I am a proud advocate of the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector (VCSE), having worked and volunteered within the sector in many guises over the last 20 years. This has included regenerating ex-coalfields communities and operating a very ‘ground up’ approach to community development through within a Rural Community Council. Working as Lottery Officer, a VCSE lead for a Local Authority as the Community Strategy and Partnerships Manager, and more recently a Social Enterprise EV Car Club developer. In my own time volunteering as a trustee for a community foodbank, palliative care charity, a voluntary Director of a health and wellbeing CIC (Community Interest Company), and a chair of my local community association improving my own community, I have seen first-hand the importance, strength and diversity of the sector.
Recently I took on a new challenge as a ‘Social Enterprise Lead’ at ED/GE Innovation, working in the Tees Valley Business Challenge Programme. A new and innovative challenge approach in the North East, focussed in particular on the Tees Valley area, using Governmental Community Renewal Fund monies to deliver solutions, to complex issues across a wide range of sectors which all small and medium enterprises (SME’s) within the Tees Valley can respond to, known as the Tees Valley Business Challenge – TVBC.
It really is a challenge –to deliver a new type of innovation programme and develop new products and services, linking large businesses and SME’s within 6 months! But before I go too far down the path of the new challenge, I first want to focus on the Social Enterprise part of my role and the vital role this ‘sector’ brings to all aspects of society. The VCSE ‘sector’ affects real changes in communities at all levels and new innovative ways of delivering the Government’s Community Renewal Funds may bring a more fundamental approach, to developing sustainable Social Enterprises in the future. I have a real passion for tackling key societal issues and as with this programme, a ‘quick win’ could have been an easy option but why take the easy option? when you have the potential to make a real difference even within six months, that’s half a year after all!
The term VCSE sector is an all-encompassing term that attempts to categorise voluntary, community, charitable and social enterprises. Over the years, it has had many different titles, including ‘The Third Sector’, The ‘VCS - Voluntary and Community Sector’, the ‘Charitable Sector’ to name a few. In my opinion, it is hard to categorise, as the sector touches all areas of society and business. The key difference is, that organisations are either charitable and seen as not for profit, or when an organisation seeks to make profits, those are reinvested back into the organisation for social benefit thus making it a social enterprise. These Social Enterprises are value driven, independent organisations, which principally reinvest any surpluses made to further their social, environmental and or cultural aims and objectives.
VCSE organisations range in size, from small community groups delivering ‘knit and natter’ sessions in a local community centres, to billion pound organisations such as The Arts Council which is the UK’s number one charity (at the end of December 2021 it had an income of £1.4bn and 618 employees according to the Charity Commission).
The VCSE sector is fundamental to the delivery of services across the UK and the social, environmental, health and cultural benefits it brings. This was never more evident, than during the health crisis of 2020 where the VCSE sector was the backbone, to supporting communities across the country cope and survive during the pandemic. The sector is dynamic, entrepreneurial, and fast to respond to any given issue or crisis. Just take the current Ukrainian situation where the sector is responding quickly to arranging donations, and collections of essential items to be shipped over to support the refugees fleeing their homeland. But even in times of relative calm the sector identifies gaps in communities across the UK and develops responses to them in a rapid and commercial manner.
Infrastructure organisations across the UK support the VCSE sector to develop, improve, respond to challenges, innovate and have a voice. Within the North East VONNE ‘Voluntary Organisation Network North East’ works across the region and supports VCSE organisations and infrastructure bodies to :
Funding is, and always will be, the most challenging element of the sector and it is why more and more of the sector, are moving to socially trading organisations such as Social Enterprises, Community Interest Companies (CICs) and Co-operatives. This allows the organisations to ‘trade’ i.e. to sell products and/or services to make money, which is then reinvested within the organisations to continue their charitable objectives.
