Last week we were in Camberwell in South London for our first workshop for community businesses to support them in their growth. Open to our grantees and community business panel members, the session was called ‘Trading for sustainability, business planning and community finance’ and ably delivered by our partners the School for Social Entrepreneurs . Although the title may sound dry, the two days turned out to be anything but, and speakers included Keely Charlick, CEO of the Sunnyside Rural Trust; Ben Warren from Investment Associate, Big Society Capital; Ged Devlin, from Power to Change; Vinay Nair Director of Business Development, SIB Group and Social and Sustainable Capital; Tessa Blunden Chair of The Ivy House Pub, the first co-operatively owned pub in London.
Our grantees represented diverse sectors, from sports facilities to community hubs of every shape and size from across England. Some of their challenges and concerns were what you would expect from any busy entrepreneurs: time management; prioritizing, and motivating people, though with the added nuance that the majority of your team could be volunteers rather than staff incentivised by pay. A shared issue was accessing the time, money and expertise to focus on marketing. Like all community businesses, each had a great story about their roots, including the desire to improve communities, jeopardy, broken promises, campaigns and the added complexity of creating an income generating business to support these community needs.
The rapid rate of policy changes kept most of the delegates awake at night, whether it emanated from their local authorities under an unprecedented fiscal squeeze or from fears that those same authorities would not devolve funds and control further down the line, to community businesses – the best place for them, naturally!
We watched a video which gives a nifty visual reminder of the core ingredients of a social business model.
Emerging out of the days spent together was the sense that community business has the potential to constitute a new business model. One leader expressed it in the formula “Social + Enterprise + Communities.” Those three ingredients in combination adding something new to the usual mix. Putting communities at the heart of decision-making – whether about services to deliver or how to reinvest profit – is second nature to community business entrepreneurs. One thing is for sure, innovation stands at its heart; fast prototyping services and partnerships, rapidly dropping those with little impact and nurturing those that show promise, testing and piloting in an almost playful way.
Throughout the two days, community business leaders naturally gravitated towards each other, exchanging war stories, but, more importantly, offering advice. Aside from the carefully crafted and shared training and presentations from community business champions and sector financiers, just about the most valuable thing everyone probably took away with them was the importance of mutual support. These entrepreneurs have few inhibitions about passing on their secrets and their learnings. After all, a community pub on the south coast has nothing to lose if another flourishes in the Peak District and sharing with them means your personal support group just got bigger. Relationships with others, whether formal or informal, will surely be at the heart of the new economic model of community business and all its potential.