Building entrepreneurial skills

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Business Link Norfolk - Building entrepreneurial skills (BEST)

Social enterprises commonly drive growth in parts of the local economy, yet across the UK few enjoy the same level of business support offered to more conventional companies by mainstream advisory bodies.

At the same time, social enterprises are frequently overlooked by local public sector procurement managers as key suppliers of high quality goods or services.

Building Entreprenerial Skills (BEST) was a three-year development programme to support social enterprises in Norfolk. It set out to create an identity for the social enterprise sector and to create access to appropriate business support for new and existing social enterprises.

It aimed both to upgrade the entrepreneurial skills of managers and to develop a thriving practitioner network for cascading this learning.

BEST also sought to facilitate the development of localised supply chains and so-called 'inter-trading' between local social enterprises to help improve their income and long term sustainability.

"Nearbuyou" is the first website of its kind in the UK dedicated to support social enterprise trading. It's a lot more than a business directory. Members can have a web page but public and private sector organisations can also post tenders for social enterprises to bid for. To support local inter-trading the site also has a "community area" where users can create supply chain networks to maximise the business potential of the social economy. Linked to this, BEST held a regional social enterprise trade fair in October 2003 and hope to repeat this every two years.

Survey research showed that in 2001 over 250 social enterprises in Norfolk employed over 1,800 people and 4,600 volunteers to provide a wide range of goods and services that contribute over £300 million to the local economy.

Yet until 2001, many of these organisations had received no formal business support at all and only limited help from other social businesses. "We knew that to succeed BEST needed to establish a strong network of social enterprises within which individuals and organisations could meet - for dialogue or training - to share the innovation and good practice which is their hallmark;' says project manager Sally Kelly.

The project works partly to support social enterprise start¬ups - working on the supply side. For example, Karen Flynn, a disabled, unemployed single parent of two, took a series of courses under the programme. She then produced a business plan for a furniture recycling scheme, to be set up with support from the New Deal for Communities in one of its project areas on the outskirts of Norwich. The project is now up and running with Ms Flynn fully employed as project director.

BEST also works with public sector procurement specialists to raise awareness of how social enterprises offer quality services - the demand side.

Mark Bishop, the economic development officer for South Norfolk District Council, attended a BEST programme called "Who Cuts Your Grass" to gain more insight into how he could better integrate local social and economic development processes through his work.

He soon went on to help a "recycle and reuse" group get started in South Norfolk, helped develop a number of local Food Groups and has made sure that every officer in the council with procurement responsibilities now has full details about of the "Nearbuyou" website.

"We knew that to succeed, BEST needed to establish a strong network of social enterprises within which individuals and organisations could meet."