Special feature: Birmingham social enterprise city — official launch was a night to remember

At the official launch of Birmingham Social Enterprise City. L-to-R: Claire Dove, VCSE Crown Representative; Margaret Willis, chief executive Unity Trust Bank; Karolina Medwecka-Piasecka Birmingham City Council; Peter Holbrook, chief executive SEUK; Sarah Crawley, chief executive iSE [photos: www.cuthbertdesign.com]

In a social media age superlatives have become a devalued currency and so I won’t employ them here. But I think it can safely be said that last night’s official launch event to mark Birmingham’s recognition as a social enterprise city was a genuine milestone for the sector. I don’t think the sector has ever seen such an ambitious event — nor one that better illustrates how seriously social enterprise is regarded in Birmingham.

For starters, it was graciously hosted by Unity Trust Bank, which offered its brand new Brindley Place headquarters as the host venue within days of having taken up residence there. Since its establishment thirty-five years ago as a bank for the trade union movement, UTB has grown into a significant ethical bank, and the bank of choice for many social sector organisations. Its unstinting support for our social enterprise city initiative takes partnership and collaboration with the social enterprise sector to new levels, however.

Taking place on Social Enterprise Day, and timed to fall within Global Entrepreneurship Week, the keynote speakers at the launch included Margaret Willis the chief executive officer of Unity Trust Bank, Claire Dove, the government’s VCSE Crown Representative, Peter Holbrook CBE, chief executive of SEUK, and Sarah Crawley, chief executive of iSE and chair of the Birmingham Social Enterprise City steering group — and the unstoppable prime mover behind the social enterprise city initiative.

The event showcased the social value that social enterprises can create and many of the businesses exhibiting had prepared social value infographics to show this. You can view these yourself by downloading the zip file containing all of the infographics (please note that this is a file of 21 PDFs but they’re small and it downloads quickly).

Around 150 guests, including staff from fifty or sixty social enterprises, thronged Unity Trust’s elegant new space. Opening the event, Sarah emphasised that this wasn’t something for the few — it was for everyone who has been part of creating the decades-long  movement of social enterprises that Birmingham is now renowned for. 

Claire Dove said that being designated a social enterprise place was a great privilege, but that this also brought with it great responsibilities and she was delighted to see Birmingham rising to this challenge. She noted that Birmingham was the first social enterprise city she was aware in which the achievement of social value is given such a prominent place.

Peter Holbrook said that despite the political turbulence of the present time social enterprises were demonstrating their resilience by diversifying, finding new markets and new sources of revenue, and are now in the forefront of finding new and more inclusive economic models around the world. “Anyone who has an interest in creating shared economic growth and inclusive prosperity,” he said, “should be looking to the social enterprise movement.” 

Margaret Willis said it was an absolute privilege to be welcoming friends, partners, colleagues and customers to Unity Trust Bank’s new headquarters. “This,” she said, “is an illustration of our founding principles and the complete commitment we have as an ethical bank to working together with all of those who share a determination to create social change.” She too noted that in these uncertain and politically divided times the appetite for social change has never been greater. (It should also be said that Margaret was very funny — not something one often says about bankers, as I think she would acknowledge. Perhaps I am slow but her remark about bankers was new to me: “They say that a tragedy is a boat-load of bankers sinking; they say that a catastrophe is when it turns out that they can all swim.”)

Events like these are great for confirming a sense of belonging, of community, of being part of a shared endeavour. But in closing the proceedings Sarah emphasised that it is the things we do between meetings and outside events such as these that really matter.

“You don’t need to be told what you can do to support Birmingham Social Enterprise City,” she said. “It’s as much your idea as it is anyone’s and we can all play our part. Here’s some ideas. One of the biggest obstacles we face is that even now the public profile and understanding of social enterprise is not what it should be. So help raise awareness and understanding — promote the social enterprise message. That’s something everyone can do. Think about your social impact and how you can make this better known and better appreciated. Look at the infographics some of the enterprises here tonight have produced. We can help each other to improve our impact messages and social value reporting. And think about how you can buy differently — how you can buy for good by sourcing everything you can from social enterprises. Obviously, if they are Birmingham social enterprises, all the better, but let’s work together to help the sector grow — wherever it may be.”

See more about Birmingham Social Enterprise City on the iSE website.

Read all posts tagged Birmingham Social Enterprise City.

→ Find out more about SEUK’s social enterprise places initiative.

Birmingham social enterprise city — action plan.

Read the social value infographics prepared by 21 of the social enterprises that attended (zip file of PDFs).

A specimen social value infographic

Birmingham UK. Freelance research, evaluation and policy consultant specialising in social enterprise and the third sector. I maintain the BSSEC blog and website

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