WEETU

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WEETU is a women's training, employment and enteprise unit based in Norwich, in the Eastern Region of the UK. Its Phoenix Fund project was a peer group microcredit project called Full Circle which focused on women and was based in Norwich but also served rural areas of Norfolk. Women are recruited to the programme, go through a training programme in enterprise and towards the end of this are invited to form into groups of five – the peer group. This group then meets autonomously and reviews the business plans of each of the members. When they are happy with a proposal they put it forward to WEETU for a loan.

Contents

Summary of key findings

WEETU utilises a genuinely innovative approach. Like the East End Microcredit Consortium or EEMC they have successfully adapted the peer group model developed by the Grameen bank in Bangladesh and made it work in a Western setting.

Much of the development work for Full Circle had been put in place before PDF funding was obtained. PDF has allowed the project to be sustained and to be rolled out to new groups and communities in Norwich and Norfolk. It has also enabled the production of high quality documentation on the group lending approach that has been designed to be sold.

There are important differences between their approach and that used by the EEMC – in particular the groups are not coached after formation but left to their own devices. Secondly, WEETU has a more middle class clientele than that of EEMC. Although the target group is not very deprived many of the clients have experienced life-shattering problems.

WEETU peer groups provide ongoing support (even after five years in some cases).

Because most of the support is carried out through the group it appears that the approach is scaleable. Unit costs appear to have declined as the project has developed and the work of the unit increasingly focuses on the group formation stage.

WEETU has successfully sold the model to other places including for use in Cultural Industries in Liverpool. For a variety of reasons this was not successfully implemented. A promising pilot for cultural industries is being run out of the National Theatre. The development of a franchise model for marketing the approach to other regions is part of their successful Building on the Best project in the new round of Phoenix funding.

The peer group selection process is a fraught moment for many of the women. Rather like being the last to be chosen in a game of netball. Groups do not necessarily form on a rational basis and vary considerably in their success. But the group process generates considerable energy and motivation to succeed.

Women in the groups vary enormously in their ability and experience. The group often provides a supportive environment that helps the weaker members. Some stronger members felt that they were ‘giving’ all the time.

Peer groups are not for everyone. Dominant personalities can overpower a group. Some groups fracture because people move on. Women often move because their partners get a new job elsewhere.

For many women self employment is a useful stage to go through in re-accessing the labour market. But a significant proportion will go either into full time employment or study after a period of self employment. This is a successful outcome but will not necessarily lead to long term increases in the numbers of women that are entrepreneurs.

There are increasing numbers of women with professional backgrounds for example in education and the health service that have dropped out due to stress or work overload and choose self-employment as a route back into work.

Assessment

This is an impressive project. Its promoters really know what they are doing and are professional at doing it. The training programme and then group selection and support is very mature, well developed and documented.

WEETU had been working on an NDC estate in Norwich but had less success in coaxing entrepreneurs. Having said this many of the women had been through life challenging periods and were returning to work as a result (domestic violence, divorce etc).

Policy context

Women suffer a wide range of well documented problems in the labour market (gender discrimination, glass ceilings, role stereotyping, equal pay). These include access to finance which WEETU are attempting to deal with through the full circle model.

How Full Circle works

Full-Circle is a micro-credit scheme for women operating in the Norfolk area. It is structured to recognise that some women require continuing help and assistance developing their business ideas. Consequently it offers a package that includes long-term support, training, access to finance, and help with childcare and travel costs. The training process allows women to test out their business ideas, and to gain confidence and enterprise skills as they launch their new businesses. WEETU runs nine Full-Circle packages annually – with each package lasting eleven weeks.

Each course programme is based on the concept of “lending circles” and it is these circles that underpin the way the packages are delivered. Each programme comprises one or more circles, each involving between four and six women who are all seeking to start a business. The circles meet through the duration of the programme but then continue and sustain as a peer support group, sometimes for some years afterwards, as the women take their businesses forward. The circles therefore offer mutual support for their members – support that can take a number of forms: practical, emotional and business.

The circles also control access to the loan aspects of the programme. If a circle member wishes to apply for a WEETU loan then the circle group decides if the individual business plan holds enough potential for success. And, although the application for a loan will go forward to a loan committee, this is only to check that it has been examined appropriately by the circle concerned. Only a circle can refuse a loan – and only to one of its own members. This loan aspect is critical to the success of the project. Women generally, and especially where they are returning to work or have no credit history, experience major difficulties gaining loans from traditional sources.

