Social Firms Conference

I'm just back from the 2009 Social Firms UK Conference. One highlight was a surprise presentation to its 'turbo-charged' Chief Executive Sally Reynolds, marking Social Firms UK's 10th Birthday. I wonder how many people (in addition to Sally and myself) have been to EVERY Social Firms UK Annual Conference (I even remember the geese!).

This year Simon Hebditch and I ran the 'Tinkering with Frankenstein' workshop as previewed in this blog. One aspect of the Conference that closely reflected the workshop/blog themes – and that some old Social Firm hands found a little disquieting - was the emergence of 'WISE' – Work Integration Social Enterprises – as a major focus. This is one of the effects of the recent broadening of the focus of Social Firms UK itself - beyond disabled people to anyone with 'a disadvantage in finding employment'. I was among those who welcomed this broader focus, on the grounds that ex-offenders, homeless people, substance abusers, etc, often present similar issues (in terms of employment and enterprise) to disabled people – and indeed such groups often suffer from learning disability, mental health or other problems that precipitated them into crime or drugs or homelessness in the first place.

However, a 'WISE' like Create – Community Recycling & Training – which was one of the presenters at the conference – is clearly a very different animal indeed from Social Firms as they were formerly understood. Create takes on long-term unemployed people – especially 18-24 year olds and ex offenders - for 3 months, during which they work on recycling 'white goods' and receive a range of support preparing them for permanent employment – and finding it for about 25% of them.

Create sees itself as a Social Firm not because of these temps/trainees, but because 60% of its permanent staff are ex-trainees. This is all good stuff - and Create is obviously a great social enterprise – but go forward 10 years when these employees have forgotten their youthful unemployment, criminal record, drug problem, etc – to when they no longer need a specially supportive workplace – and it is clear that this is a very different animal from our old idea of Social Firms, whose staff with disabilities or enduring mental ill health need pretty permanent support.

I still think broadening its focus was the right way for Social Firms UK to go, but there was disquiet at the Conference similar to that previously expressed by Adrian Ashton, and it brought home to me that we have to think harder than before about valuing - and communicating – the increasing diversity of Social Firm models.

Other points that emerged most strongly from the 'Tinkering With Frankenstein' workshop were:

  • The continuing big problem of the lack of 'specialist knowledge' among business advisors, and especially the lack of those who can vision the right business model for a particular group/trade/purpose. I have written elsewhere about the importance of business models for viable social enterprise – and especially the pretty exotic nature of many Social Firm business models (such as Create's 2 symbiotic businesses - recycling white goods and employment training/support - in the shell of a larger enterprise) and the workshop reinforced my view that we have many people who can do business planning but few that can help with the more important task of visioning the right business model. Moreover – we are hardly even conscious of this crucial gap.
  • The increasing importance of self-employment, especially for people with disabilities and long-term illness, and the need to bring organisations that create work for self-employed disabled/disadvantaged people into the Social Firms fold. (I subsequently discovered that Social Firms UK is in fact now considering this issue).
  • I put forward – as devil's advocate – the view that Social Firms were less successful for learning disabled people than other groups – but the learning disability specialists in the workshop roundly rejected this. Instead, they thought that prejudice rather than concrete support needs is still the biggest factor in unemployment among learning disabled people – we still have our own work cut out getting across the message that in the right job many learning disabled people are in fact more productive than other workers. Those present knew many examples of this – but they are sadly not widely disseminated (if you can help – get in touch).

Social Firms

As always Geof is good value presenting us all with interesting and challenging ideas to ensure we don’t get lazy or complacent in our thinking. There’s a few things I’d like to pick up on – in no particular order.

First it might sound like semantics but I see Create as a Social Firm that operates a Work Integration programme. All Social Firms are Work Integration Social Enterprises (WISEs) anyway, it’s just that the Social Firm’s primary focus is on job creation within the business (whilst many other WISES just focus on work preparation, training and/or job placement rather than job creation). Quite a few Social Firms do operate work preparation and integration programmes alongside their job creation. Is it really true that this could cause disquiet? Surely we should welcome this as another and valuable addition to the ways in which we can support people who are severely disadvantaged in gaining work towards becoming economically and socially included. We are all wedded to the aim of increasing employment for people who are the most marginalised in our society and we can’t afford to be insular. It’s a true truism that together we are stronger.

Interestingly the workshop I chaired at the conference in which we looked at the similarities/differences when tackling worklessness amongst different target groups decided that the similarities were very great. This was the first time we had looked at this since widening our focus and reinforces (if any is needed) the value of working in the wider arena.

Geof’s point about when is someone counted as severely disadvantaged and when not is a good one which we at Social Firms UK wrestle with. Of course not all those people who start work now will still be there in 10 years but it’s probably worth sharing with people how we currently approach the issue of ‘counting’ as a part of the process of mapping the Social Firm sector. .

Well we have a pragmatic approach. When counting employees we include in the severe disadvantaged group all those who came to the Social Firm as people who were in the target groups even if they no longer need the support at the time of mapping. We agreed this
1. If we don't, it distorts the figures and firms would not meet the 25% employment threshold required in Social Firms;
2. We recognise it is an inaccurate science and do the best we can acknowledging the inherent weaknesses;
3. Since we are encouraging stable workplaces where we want good staff to remain to help grow the enterprise and therefore create more jobs it would be wrong to encourage people to move on;
4. Even though people no longer need that support they may need it again at some future point (they may be 'in recovery').

On the subject of getting the right job for learning disabled people anyone listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4 about 8.45 this morning would have heard Thorkil Sonne of Specialisterne, a Danish Social Firm talking about using the special skills of people with autism to improve the quality of its software testing. Specialisterne, which employs 40 people with autism is soon to open an office in Glasgow and their approach is proof positive that when you fit the job to the person success is guaranteed.

The report on Thorkil

The report on Thorkil Sonne's Specialisterne was also on BBC1 'Breakfast' this morning - for more on the BBC's view take a look here.