By Amerie Rose
Director and project manager at ESSENCE of Exeter CIC
FALLING OR JUMPING?
Those “all over the place” feelings you’ve been having? They are symptoms of stress, NOT personal failures of yours. Do you feel FLAKEY + INCONSISTENT? That’s b/c your brain doesn’t know what news to brace for next, or what next month will hold. (1)
Let us begin with absolute honesty. Nobody, nowhere, knows exactly what is going to happen next. There is no clear path out of this situation. Humanity is teetering on the edge of sanity with nowhere left to look but into the chasm of what we have created for ourselves. Dare we ask, ‘Will this catch us when we fall?’?
From the individual to the interpersonal, this virus is exposing that its impact is far reaching and universal. The breadth of experience of it is as wide as the breadth of inequality which characterises our species’ existence on this planet. It is also exposing that our current trajectory may not be the most resilient, nor the most sustainable way to go forwards from here.
One of the gifts of Covid-19 is that it has forced our attention onto the ordinary things. We are learning what is essential in life and many of us are discovering for the first time what it truly means to be vulnerable. And amongst us, extraordinary people are speaking up to ensure that all voices are heard and all voices considered as we go through this journey and, eventually, pick ourselves back up from this fall.
I propose that we embrace our descent into insanity; inoculate ourselves with its lessons, find the hidden gems and emerge with a determination to do better. I propose that to do better we need to co-create a world in which everybody and everywhere is regarded as equal. Such a thing would be of benefit to ourselves as much as anyone else. Furthermore, such a thing would reinstate sanity as the benchmark of human success.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN SOLID GROUND AND SKY…
Research shows that half the social sector could run out of money by June. Social enterprises need this support now #SaveOurSocEnts to #BuildBackBetter. bit.ly/SOSocEnts (2)
On a daily basis, we are bombarded with an assertion that the economic implications of the Coronavirus pandemic are as critical, if not more so, than the health implications. “Economic contagion is now spreading as fast as the disease itself” (3) which is driving business and enterprise into crisis mode. To assert some control over the descent, the UK Chancellor has rolled out a titanic flotilla of financial life rafts. Yet from the perspective of our own sinking ships, it appears that there are very few spaces for social enterprises and entrepreneurs. Here at ESSENCE, we are finding that many of our members simply do not fit into the mould of business to which the Government has (so far) put out their steadying hand.
Uncertainty, caused to a large extent by the lack of clear guidance or transparency from central government, is putting undue pressure on our members, the majority of whom are continuing to operate amid this crisis. At a time when the opportunity to innovate and adapt could be rife, their energies are consumed with trawling through red tape, negotiating numerous dead ends, rewriting funding applications for redesigned projects that are now ‘Covid-19 focussed’… and within all that maintaining a glimmer of hope that they will find the means to get through this and be able to continue their vital work. And yes, a brief glance through the myriad of petitions on sites such as change.org makes clear that their struggles are not unique to social enterprises but are shared by many other SME businesses in the UK and internationally. However, a key difference is that socially driven businesses exist for ALL of us. They are doing what they do for our elderly parents, our disabled cousins, our disadvantaged neighbours, our marginalised youth, our broken communities and our fracturing planet. And it is their actions, at this time, which will help to alleviate the inequalities which will only be compacted as this virus takes its toll on our society.
“Your fish is sick. Germ theory: isolate the fish. Terrain theory: clean the tank.” (4)
Community has opened its eyes and is responding. The marginalised and the dependent remind us that we are all in this together. One advantage to living on the edge is that you have a much better grip on the whole, and it is here that Social Enterprises are King. Right here, somewhere between the solid ground of ‘business as usual’, and the blue sky thinking of possibilities.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
For the first time in humankind’s history, we have everything we need for our species and this planet to not only become healthy again, but to thrive. Yet, let us not fall into the trap of believing that everyone would like everyone else to be healthy and thriving. We have been brought up within a ‘Survival of the Fittest’ agenda which results in a group process whereby competition is rife. The virus exposes the intricate inequalities of British society (inequalities in access to care, distribution of resources, personal and community resilience etc) which results in either a speeding up or postponing of death. But in a world which is ever more connected and a population which is ever more informed, we are no longer ignoring the ones who are left behind. As Aquinas would remind us with his concept of ‘Natural Law’, our humanity appears to carry deeply imbedded within “the somewhat vacuous imperative to do good and avoid evil.” (5)
So, what does survival look like? What does it mean to be fit? Is it fair or wise to be subjecting our Social Enterprises and Entrepreneurs to a race to the top when the race is already rigged towards those who carry the advantage?