One of largest UK charities which evidences the essential balance between their charitable work and trading side of their business is St John Ambulance. Many will know St John Ambulance as the country’s leading charity for first aid, yet they do so much more. They are one of the largest youth training scheme providers in the UK, which is often a steppingstone for young people’s careers in the medical and healthcare professions. They were on the front line in the battle against Covid-19, mobilising a vast workforce (apparently the size of the Royal Air Force!) to support the vaccination role out. Yet, they are constantly reimagining what they do, to ensure that they are leading with social, cultural and environmental developments. Recently they have undergone a challenge thinking process, to identify key areas of business development and ensure that they remain viable as a charity. One of the key areas they have identified and are innovating within, is the area of mental health and employee wellbeing.
The Tees Valley Business Challenge – TVBC is using a design led approach, to understand complex challenges for large organisations and marrying those with SME’s who can respond to the challenge and bring new innovation, aka the Solution Developers! The programme is a short six month pilot, to deliver challenges across five key areas:
The programme had four key challenge areas when initially created (Healthcare, Digital, Manufacturing and Social Enterprise) with one ‘overarching’ challenge theme. As work got under way, across the four challenge areas to identify the focus, it soon became apparent that mental health and employee wellbeing was highlighted in each of the cluster networks and their potential challenge areas.
A small team of ‘connectors’ I.e. people like myself with an understanding of the various sectors worked with stakeholders and cluster networks to identify, understand and define the challenges. Then connect larger organisations who had a particular challenge in that area which they wanted to find a new solution to. Within the Social Enterprise sector, we worked with a whole range of organisations to understand what the challenges were with around ten challenges originally highlighted. We then worked with VONNE to scope and define the challenges in more detail, narrowing the challenge areas including:
When discussing the challenges with each of the cluster leads it became apparent that mental health and employee wellbeing had been discussed in all of the clusters in one form or another. Thus, our overarching challenge of wellbeing was created.
Discussions and ‘sense checking’ with other partners and the VCSE sector quickly led to discussions with St John Ambulance. St John Ambulance are a volunteer-led health and first aid charity – responding to communities and saving lives. Their internal innovation work on mental health and wellbeing was a reflected the gaps and needs identified through our own research with the VCSE partners locally.
Mental health has become a growing concern for workers and companies, since the start of the pandemic in 2020, and before. Although there were attempts made to develop solutions, little progress has been made regarding the replicability and scalability of solutions due to a lack of understanding and actions from employers.
Overall, people neglect the fact that there are factors about themselves outside of work which could impact their mental health at work. Nowadays, wellbeing has become a main factor for employee retention pushing industries to innovate and provide impactful solutions.
With growing awareness surrounding mental health in the workplace, it has become impossible for employers to ignore their responsibilities towards staff. The lack of regulatory guidance and structure around mental health in work spaces has created a gap that most companies are failing to bridge.
St John Ambulance and the Tees Valley Business Challenge Programme would like to get to a future state where:
We would like to see organisations within the Tess Valley area apply for a grant of up to £5,000 to research any new products, business models, and/or services which:
Will support employers to become more aware of the benefits of good mental health within the workplace to focus on prevention rather than the response to mental health incidents.
The organisations/ Solution Developers will then have the opportunity to apply for a further £45,000 to develop their ideas further and to develop new products, services which will support employers to focus on improving mental health and wellbeing working with St John Ambulance. This is a simple application process, starting with an Expression of Interest.
St John Ambulance, their history, and modern ways of working can without a doubt, bring changes to mental health and wellbeing for employees and I believe that the passion, creativity, dynamism, innovation and expertise of SME’s in the Tees Valley will bring a drive to make a difference.
Applications are invited for the first round funding until midday on Monday 7th March, so we don’t have long to wait to find out.
The ambition for the overarching challenge is to use the collective insight cross-industry to solve a challenge that provides value regardless of the companies sector.
However, with my passion for the VCSE sector, I hope that we will see applications from VCSE organisations to this challenge area to allow the VCSE to engage in more innovative programmes in the future, that do create real change, without the often ridiculous bureaucracy that comes with funding programmes, and maybe one day we will see less restrictive timescales too… one can live in hope!