WEETU’s Full Circle Programme has proved to be an extremely popular and effective business development tool in the areas of Norfolk where it operates – although it is not a cheap scheme to operate and requires significant inputs of subsidy. Consequently the project has recently received a further two years funding under the Phoenix Fund to examine how it could become more self-sustaining in the longer-term.

The key features of the project are that:

  • It is a micro-credit scheme open only for women, seeking to establish their own businesses.
  • It is structured to recognise that some women require continuing help and assistance developing their business ideas. Consequently it offers a package that includes long-term support, training, access to finance, and help with childcare and travel costs.
  • Each course programme is based on the concept of “lending circles” and it is these circles that underpin the way the packages are delivered. Each programme comprises one or more circles, each involving between four and six women who are all seeking to start a business. The circles meet through the duration of the programme but then continue and sustain as a peer support group, sometimes for some years afterwards, as the women take their businesses forward. The circles therefore offer mutual support for their members – support that can take a number of forms: practical, emotional and business.
  • The Full-circle programme as a whole includes a two stage process: an eleven week long training process and a peer mentoring and support circle that continues beyond the life of the course programme.
  • The circles also control access to the loan aspects of the programme. If a circle member wishes to apply for a WEETU loan then the circle group decides if the individual business plan holds enough potential for success. And, although the application for a loan will go forward to a loan committee, this is only to check that it has been examined appropriately by the circle concerned. Only a circle can refuse a loan – and only to one of its own members.
  • This loan aspect is critical to the success of the project. Women generally, and especially where they are returning to work or have no credit history, experience major difficulties gaining loans from traditional sources.

WEETU’s Full Circle Programme has proved to be an extremely popular and effective business development tool in the areas of Norfolk where it operates – although it is not a cheap scheme to operate and requires significant inputs of subsidy. Consequently the project has recently received a further two years funding under the Phoenix Fund to examine how it could become more self-sustaining in the longer-term.

Objectives

WEETU’s Full Circle Project defines its current objectives as being “a micro credit programme designed to support women's enterprise in Norfolk by providing appropriate training, ongoing peer support through lending circles and access to finance”. Originally focussed on women wishing to start their own businesses and develop their new business ideas, the project has adapted and changed the approach to its operations over the period of the Phoenix grant in the following ways:

  • General: an additional dedicated programme of activity in the New Deal area of Norwich for mixed gender group; helping Childminders set up in business has been added as a developmental project, funded from elsewhere, but using the existing Full Circle structure to access loans.
  • Training: ICT training has been developed on a 1:1 basis according to need; A one week bespoke pre enterprise training programme (Is Enterprise for Me?) has been developed to work with targeted groups (sector specific or geographical) or groups who cannot commit to a 10-week programme
  • Peer support: A Full Circle listing directory has been prepared to encourage communication and trade between businesses; a Chat Zone has been developed to encourage virtual communication; and Circle follow up days have been established to ensure ongoing support.
  • Access to Finance: research has been carried out into the financial needs of the client group. The findings of this will inform our next Phoenix DF bid.
  • Licensing: the Full Circle model has been developed as a licenced package (Full Credit) for sale to local, regional and national partners to encourage microcredit peer lending as a model of good practice and to encourage the development of enterprise nationally. To date WEETU has sold 3 licences to Merseyside, Lewisham and Stevenage.

In addition, WEETU made the following detailed comments reflecting upon how the project’s operations have evolved in response both to the organisation’s own experiences and the requirements of the women seeking to establish new businesses.

“The basic format and structure of the programme has not changed significantly over the years. However, individual elements have been refined with experience and adjusted according to client needs and in response to client evaluation. For example, in order to strengthen the peer support system through the lending circles, we have reviewed our circle formation day to include skills mapping and shifted the emphasis toward team building. As new circles are formed and client numbers grow, this has put pressure on the delivery team to continue to provide an effective service. We have therefore focussed our support to the circles in the early stages of formation. This encourages the circles to be more independent of WEETU and reinforces peer support as a sustainable element of the programme. We have also developed an email newsletter as a means of keeping in touch with the growing client group. In order to reach women who could not commit to a 6 week schedule for the pre enterprise training we have developed a one week, standalone, fast track course. We have taken the programme to new areas e.g Great Yarmouth. In order to improve the quality of the business plans being submitted to the loan committee, we have revised and reviewed the Business Skills training and placed greater emphasis on financial literacy and cashflow. We now provide more information on business plans and have formalised our relationship with business libraries to facilitate market research. In order to increase the level and quality of applications to the loan fund we have provided more one to one assistance and advice through the Loans Officer. Take up of the group IT training was not good. In response to this we have developed bespoke one to one training with businesses in their own homes. This has proved to be more relevant to client needs and has increased take up. We have developed a partnership with Norfolk and Waveney Enterprise Services who now deliver Business Skills training in Gt Yarmouth. This is currently being evaluated.” - Jan Hicks

WEETU scaled up its ambitions for Full Circle in response to demand from the client group and with reference to ongoing evaluation. It also developed in response to new funding opportunities.

