Social enterprise at the coal face – changing structures from the grassroots up

Small, locally-rooted social enterprises are uniquely well-placed to address contemporary challenges. But to realise that potential, larger institutions, closer to the levers of power, must engage and collaborate with them to develop new models of social intervention.

We build gardens. We look after them. We support others to do the same. We try to demonstrate a different way of curating the communal spaces of our city, which prioritises their potential to improve wellbeing. We are exploring how far we can embed that ethos into the fabric of daily life, so that it becomes the norm instead of innovation.

Austerity is the context which frames most of what we do. It’s forcing everyone to think differently about how to preserve what we have, and how to improve on it. The old structures and methods of intervention are fading, in favour of interdisciplinary collaborations which are an expression of the 4th sector – combining charities, government and private enterprise.

This is where small social enterprises like ourselves have a key role to play. Their lean structure means they can compete with larger organisations to deliver products and services at low cost – if they have the capacity. Their small staff team provides a personal, face-to-face interaction which generates confidence in clients – if they have the right people. Being locally embedded, they are at the coal face, connected with residents and businesses. Local knowledge gives them an edge when identifying problems and designing solutions – if they can make their voice heard at the top table. Their social ethos sets them apart from mainstream competitors and appeals to the better nature of commissioners & contractors.

But it is a hand to mouth existence for micro enterprise, and shifts in the policy landscape such as the business rate rise can make all of those advantages irrelevant. That is why organisations like Trust for London, the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE), Impact Hub network, Community Southwark and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) can be the key to leverage the potential impact of this growing sector.

I started my career as a Philosophy and Sociology teacher in Hounslow. I re-trained as a Community & Youth Worker during the Credit Crunch – there was no work for newcomers to the sector. I couldn’t see how I could make a living out of improving people’s lives without relying on the state or charities. The Impact Hub changed all that, and introduced me to a global community of changemakers who are demonstrating innovative models for improving lives in today’s challenging climate. Being around other people on similar journeys created a feeling of strength in numbers, even though I was starting a business alone.

Starting out with no track record, I could not have got going without our initial seed grant from an old-fashioned charity – to run an accredited horticulture training program. But there is now a growing industry dedicated to incubating social enterprises, combining more mixed sources of funding with mentoring and training. For example: Unltd, Hatch Enterprise, the Social Investment Business Foundation and the Power to Change community business programs.

Towards the end of our first year – it had become ‘we’ instead of just ‘me’ – it was clear that we did not want to constantly rely exclusively on grant income. We had created a few spaces and were able to secure garden maintenance contracts for them. This is when our social business model really began to take shape. But we could not have grasped that opportunity without a rich menu of free training provided by Community Southwark, the Impact Hub and the School for Social Entrepreneurs. This is my third education, ongoing – to become a social entrepreneur.

Our most recent project, the Brixton Orchard, was funded by two sources which would not have existed a decade ago: the Mayor of London’s Clean Air Fund and the Brixton BID’s business community. It has converted 1,000m2 of land on one of London’s busiest and most polluted junctions into a community oasis of 35 fruit trees and edible hedgerows. We continue to care for it with local volunteers, without whom it could not have been built. One of our challenges now, is how to capture and communicate its social impact, in order to encourage further investment in similar projects.

Being outdoors at this busy crossroads every week, as winter turned to spring and then summer, we have been able to engage – and been engaged by – the whole spectrum of London. The unifying and edifying power of growing food and connecting with nature is demonstrated by every passer-by who cheers us on or joins in with our digging and weeding.

It is an example of what can be achieved when large institutions collaborate with and support locally-embedded social enterprises. It’s a stepping stone to new ways of delivering positive social change.