In times of uncertainty, can businesses and the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector work together to make meaningful change and support communities?

In spring this year, we launched the Tees Valley Business Volunteering Challenge with the aim of connecting large commercial organisations with voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSE) to develop innovative opportunities for Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to improve volunteering, engagement and VCSE development. Throughout the innovative Tees Valley Business Challenge programme, funded by Government Community Renewal funds, we worked with large and small businesses to create new challenge-led innovations using people-centred design. This work ventured into the areas of fuel poverty and affordable warmth, creating new ways of supporting employees’ mental health and wellbeing, reducing anxiety in hospitals through product redesign, transformational digital efficiencies, and decarbonising manufacturing.

What has the challenge led to so far?

The programme aimed to strengthen innovation maturity, build resilience for post covid recovery and unlock growth potential within the Tees Valley area. It will take time to understand the true value and impact that the programme has delivered considering the scope of ambition and the 6-9 month timeline allocated to these aims. What I can say is that I have had the pleasure of working with a number of large organisations including St John Ambulance, National Energy Action, Accenture, Newcastle Building Society and Womble Bond Dickinson to name just a few. I have also worked with small and medium sized organisations from sole traders to more established businesses who are at the forefront of new product and service development that are agile, responsive, eager to collaborate and respond to large organisations’ challenges. One particular business described the Tees Valley Business Challenge programme as having ‘catapulted’ their business forward and has paved the way for turning their ideas into reality.

What has also been apparent is that all of these organisations are dedicated to continually improving what they do, reviewing their ways of working and are open to finding new collaborations to make things happen. All are focussed on ‘people’ be that their teams, individuals, or the communities and organisations within which they work. This links very heavily to our focus at Edge of putting people at the heart of design and innovation. If we focus on real people and their needs we can support the design of products and services that meet those requirements and make a difference and in business terms, increasing profitability, productivity, sustainability and value. This all seems a little obvious however it is surprising how often the focus shifts from the people to the product or service , which can soon become irrelevant in our fast moving world.

How does this relate to the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector?

In the volunteering challenge we engaged 8 VCSE organisations of various shapes and sizes from the Tees Valley area: larger infrastructure organisations who support other smaller community groups, charities focussed on supporting young people in care, and individuals recovering from addiction to another enterprise offering cultural activities and sustainability opportunities in the area. The programme offered small grants to the VCSE organisations to fully engage within the challenge. We created a bespoke offering, working to review their needs, considering how they currently operate, how they would like to operate in the future and to contemplate the ‘anchors’ or ‘barriers’ that may be holding them back from achieving their preferred future realities.

This intensive but rewarding schedule led to an overload of post it notes, Miro boards and the Edge team resolutely collating the information and validating the key areas which are potentially slowing down progress for the VCSE’s moving forward. These include:

The majority of these areas will take significant work to change and adapt, so can we actually make a difference? Without wanting to sound like a social media gif or meme, a wise man (Nelson Mandela) once said:

“We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make the difference”

So who am I to argue? But in all honesty, I truly believe that we can affect change. Sometimes it is by one small action, one good deed, a chance connection or a friendly smile, but we never really understand the impact that our behaviour and actions can have on others. This is one of the issues highlighted, how can we effectively evidence the social value and impact of the sector when the sectors impact is so wide, varied and yet so individual? Social change requires fundamental policy shift, political will, investment, time and the right people to make a difference.

I have worked and volunteered in the VCSE sector for over half of my life time and I can honestly say that I have seen a difference being made first hand, which is why I am so passionate about the sector. Sometimes this has been through that chance connection, meeting the right person, being in the right place at the right time, and other times it has taken years of persistence, perseverance and resilience to get that breakthrough. For me, the biggest impact happens when we work together, collaborate and focus on the things that we can do rather than the things we can’t.

The dynamic group of VCSE’s, that I have had the pleasure of working with over the last few months, already make a difference in communities across the Tees Valley and will further make a difference through the connections they are fostering with some of the largest businesses in the North East and beyond. They are working together to consider how many of the barriers, obstacles and anchors can be removed and turned into opportunities. This will no doubt create change, social impact, and value in our communities and to individuals across the area. This will come in many different forms, from supporting food supply to those most in need, warm safe places to go in the deepest of winter and in the longer term transformational changes that I hope make some of these current services superfluous. In times of turbulence, change and adversity we need to be positive, work together, create opportunities, be focussed on making a difference and in doing so overcome adversity and achieve a better future together.

What are the next steps if you want to know more?

See how things are progressing and find out more by joining our online session where the findings of the Tees Valley Volunteering Challenge will be presented. Hear from us, the voluntary sector organisations and the large businesses who have been engaged in the process on the outcomes to date, and the next steps for the programme to create new ways of working for the future.
On Friday 30th September at 10am online, click here to register Volunteering challenge findings presentation.

For more details of the Tees Valley Business Challenge, please check out our website.

Thanks for reading, Susan.