For Full Credit: where there has been a demand to develop the scheme on a national basis and promote good practice.

Inputs and financing

The project received Phoenix Development Funds totalling £509,186. This was one of a number of sources of funds: other funding sources included the European Social Fund ESF, the East of England Development Agency and the Phoenix Community Development Finance Initiative. The total budget for the Phoenix Fund project is unclear because it was run within a larger programme of activities, but the annual budget for the project between January and December 2002 was £378,389. Spending on staffing comprised the major expenditure item of the project.

The importance of the staff-related expenditure can be seen in the expenditure profile for the project in the twelve months between January and December 2002. This was as follows:

- Annual expenditure: £378,389
- Paid staff days: 1,902
- Salary-related expenditure (including a number of freelance and subcontractors): £229,277
- The Day Rate expenditure for paid staff: £120.54
- Volunteer labour: nil

Innovation

The real innovation in WEETU is the development and adaptation of the Peer group support model of micro lending which is only operated by a few projects in Europe (Norwegian people’s aid with immigrants and refugees, a trial by ADIE and East End Micro credit consortium). WEETU has developed a comprehensive manual.

Targeting the benefits

The main work of the project focuses on direct advice and support for women wishing to start new businesses. WEETU provided the following estimates of the demand for its services in Norfolk, where the project works in the main:

  • there are 190,000 women within its target group. This figure is from the Office of National Statistics and is the total number of women of working age in Norfolk
  • of these, 20,000 (10.5%) might be interested in WEETU's services. This figure is based on the numbers of working women in Norfolk not in employment
  • marketing and publicity has reached 6,000 of these women
  • of these 6,000, 2,500 women have become clients of WEETU. This figure is based on the WEETU Full Circle databases, Business Link referrals etc.

These figures suggest that at present, WEETU is reaching about one-third of its potential client base across Norfolk.

The project identifies the following mechanisms as most important for reaching clients:

  • talking with local people
  • meeting and working with community-based organisations
  • word of mouth referrals.

The project identified the most important measures of success that it would apply to the project to be:

  • to explore the possibility of enterprise as a positive career choice
  • to develop business ideas
  • to understand the practicalities of setting up and running a business or social enterprise
  • to start-up new enterprises

Growing existing businesses and personal development were also cited as important success criteria – although not as important as those above.

The project identified both of the following as important aspects of the assistance that it provides to individual clients:

  • finding other people to collaborate with
  • gaining confidence

Finally, the project seeks in its objectives to offer significant opportunities for women. Almost all of the beneficiaries are women, and amongst these number a high proportion (68%) are long-term unemployed. Women living in rural neighbourhoods also make up over a quarter of the participants, and mental health issues also affect a quarter of the women involved. However, participation in the project from individuals from ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities, and individuals who are ex-offenders, or prisoners, or refugees, was reported at a minimal level.

WEETU reported the total numbers of women who have participated in Full Circle’s activities to date. The total number of women participating on the programme is 2,063. Of this number 429 have started a business, 304 have continued trading for more than 12 months and 18 have expanded their businesses significantly and created additional employment.

Although the monitoring returns suggest high numbers of long term unemployed the evidence from the case study visit was that WEETU was mostly reaching women that were ‘middle class’ and a high proportion with degrees. This hunch was confirmed by focus group meetings with clients, one of whom had worked with a wide range of client cohorts because she had targeted them for her business. Many of these women are returning to work after children or after some other life cycle issue. For example as a result of stress or marital breakdown.

It was also apparent from focus group interviews that self-employment is often seen as a staging post back into part or full time regular employment. The enterprise work that WEETU does seems to be effective at helping to reintegrate women into the labour market. But only a few will continue as entrepreneurs.

WEETU had supported one remarkable woman, Candy Sheridan, who runs the Worm forgives the plough a small café/restaurant and bygones shop in Stalham in the Broads area. It is difficult to argue that Full Circle was a great success for Candy because she was too much for her group. But she has received valuable support through the project. Candy is aiming to transform her village of Stalham by working with local people to change the way people think about food, the environment, democracy and life in general. Her restaurant is the sort of place where there is no menu but you ask for what is available. Sheridan focuses on local food and has been fighting a campaign against Tesco, which has set up a superstore in Sheringham. Her dream is to set up a large wholefood warehouse in the village selling locally sourced food. PR came away with a strong feeling that if every community had a Candy Sheridan the world might be a different place.

