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All change. Mind the gap

March was a hectic month for Social Enterprise West Midlands (SEWM). Launch of the new business, membership offer, exhibiting at Voice11 in the 02 Arena and a move to a new office in Birmingham.

My involvement included driving through the London traffic with a van load of display equipment (panicking about driving into a Congestion charge area by mistake), and receiving, on behalf of the staff team, the Social Enterprise Mark for SEWM CIC!

But now, in April, we have been catapulted into the very real world of dealing with the requirement to operate an organisation with great ambition and expectations but very limited resources. Certainly we are not alone in experiencing at first hand the results of the sudden change in the funding landscape. It is not just major change for social enterprises but for a whole range of community organisations and businesses. We have been fortunate because, our move to new offices has been hugely helped by the support we have received from Trident Housing Association and the warm welcome we have received from their staff.

We now have 12 Founder Members and a steadily growing number of organisations that have committed to pay for membership of SEWM. This is encouraging although we are clear that to maintain the SEWM will be very challenging, something very many organisations across the Midlands are experiencing.

Already we have seen an increase in the number of people contacting the SEWM CIC offices who have found themselves being passed from pillar to post. These are people and groups who have ideas and want to get into some form of business but are finding that the support structures they expected to be there to assist them have been dismantled with no expectation of a rebuilding programme in place.

When SEWM launched its prospectus – The Time is Now – in Jan 2010 we knew that the economic landscape would alter as a result of the General Election but little did we expect the degree of change or its speed. In less than a year, major agencies responsible for economic development, regeneration, business advice, skills and training – have been abolished or significantly reduced and their budgets with them.

I’ve been working in regeneration and economic development for over 30 years and I have not seen negative change operating on this scale before. Disappointingly, it’s change that is sadly lacking in an evidence based to justify what is taking place. We still remain a region where productivity, skill levels and new business starts remain below the national average.

The dismantling of business support and regeneration programmes that could bring sustainable employment to areas, especially if coupled with the utilisation of social enterprise models, is quite frankly wrong. There are parts of the West Midlands where intervention to bring an enterprise based approach to tackle problems and exploit market opportunities would make a real difference. But the means of doing this are quickly disappearing.

One heartening thing during the last few months and something I’ve found really interesting, is the level of discussion within some of the social networking sites – in particular LinkedIn. It’s been enlightening to read people’s thoughts in, for example, a group called ‘From RDA to LEP’ or ‘Economic Development under a UK Coalition Government’. People don’t necessarily stick to the topic headings but there is a genuine enthusiasm for discussion, looking to bring new ideas at a time when problems in our local economies are growing as the resources to tackle them are reduced.

It’s also been an opportunity to put a few people right about social enterprise. The usual myths about social enterprise being unsustainable, relying on grants and not being a proper business, still abound in these discussion groups. So it has been an opportunity to confront these head on. But it has also emphasised just how important it is to get the message out to both public and private sector organisations about the sector, its enterprise credentials and its desire to work with private sector businesses.

This then brings me on to a major feature of our exhibition at Voice11 – the promotion of buySe.co.uk as a national directory of social enterprise businesses. Armed with banners, balloons, buySe mugs, sweets, wine and pretzels, the staff worked to promote the Directory to every passing delegate. And we found we were well positioned, as to reach the main stage area for the main expert presentations and Vince Cable, delegates had to walk past the SEWM and buySe stand.

All of this has emphasised how important continued promotion and publicity of SEWM, buySe and of social enterprise in general will be. Let the PR and communication slip and there is a real danger that the profile that’s been created locally and nationally for social enterprises will begin the disappear.

Our collective aim to be out there, demonstrating that there is an alternative, a better way to do business, will not be diminished..

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