Leaders of the pack: the rise and rise of Scotland’s social enterprise sector

Leaders of the pack: the rise and rise of Scotland’s social enterprise sector
Positively Scottish, by Cat Cochrane


Whisper social enterprise in Scotland and you might hear shouts of The Big Issue, or smell the savoury success of Social Bite, with its coveted George Clooney marketing edge.


Listen long enough and you’ll catch a firmer definition why this burgeoning sector isn’t about simple charity, tackling a short-term need. It is about enterprise and profit, but rooted in trade, sustainability, diversity and social change.


Internationally, Scotland is looked upon as a leading light in the field of social enterprise development. We currently have 5200 social enterprise organisations, employing over 112,000 people, with 68% paying at least the recognised Living Wage. It’s a model which brought an annual income of £3.63bn into our economy, according to the Social Enterprise in Scotland Census 2015.


They’re impressive figures, and we’ll soon meet some of the social enterprises that make up part of the overall picture. But first, some background on why Scotland has become a world leader.


Colin Campbell, executive director of Assist Social Capital, helps individuals and communities to develop a social capital approach. He says, “The financial crash in 2008 meant public sector funding has become increasingly scarce. This has driven a keen interest in achieving the most added value possible in return for public sector funding.


“In Scotland, the fact that we have a devolved government means it has been possible for a unique national approach to emerge. A significant amount of money – £100m plus – has been invested in making the third sector as a whole more financially independent.


“For the size of the country, this investment has been massive and ongoing, enabling the emerging social enterprise sector to access financial as well as specialised technical support.”


The first draft of the Social Enterprise Strategy in Scotland came under the then Labour-LibDem Scottish Executive in 2006, but the incoming SNP government picked up the mantle in 2007 and Finance Secretary John Swinney is credited with unwavering support for social entrepreneurship.


Kim Wallace, networks and development manager at Senscot, has 15 years’ experience in the sector, and six in her current role. She says, “Things have definitely moved on in the last six years. When I started you’d be lucky if there were 200 social enterprises across the whole country.”


The Census 2015 spotlights flagship enterprises generating large amounts of income, particularly in the social care sector. Kim argues, however, that this is only one part of the picture, with 60% of all social enterprises in Scotland earning an income of £100K and under.


She says, “Sometimes you can get caught up in the headline figures connected to some of the larger social enterprises. The majority of the 5200 organisations are small, community-based social enterprises that don’t have huge ambition to scale up. They were set up to address a need in the community and that’s what they want to do in a sustainable way.”


So who are these social enterprises? Let’s start among the residential streets of Edinburgh’s coastal Portobello, where Dani Trudeau is founder of Tribe Porty.


It’s a social enterprise community hub with a work, make and share philosophy; the space has blossomed into one of the suburb’s top community areas in the past year.


Dani says: “It’s really interesting to watch how networks are formed and how powerful (it is) just getting together and doing something positive that isn’t based around money, more the skills of people.”


Resting above one of the city’s Earthy Foods Markets, creating an organic vibe that extends throughout the building, Tribe Porty provides a variety of classes, workshops, markets and events. Dani explains the importance of having co-designed Tribe’s offer in partnership with the needs of the local community.


She says, “I did a survey and asked people in Portobello what kind of space they would like, what they might like to do within it and what sort of things were already happening.”


Due to that early engagement and the support of £10K funding, Tribe Porty has reached sustainability and is booked out with weekly activities that reflect the needs of the growing number of young families who have moved to Portobello in recent years, without overlooking the suggestions of its traditionally elderly residents.


Tribe Porty is more than a mere gathering space for pilates and puppy academy classes. Hot-desking and a permanent co-working space were highly requested in the same survey, leading to the now eclectic range of creatives in the building at any one time.


“We’ve got 29 freelancers, including an architect, four graphic designers, photographers, film-makers, a television production company, a journalist, and environmental consultants. It’s very mixed,” says Dani.


Software technical writer Keith Kirkwood, one of Tribe Porty’s current hot-deskers, testifies to the benefits of the hub’s overlapping of local creativity. He says, “Up until today, I’d been working four days-a-week on my day job and I would come down to Tribe Porty on Fridays to do basic volunteer-based things. I did that to soak it up. I hadn’t came across a community hub before, so at first I didn’t know what to expect and in many ways I still don’t as it changes every day.


