Social enterprise must forge links with big business

Kevin Hayes is CEO of Enta CIC, a not-for-personal-profit Community Interest Company that has been working across Birmingham since 1977 providing learning opportunities, training and guidance to help people prepare for employment. Enta also runs a range of social enterprises – including nursery, catering and construction services – as well as the Lakeside Children’s and Family Learning Centre, in Kingstanding.

When Enta was first established as a training provider almost 35 years ago, it was one of the first social enterprises in Birmingham and the few others that existed around the UK worked very much in isolation.

We were all trying to achieve our positive social aims and in hindsight, too many of us were working alone, without forging partnerships or trying to influence others in the wider community.

Fortunately, this is changing.

Today, social enterprises are working alongside organisations across the business community and this is rapidly transforming what we, as an industry, can achieve. For me, the true potential of the social enterprise community is really dependent on the strength and success of these partnerships.

In Birmingham, we have already reached the stage where local authorities, the NHS and major housing associations have been won over to what the social enterprise sector can do, thanks to our efforts in building these links.

These public organisations are now saying to their employees: ‘If you need to book conferences, find suppliers, source materials and so on, look for a social enterprise first of all. That way we know there is social benefit with our investment.’

It makes perfect sense and I’m delighted with this progress. However, I believe there is still some major bridge-building to be done between social enterprises and the private sector before they will consider us in the same way.

Historically, we’ve needed a real hook to get in front of major companies and explain to them exactly what we do. That’s why, over the past few months, Enta has targeted the CSR programmes of large private businesses to act as our introduction.

For example, one of our private sector partnerships was with the Birmingham office of Lend Lease, a major construction and development firm.

We were in the process of kitting out our new workshops and Lend Lease were looking for a good cause to support as part of the company’s CSR initiative. When they found out that we were a training provider and that any support they gave would help 16 to 19-year-olds find employment, they donated £15,000 of equipment.

We kept in touch with Lend Lease and, a few months later, when they returned to Enta to see how their tools were helping, they saw that our trainees had used them to make garden furniture, picnic tables and pagodas as part of their course. They were so impressed they immediately put in an order for £5,000 of this furniture and some of their construction experts offered to act as mentors to our trainees.

What started out last year as a simple conversation with Lend Lease has led to us becoming a valued CSR partner for them and means that they now know their CSR programme delivers real, measurable community impact. Of course, we also benefit, as Lend Lease’s support helps us transform the lives of young people.

It’s a simple approach, in which everyone wins.

Since then, we have rolled out our CSR support programme to other major businesses, such as The Wilkes Partnership solicitors – who have contributed funding to transform the gardens and provide buggies for our two children’s nurseries – as well as introducing us to the city office of property advisory group BNP Paribas.

In BNP Paribas’ case, 15 staff came across to Enta for a day and worked alongside our construction apprentices to transform storage space into a sensory room at our training centre.

And a further benefit of this approach is that we can learn from the business expertise, professionalism and best practice of leading private sector firms like BNP Paribas.

There’s absolutely no doubt that CSR link ups like this are working for Enta or that they will continue to grow in the future.

However, there is still much more to be done.

It’s important to stress that achieving these partnerships are a key step in our work, but they are not the final goal. The end product for us, as a training provider, will always be to support, train and guide people into employment.

We need to engage the private sector and their supply chain in opening the doors to people who are unemployed, and these CSR projects – which work well for them and us – are a great way for us to build relationships and start these conversations.

However, the real proof of these partnerships will be how many sustainable jobs for our trainees have been created as a result of the partnership.

There are 500 social enterprises and 10,000 people employed by them in Birmingham alone. Each organisation, like Enta, is trying to make a difference to the lives of young people and to the communities in which they live and work.

But while social enterprise is a large and growing sector, the private sector is bigger still, and if we can encourage just a few more of these companies to open up further job opportunities, we will have made a big impact.

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