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  • Writer's pictureSue Williamson

Behind the scenes at a social enterprise

Having now spent 8 years running a social enterprise, (after 20 years prior to that in statutory education, and before that, a few in the private sector), it seemed that now might be a good time to take stock and see if I have something to say. As per usual, I find that I do.

I hadn’t really heard much about social enterprises before I set up Tang Hall SMART CIC back in 2014. Thanks to the advice and mentoring from UNLTD in our early years, I soon learned that a social enterprise is a unique type of business, and that entrepreneurial approaches are indicated, but the aims should be charitable. In other words, the keys to success are not just profitability, but also social impact.

I knew it was important to have a vision. I met several other CEOs of start-ups between 2014 and 2017 on various courses and at events, and found so much that was inspiring; there are many brilliant and kind people out there who want to do something that benefits society, and this encouraged me to refine my own vision, and work out what it was I really wanted to do, rather than what I seemed to have fallen into, purely because there seemed to be a market for it. For anyone reading who is considering setting up a social enterprise themselves, I would advise to harness that passion and turn it into a driving force!

I admit it can be very seductive, entering this new world where there are grants (not loans, but grants!!!) available for organizations that want to do good things, and certainly in our first few years of operating I was very reliant on grant funding. But I had unease about this, and knew it wasn’t a long-term funding solution -it might be for charities, but for those of us who are constituted as a social enterprise, then you need to keep your revenue streams diverse. I would urge anyone out there who is in the early stages of a start-up, to move from a grant-funding model, to one that includes contracts and revenue from paying customers as soon as possible – otherwise you will find yourself bidding in an increasingly competitive market, against charities too. You need more financial security than that.

In those early years, and to my surprise, I found that I really enjoy the creative side of business growth, that I am excited by risk-taking, and that there is huge satisfaction to be had in actualising one’s own beliefs. As time went on and I took on more staff, I learned to balance the risks more carefully. It is one thing being able to joyfully lurch from one thing to another when it is just yourself, but at the point of writing, we have 24 staff, and here is an additional pleasure to be had, overseeing their growth, and finding ways to make the gigantic 3D jigsaw of our business model, work for everyone so that staff’s varied talents and enthusiasms work for the benefit of the company. (check out our wonderful team here)

A final piece of advice. This is not the pathway to tread if you want to earn a large amount of money for your own use. All profits need to go back into the business to benefit the organisation, the staff, and beneficiaries. We have set our hourly rate of pay at £10 per hour for everyone, slightly above the real living wage, and have proper contracts for employees, with a decent support programme, and this all costs money. You will find you have to work extremely long hours, and like anyone I have ever known who is self-employed, there will be non-existent boundaries between your personal and work lives. But, if you want to live at your fullest, you want to experience the pleasure of doing something worthwhile whilst earning a living, you want to actualise your own beliefs and visions and be your own boss, with no one telling you what to do, if you want to call the shots, and are prepared to back-up everything you say with the model of your own life – then go for it; there is nothing better than to have the privilege of being able to do something positive, whilst having the fun of doing good business too! And to top it all off, I get to spend my time with amazing people like Rebecca Partridge, featured in the image, who is one of the many young people we have who in themselves are an inspiration!

Sue Williamson

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