“Here there are designers, journalists and a theatre group, which is very different from the developers, testers and project managers that I mix with elsewhere. We bounce creative ideas off each other in a cross-pollination of approaches.”


Reflecting the diversity of our modern society, LEAP Sports Scotland is a social enterprise committed to breaking down the personal and societal barriers which prevent LGBTI people across the country participating in sports.


One of the beneficiaries of the organisation’s campaigning is Edinburgh-based HotScots FC, Scotland’s first LGBT football team. Club player and committee member Tom Chalmers cites the enterprise as being a major player in raising a combined platform for the LGBTI community and its sporting interests.


Tom says, “I can see LEAP Scotland’s work making a real impact on various levels. Some of my team-mates wouldn’t have the opportunity to play sports and develop their skills if it weren’t for the work that LEAP and HotScots FC do.”


While HotScots FC “cater to people of all abilities through competitive and non-competitive football, open to people of any gender, sexual orientation, nationality and race,” LEAP Scotland’s efforts during Pride Edinburgh have assisted in each of the city’s LGBT sports clubs recruiting new players and members, year on year.


“I also think the work LEAP does in raising the issue of LGBTI sports into mainstream consciousness helps LGBTI people seek out positive opportunities,” adds Tom. “Our close connection has helped us ensure that we are always at the forefront of inclusive sports.”


Up the east coast is Scottish Wood, a family-run, Dunfermline-based social enterprise founded in 1999. Husband and wife team Jim and Maggie Birley have worked to help revitalise the local woodland culture for the benefit of the West Fife community, economy and environment.


Maggie says, “We’re fairly small, with our turnover of £300K. What we ask is, what can we impact on? Here we work with education to encourage forest schools across the West Fife villages only, meaning that all schools in the area can get access and support to go into the local woodlands to have not just one visit a year, but every week, so they’re building their dens and receiving outdoor learning.”


Scottish Wood support West Fife secondary schools with timber grants and a competition it founded was won by local furniture design student Gregor Cameron, who went on to run his own workshop in the area.


While the firm is noted for the locally-sourced timber it supplied in the refurbishment of Leith Dry Dock, its showroom also sells wood to customers who like to design and make things in their spare time.


“Scottish timber is absolutely beautiful,” says Maggie. “And we didn’t want to limit it to only people who could afford to buy the services of a craftsman. We wanted it to be available to anybody and to spread it as far and wide as we could.”


Across in Glasgow, perhaps one of the most topical new enterprises  – with undoubtedly the most inspiring name – is Refuweegee, founded in the last year by Selina Hales, who gave up her job as project manager at the city’s Chamber of Commerce to launch it. 


Selina’s desire to do something positive to welcome refugees arriving in Glasgow is the epitome of a reactionary idea to a crisis, mixed with the friendly pragmatism of Glaswegians at their best.


She says, “I was watching the news, though I’d tried to avoid a lot of it as I’d found it far too disturbing. I felt guilty, firstly that the government wasn’t doing more to help people and secondly as there I was sitting in my nice, comfortable house and I wasn’t doing anything.”


One later image of refugee babies being sprayed with tear gas at the Hungarian border was the final prompt Selina needed to make a change. She says, “I wanted to do something but I also know my limits and that’s when I wondered if anyone was doing welcome packs for people when they come to Glasgow. Surely I could just ask a few business to donate stuff of what people would need, so I started doing a wee bit of research.”


Refuweegee is now a growing social enterprise model, given support by volunteers and public donations of practical items and handwritten letters welcoming its recipients with kindness and acceptance.


Partnered with Migrant Help Glasgow, Glasgow City Council, in addition to Oxfam and Social Bite, who offer locations for new arrivals to collect their welcome packs, Selina is determined to shift the bureaucracy of top-down organisational input, based on the realisation that her fight is to grow something in a completely opposite way.


She says, “The beneficiaries are not just the people who are receiving welcome packs as they arrive in the city, it’s also the community being able to connect. We have been good at all the pop-up things, but these have not always been led by the community.


“It’s so much nicer the thought of each pack being donated by and built solely by the community. I’ve not gone out because we’ve had £10k and bought toiletries for everybody…saying there we go, that’s really nice, thanks. Instead, that was because, as an example, over 300 people donated tubes of toothpaste and bottles of shower gel.”


Still in Glasgow, generating creativity and employability on top of addressing environmental issues in one of Scotland’s most deprived areas is award-winning, upcycling social enterprise initiative Rags to Riches.