Sustainability and mainstreaming best practices

The project has been awarded more Phoenix Development Fund money through the Building on the Best programme. That said, WEETU does not believe that it is more financially independent as a result of this new funding. However, the project does appear to believe that it has developed a more sustainable forward strategy as a result of the following features: an improved capacity to deliver; broader and deeper partnership working; and the exploitation of the intellectual capital of the model through franchising and the like.

In particular, participation in the Phoenix Development Fund has increased the organisational capacity within WEETU through them having more skilled staff, a better understanding of the issues and stronger links with disadvantaged groups and communities. The importance of the organisation’s own growth and development is emphasised by the comments that follow from WEETU. When asked “does your organisation have more capacity to deliver business support services to disadvantaged areas or under-represented groups as a result of the PDF project” WEETU responded:

“With six years experience of delivering the programme in Norfolk and with constant review and evaluation of the programme we feel that our capacity to deliver a specialist programme for women has significantly increased over the years. In addition to that we now have the capacity to promote our knowledge beyond the immediate locality and encourage others through lessons learnt. It has given us the opportunity to constantly improve and refine the Full Circle programme to make it more relevant to the client group. We have learnt to raise the profile of the programme and promote it nationally and internationally as a model of good practice. We have established methods to evaluate its success - both economically and socially. We have developed new partnerships at a local, regional and national level to develop new programme elements more fully (targetting new groups - childminders, New Deal for Communities area of Norwich) and to integrate the programme more fully as part of mainstream provision (through Business Link for Norfolk, Childminding Matters, other enterprise agencies). We have also developed a national Partnership Accelerating Women's Enterprise supported through ESF EQUAL to start an innovative mini-loan programme in partnership with Childminding Matters in Norfolk. We have also developed our capacity for earning income through sales of products and services - such as the Full Circle manual, individual elements of the programme such as the pre enterprise training, and consultancy services.”

Similarly acceptance into the Building on the Best Programme is with the clear objective that the organisation explores models for sustainable working. This round, unlike the previous project, does require match monies and this has been applied for and obtained from the Business Link, New Deal for Communities, and the European Regional Development Funds. This has reinforced the development of the new partnerships identified in the comments above.

However it is clear from WEETU’s approach and comments, sustainability in the context of WEETU’s ongoing programme of work will continue to require significant amounts of public monies. Therefore either sub-contracting, or some sort of franchise arrangements, or the adoption of WEETU’s programme by mainstream business support agencies, is WEETU’s key to sustainability. There is evidence available that mainstreaming activities of this nature are taking place and the Round Two project will test this.

Case studies

Case study One: Margaret is a widow in her mid fifties and did the training 2 years ago. When she came on the course, her appearance was neglected, she was isolated and her confidence levels were very low. She had a good business idea, but it was in a specialised niche area. Afraid to apply for benefits, she was subsisting on a very low income. Following training, she joined a lending circle and with some encouragement, had a good haircut, went to London and obtained a substantial order. She has had two loans from Full Circle, the business is running successfully, and was recently named in a Norfolk newspaper in the top 100 British businesses. She is transformed and also has a new relationship.

Case-study Two: Annie, a single mum, did the Full Circle training in 1999.Her original business idea was a holistic massage and she took out a small loan to support this. When the opportunity came to buy an existing organic vegetable round, she took out a second loan of £2000 to buy the business and a van. She maintained this business for two more years. The chance came to buy an established whole-food outlet. She took on a third Full Circle loan along with a business partner in her circle. Just as they opened, her business partner suffered a stroke. Annie took a short break in her loan repayments whilst she found a new partner. They are aiming to re-launch the shop with a new look in the latter half of 2003. She has been a reliable borrower and has coped with some really difficult situations.

Case-study Three: Angela is a single mum, who because of health problems, wanted to run an environmentally friendly cleaning service. She started the programme in September 2001, having previously run a business in London with no training or support. Her confidence was low, as her first experience was negative. Her only income was maintenance from her former husband. After joining a circle, Angela took out a loan of £1000 to launch her business. She now has two vans and employs four people. The business is growing, and she is expanding to develop her own range of environmentally friendly cleaning products. She feels very positive about the support she has had from WEETU, and has been a generous role model for other women on the programme.