Supporting social entrepreneurs

Charity perspective
Views & insights

Alastair Wilson, CEO of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, discusses how its collaboration with RBC Brewin Dolphin is helping social impact organisations to keep trading through the current cluster of crises.


8 December 2022 | 3 minute read

As the social enterprise sector continues to recover from the effects of the pandemic, it is being hit hard by the cost-of-living crisis.

A survey of 47 Social Enterprise Support Fund grant recipients by the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) found 94% have been impacted directly, with 68% being affected in multiple ways, such as increased utility costs, a downturn in trading or growing salary costs 1.

Social entrepreneurs, whose energies are focused on creating social impact, need support to rebuild their financial resilience and sustainability, to de-risk their business model, and renew their customer base. With endowments from governments, CSR (corporate social responsibility) departments and trusts and foundations in decline, social entrepreneurs are increasingly required to seek new sources of income. So how can partnerships, like the one between RBC Brewin Dolphin and SSE, ensure leaders have the resources they need to survive, and even thrive, throughout these emerging crises?

Building resilience from the start

In SSE’s experience, equipping social enterprises to endure adversity should start at the very beginning. This is why we partnered with RBC Brewin Dolphin in 2020 to deliver the ‘Brewin Dolphin Start Up Plus Programme’ which supported 16 social entrepreneurs to build innovative, robust, and viable enterprises. By providing early-stage social entrepreneurs with access to capacity building, funding and supportive peer networks, they are well placed to have the skills and time available to build resilience into their business models from the outset. The Start Up Plus programme covered everything from identifying the right legal structure to getting to grips with finance, undertaking user/customer research and measuring their social impact. Participants benefitted from a £1,500 grant to fund investments such as running a pilot and developing an online presence.

The budding social entrepreneurs also gained a cohort of peers, all of whom were on a similar journey and who were able to provide crucial peer-to-peer support. In turn, the founders developed crucial business skillsets and went on to collectively reach 1,6742 people in communities nationwide, influencing change across a wide range of social and environmental issues.

International networks

One of our social entrepreneurs on the course, Adenike, set up a social enterprise to provide safe and nutritious boil-in-the-bag meals to support those living below the poverty line in Nigeria. Adenike learnt about the importance of balancing profit and purpose during the programme, ensuring that the two work in harmony. She also started working with a new factory and nutrition experts who helped to refine the product to tackle hidden hunger. Through the support provided by the programme, she connected with a law firm offering pro bono support, specifically with a woman who had previously worked in Nigeria. Her contacts allowed Adenike to widen her network in Nigeria and find potential partners to distribute the product to those living under the poverty line.

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“The programme helped me to see the bigger picture,” says Adenike. “It gave me a community of like-minded people, and a set of resources that were never available to me before.”

Accessing cross sector skills and expertise

Balancing profit with purpose means social entrepreneurs are often faced with new and unexpected challenges. Critical to their ability to navigate these issues is having access to skills, expertise and championing from a diverse range of sectors, including the corporate world.

Through mentoring social entrepreneurs on SSE’s learning programmes, RBC Brewin Dolphin employees have provided social entrepreneurs with a critical friend to bounce ideas off, talk through tricky issues and identify potential solutions. Through active listening, mentors are able to impart their own personal experience and help provoke deeper levels of thought reflection.

In 2021, the ‘Social Enterprise Challenge’ was launched for members of RBC Brewin Dolphin’s Emerging Talent Programme (ETP). The challenge is an innovative learning experience designed and delivered by SSE that enables participants to practice core skills required for their future careers. By working in teams to design a new concept tackling a social or environmental problem within today’s society, the participants learnt about social enterprise, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how they can get involved in supporting RBC Brewin Dolphin’s work in communities.

Scaling procurement through readiness

Throughout our partnership, we have continued to explore what else we can be doing to meet the most pressing needs of social entrepreneurs. In 2021, we identified that many social enterprises were performing strongly through B2C (business to customer) sales, but were not equipped to transition to a B2B (business to business) model. There was a lack of learning support to help them secure corporate and public sector contracts. This led to the creation of our pioneering ‘Procurement Readiness Programme’ – a course crafted for market-driven social enterprises that were ready to launch or scale a B2B offering.

The programme came at the perfect time, with both corporates and the public sector increasingly expressing a desire to engage with social enterprises. This ambition, however, was often fulfilled through one-off purchases rather than sustained engagement. We wanted social entrepreneurs to be better equipped to submit serious bids to deliver on corporate and public sector contracts. Through this programme we had an opportunity to encourage sustained, impactful change, and to drive the integration of social enterprises into a broader range of supply chains.

By the end of the programme, participants had dramatically increased their confidence across skills such as identifying opportunities, finding the right person to talk to in large organisations, and writing bids.

Cohort member Madlug have gone on to secure more than ten new corporate contracts during and after the programme. Gareth Rees, Madlug’s operational and social impact lead, says: “The Procurement Readiness course has given us the ability to learn more about procurement and create a strategy about who, and what, we can aim at going for.”

What’s needed next?

The Procurement Readiness programme has addressed a real gap in the sector, so we are thrilled to have a second programme in the works for 2023. What’s more, the success of the 2022 programme, and the experience of jointly exploring this field, has led to SSE securing a multi-year government contract to provide support to voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs) to enhance their prospects when bidding for government contracts.

So, what’s needed next? In short, we need more partnerships, like this one, to recognise the challenges facing social enterprises and charities. To invest the time, skills and resources needed to make sure these critical organisations can weather the current crises and continue to make incredible social and environmental impact across our communities.

1 Survey of Social Enterprise Support Fund grant recipients (carried out by SSE, October 2022)

2 During the 12 months as reported at the end of the programme survey.

Opinions expressed in this publication are not necessarily the views held throughout RBC Brewin Dolphin.

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