As every entrepreneur knows, starting up a new business can be very challenging. It can mean taking risks, working long hours, learning as you go and dealing with the unexpected. Of course it’s often highly rewarding and empowering too.
But what happens when you want to start up something different? Some new and innovative business model? A business tackling an environmental issue or helping excluded people? Maybe something other business people and support agencies don’t understand. This is starting up a social enterprise.
A social enterprise faces exactly the same issues as other businesses but with the additional rewards and challenges of a social or environmental mission. It seeks to solve or improve a social issue and exists for that reason, locking all profit into the business.
We receive a wide variety of enquiries in the Social Enterprise Scotland office – with start-up support frequently topping the list. We signpost people to their local Social Enterprise Network (where one exists) and also to Firstport, the national organisation that helps people on their start-up journey.
Firstport has spent the last year looking into what’s driving demand in terms of social entrepreneurship and where support isn’t as good as it could be. Its new strategy, Increasing Social Impact through Entrepreneurship, identifies four big trends.
Firstly, interest in social entrepreneurship is on the rise, with increased demand. Secondly, social entrepreneurs do not come from any single demographic, geography or sector.
There’s also an increasing appetite for social investment and growth from enterprises, institutions, and private investors. Finally, by diving into its data, it found that around 30 per cent of the ideas that Firstport engaged with over the last two years were unable to progress as social enterprises due to barriers such as sector or operating environment.
It’s this last point that has resulted in FirstImpact, Firstport’s new trading subsidiary. It will use Firstport’s knowledge, skills and experience to fill a gap by supporting ideas driven by social mission but unable to access meaningful support, because they don’t neatly fit into a private or social enterprise box. It’s about embedding social impact into the core business of companies.
Like SIS Ventures from Social Investment Scotland, as well as targeting potential social enterprises, this also aims to capture new, emerging business models. These mission-led or values-led businesses that, while not social enterprises themselves, are part of the wider, extended ethical business movement. Just like social enterprises, they want to transform what business is and does in the community.
Certainly there are different origins for new social enterprises, as well as for these new ethical business models. A social enterprise start-up could simply come from a brand new business idea, a charity launching a social enterprise arm or indeed a private sector business converting to a social enterprise model.
Start-up social enterprises that have joined Social Enterprise Scotland as members in the last couple of years demonstrate innovation, diversity and new thinking in business, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Edible Estates is about harnessing green space around social housing estates and seeing them as a valuable resource. They help communities transform spaces into beautiful, enjoyable and edible landscapes. Arkbound Foundation widens access to literature and improves diversity within the publishing industry while Invisible Cities trains people who have experienced homelessness to become walking tour guides of their own city.
Funky Science is dedicated to providing quality science education to children and young people using hands-on activities and demonstrations, while Clean Water Wave CIC helps establish local social enterprises that sell clean and safe water to rural communities across the world.
For Scotland to thrive we need to encourage and support many new social enterprise businesses and work closely with the wider ethical business movement to build an economy and society for everyone.
Duncan Thorp, Social Enterprise Scotland.