The changing face of social enterprise — YMCA Birmingham

YMCA Birmingham’s Chris Bryant Centre, Erdington (Photo: Sam Bagnall)

If you were to ask people to name an important new player in the social enterprise sector, I’m not sure that YMCA Birmingham would necessarily be the first name that would come to mind. But this just shows how outdated our views about ‘charities’ sometimes are.

As part of a new plan for growth, income diversification and sustainability, social enterprise is now central to YMCA Birmingham’s business model — so much so, in fact, that five years ago the organisation appointed Laurence Chilver as director of its social enterprise portfolio.

“From our award-winning architect designed conferencing centre and community hub at Six Ways, Erdington — completed in 2015 — we now operate six social enterprises and almost 120 flats,” explains Laurence Chilver. “The accommodation includes 83 flats offering supported living for 16-25 year-olds, a smaller number of 2-bedroom flats for young lone parents, and 34 affordable flats at The Vineyard for people of all ages. Our social enterprises include a state-of-the-art conferencing centre for corporate and community events, Eden, a bright and airy coffee shop, a personal and professional development training department, and three nurseries — one in Erdington at the main YMCA building, one in Great Barr and one in Solihull.” 

YMCA Birmingham’s accommodation, its nurseries, its training and education service, its conference centre and the Eden coffee shop all generate revenue that is applied to YMCA’s services for young people.

Eden coffee shop

Emma Rhymes, YMCA Birmingham’s community engagement officer, now helps promote the organisation’s conferencing offer at the Chris Bryant Centre. She is a passionate advocate for this side of the business because she knows at first hand what it helps YMCA Birmingham achieve. “When you work for a charity, people sometimes think you don’t really know about the lives of the clients it exists to support,” Emma says, “but in my case that isn’t true. I began as a YMCA tenant, living in supported accommodation. Then I volunteered as a receptionist and then eventually applied for my role — and ended up getting the new conferencing centre ready to open.”

Emma believes the YMCA directors took “a leap of faith” in choosing her for the job. “There were others with much more experience in the conferencing sector than me,” she says. But I think she does herself a disservice. I think the directors saw her common sense, commitment and ability to deal with people, and recognised that she would become a powerful ambassador for the organisation.

There is a further synergy too between the enterprise offer and YMCA’s social impact. Social enterprise director Laurence Chilver explains: “You can help charities in more ways than just by donating to them. You can do business with them — and this means we can use our social enterprises to deliver even more community benefit. For example, our training department is accredited by the Chartered Institute of Housing, and it provides professional development courses for all sorts of social housing staff and organisations. But the surplus from this also means that we can provide employment support and personal development training for young people, for local jobseekers, and for lone parents wanting to get back into employment.”

Emma Rhymes gives another example: “We also encourage local service providers such as the NHS and other charities to use our venue facilities. Sometimes this means we can develop even more opportunities in partnership with others — having them deliver a periodic service from our building, for instance, or offering local community events.” Surplus from the conferencing centre is also used to help fund free events at the centre several times a year, aimed especially at local families and young people.

When YMCA directors were budgeting for conference centre equipment they were surprised when Emma asked them to include the cost of a bouncing castle. “They asked me what on earth we needed that for,” she says. “I told them it was so that we could offer weekend children’s birthday party bookings for local families.” The organisation was sceptical but children’s birthday parties are now one of the biggest sellers at the centre and it now plans to develop this aspect of the business even further, offering weddings and graduation parties — both markets that have already been tested and shown to have strong potential.

Targeting the business-to-business market

The organisation is especially keen to expand its conferencing offer to the corporate sector because it sees huge potential in this market.

“The biggest challenge is marketing the venue effectively to the corporate sector,” Emma says. “First of all you have to get them interested and so in the new year we’ll be focusing on promoting the centre’s offer to local businesses. If we can get them to take an initial look we know they’ll be impressed with the venue — it’s fresh and bright and the facilities are state-of-the-art. I’m confident that once businesses see what we offer and the professionalism of our services, they’ll be back.”

Social impact certificates

Emma also recognises that the corporate sector is increasingly aware of delivering social impact and creating social value, and she has a clever plan to capitalise on this.

“Businesses want to deliver social impact too,” she says, “whether as part of their corporate social  responsibility or because they want to be seen to be delivering social value when tendering for public sector contracts. We’re planning to give our frequent customers a social impact certificate every few months — it will spell out what their spend with us has helped achieve.It’s a way of saying thank you, but we also believe it will be useful to clients who want to demonstrate to their own stakeholders that they have a sense of social responsibility and use their spend to achieve social impact.”

Laurence Chilver agrees. “I think the social impact certificate idea genuinely is something a bit different,” he says. “We’re not aware of any other social enterprise doing this and I think it’s a terrific idea.”

How you can help

You too can do business with YMCA Birmingham and ensure that you buy for good. Meet your friends for coffee and cake or a light lunch at the Eden coffee shop; treat the kids to a birthday party complete with bouncing castle; encourage your place of work to use YMCA’s Chris Bryant Centre for its next event.

To find out more about YMCA Birmingham’s conferencing and events facilities send mail to Emma Rhymes or call her on 0121 478 4259 or 0771 474 1263.

YMCA Birmingham

YMCA Birmingham — accommodation

→ YMCA Birmingham — conference centre

YMCA Birmingham — nurseries

→ YMCA Birmingham — training & education

→ YMCA Birmingham — Eden Café

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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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