Based in the soon-to-be renovated Govanhill Baths on Glasgow’s southside, project manager Nadine Gorency has for the past five years designed and curated textile and upholstery sewing workshops for some of the most diverse social and ethnic groups in the country.


“Our aim was to engage local members of our community into textile and the refashioning of clothing that we were being supplied with from the charity shops and start a social enterprise to generate some income for the Govanhill Baths Trust,” Nadine explains.


Following Rags to Riches’ recent successful This is Not a Fashion Show event, where workshop attendees’ products and wares were modelled on the catwalk, the project has launched a new series of Upcycle Your Skills, two-week summer programmes in furniture and upholstery upcycling designed to help participants get creative and experience a real work environment, along with additional employability support.


With its out-of-work and formal education target client base, the initiative has its admirers. One such fan is John Burns, a previous workshop participant and recovering alcoholic,  who says of the programme, “I enjoyed it. My mother told me how to stitch at the age of 12, but I’d never used a sewing machine before and now I’ve learned that skill.


“To me there was really good engagement with other people who were also in the class. At that time I was under carpets. When I was sober, I would come in here. It brought that wee bit back out of me, that I could then keep up my house and things like that.”


But it’s far from only in the Central Belt that social enterprise is thriving. In fact, the Highlands and Islands have seen some of the best examples of community-led businesses and initiatives, with 22% of all social enterprises currently based in Scotland’s most rural region.


Duncan Thorp, policy and communications Officer at Social Enterprise Scotland, the national social enterprise membership body, explains the consistent reason for the pattern. He says, “Historically, the Highlands and Islands have always been good at social enterprise because the public sector and the councils haven’t been there in the same way they are in the Central Belt.


“The communities have come together and just done it, particularly around the co-operative movement. Another reason is they’ve also had specific tailored support for quite a long time from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Social Enterprise Loans.”


Bute Befrienders is one such rural initiative to improve the quality of life and reduce the isolation of Bute’s elderly population.


Founded in cooperation with Argyll and Bute Partnership and managed by outreach worker Pieter van der Werf, volunteers provide an Out-and-About and One-to-One free befriending service to the island’s most vulnerable on a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week basis.


Of the accessibility challenges faced on Bute, Pieter says, “It’s very important to have wheels, because transport on Bute is a big issue. When you are isolated, especially in rural areas, transport is always a bit of a problem. Buses and taxi services are often not suited. There is no taxi on the island that can take a wheelchair.”


A common issue with reaching elderly people on various levels is due to many slipping through the net of social services, illness or lack of confidence. Pieter has witnessed the benefits his befriending service has provided to elderly clients.


He adds, “Sometimes we are the only people they will see apart from their carers. There is a gentlemen who we take out and about in the minibus and I know this is his only trip outdoors during the week. It creates familiarity and stability and looking forward to seeing your new friends, as that is what is happening.”


“Maybe it’s because we are on the Isle of Bute, with its specific culture. Because it’s an island, it’s always different from the mainland. People know one another and it’s an easy way to connect, but you need to keep your eye on the ball when helping people.”


As the social enterprise model continues to seep into the Scottish psyche, what does the sector’s future hold in the next decade?


Colin Campbell of Assist Social Capital says, “We are highly unlikely to see a return to the past levels of public sector investment, which means the direction towards even greater emphasis on social enterprise will continue.


“We already see that there is a steady decline in third sector organisations that are grants-based finding it more difficult to survive, while the social enterprise sector is growing.”


Spotlighting a potential shift in employment patterns for the next generation of Scots, Colin adds, “A result of this increasing awareness among the public of the terms and values of social enterprise will encourage more young people to choose to work in social enterprises. All of these points will encourage further growth.


“I hope Scotland will respond to the international interest to promote our approach to social enterprise. This will provide a mechanism to maintain the focus on a values-based, non-private profit approach to how social enterprises function in Scotland and abroad.”


Scotland can be proud of its volume and diversity of social enterprises. It marks a generational tide where our catalysts for change are motivated among our raisons d’être.


Where charities exist to redistribute income from the haves to the have-nots, social entrepreneurship has proved its role in social value creation as the change agent of innovation and mutually beneficial exchanges. As Scots, we seem to have a good grasp of that.


And next time, don’t just whisper about social enterprises in Scotland – shout about them. After all they are a big issue, positively.