long term growth.

Due to this there are so many ways businesses like ours can provide access to resources which, in even just a short time, can have a significant impact. The support can provide the business model that strengthens their future while maintaining their social impact, and in turn increases the social impact of the larger business.

The success of shopping centres and areas densely populated with businesses, in turn creating a destination and focal point for a community, has long been proven. Through greater support, collaboration and recognition of each other’s key offering, relationships can only strengthen the businesses involved, their reach locally and in turn, the UK economy.

I look forward to working with the seven community businesses that have secured our business skills support and funding from Power to Change over the coming months.