“In abstract isolation, no particular [trading] model is better than or preferred to any other. In practice, a business adopting one model may produce better overall returns than an example of another model due to specific factors such as the quality of the management team, the market environment, or the strength of competing organisations.” (6)
To fall through the gap of automatic government business and individual support, and seeing long sought after or garnered financial support fall away, leaves many of our members no option but to either close the doors and wait it out, or to enter the minefield which is the C19 funding applications process. If we thought it was getting tough before all of this kicked off, right now it is fast turning into a nightmare. And on a local level, our members have reported facing the difficult moral dilemma of knowing that an application from them would compete with their colleagues whose business’ are literally keeping people alive.
We need to maintain the argument that propping up these businesses follows the Chancellors logic because it will ease the reliance on the state during the recovery period. Many of our members work with people who, through them, access a wide range of often critical services which are no longer (or never were) delivered by the public sector – be it mental health, social access, disability enablement, financial advice, environment services, supported employment, relationship breakdown and so forth. Much like we are being asked to not overburden the NHS during this crisis, we will find our Local Authorities overwhelmed if this wider support network collapses.
“Social enterprises contribute £60bn to the UK economy and employ 5% of the UK workforce. [They]… employ tens of thousands of vulnerable and disadvantaged people such as those with disabilities, homeless people and veterans. Many of these workers will struggle to find employment if the social enterprises they work for close… Once these businesses disappear it will take years to rebuild. Their loss will drag our economy down and unnecessarily elongate our recovery.” (7)
IS THIS THE END?
The power of the Social Enterprise Networks at this time is unprecedented. We are the midwives and incubators of value driven entrepreneurs. We are the larger voice within an economic system which too often overlooks the individual. We are the places where ideas and learning can be shared amongst peers. We are the overseer who can convene cross-sector and cross-organisational conversations.
And it is our connections across the region and beyond which will stand us in good stead to weather this storm. Exeter’s local network, ESSENCE of Exeter CIC, is part of the Enhance Social Enterprise Network which brings together a partnership between Exeter, Torbay, Plymouth, Somerset and rural Devon. We are proud to receive funding from the European Regional Development Fund to continue our work, on behalf of our members, across the whole of the Heart of the Southwest.
If humanity is to re-design societal solutions that are sustainable and take the learnings of this pandemic to heart, the Social Enterprise Networks are at the front of the queue of those who are here to help. We have a broad view of the sector and can pose the bigger questions. Such as, ‘How do we re-establish value after a time where so many social enterprises have offered their services and products for free or with a discount, and in a time when personal and political economies will be stretched?’
There is a risk that the plan which is emerging from the centre in response to Covid-19 does not have a broad enough perspective on our economy to be holistic and inclusive enough to support its diversity. At this juncture and after the universally shared experience which is Coronavirus, we need a plan which is worthy of ALL the people and organisations who will be actioning it. The only way we will get that is if we continue to insist on its necessity.
“It is 12 years since the first State of Social Enterprise report. My hope is that in another 12 years’ time we won’t have to explain what a social enterprise is or why it is the future of business. The foundations of our economy will have changed significantly enough for social enterprise to be seen as the natural way of doing business. If we haven’t achieved this breakthrough, I fear that the triple threat of social division, ecological breakdown and economic stagnation will have overcome us.” (8)
And what would a world WITHOUT our Social Enterprises look like?
As is my way as a resilient leader, if I raise my head above this and insist on finding a hidden gem in any situation, I predict that our worse case scenario is something that I, for one, could consider surviving. If the collapse of much of our social enterprise sector does happen over the coming months, this will drive an enlightened workforce to return to our mainstream spaces. They will infuse them with a homeopathic dose of social and circular economy precepts that not only should they argue for but should insist on. An enormous number of Social Enterprises have evolved out of a disenfranchised or disenchanted workforce who believed that things could and should be done better. Perhaps it is time for them to return to those workforces and speak of the lessons they have learned.
Or perhaps it is time for their visions, and the companies they have founded, to be taken forward as the fittest and most worthy of survival in this ‘New Normal’ world. Only time will tell.
Our thanks go out to the members who continually gift the networks through their wisdom sharing and their embrace of the experiences they encounter on their enterprising journey.
1. @alexisrockley, 10:31 AM, 4/14/20.
8. Lord Victor Adebowale CBE, Chair of Social Enterprise UK. Foreword to SEUK Capitalism in Crisis article. https://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Capitalism-in-Crisis.pdf
Copyright: Amerie Rose, Director and project manager at ESSENCE of Exeter CIC, Founder of PYRAMID-CIRCLE-SQUARE. More about Amerie on her LinkedIn page.
To find out more about the Enhance Social Enterprise Social Enterprise Networks in Exeter, Somerset, Devon, Torbay and Plymouth and to join, visit Enhance Social Enterprise Network for Devon & Somerset https://enhancesocialenterprise.org.uk/
The Heart of the South West Enhance Social Enterprise Programme is receiving up to £1,053,610 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for ERDF. Established by the European Union, ERDF funds help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information visit https://www.gov.uk/guidance/england-2014-to-2020-european-structural-and-investment-funds