Community Catalysts are a social enterprise and community interest company that help to nurture small community enterprises, groups and initiatives that care for or support people in their local areas. They also support Local Authorities to help them create the right conditions for a diverse local marketplace to flourish. In Part 2 of this interview, Jill Wighton and Chris Clarke from Community Catalysts share with us why Local Authorities should support micro-enterprises and give better information to people searching for services.
As Local Authorities serve as a hub for communities, it seems that it would be quite important that they are involved with the marketplace’s development. You’ve been working in Worcestershire for a while; has the Local Authority engaged with you on the project?
Jill: I think they’re a major player. I think if you can get a good relationship with the Council, any community micro-enterprise project will be more successful; there’s absolutely no two ways about it. In Worcestershire, we’ve had someone to drive it through and it’s been the same person, so we’ve had consistency within the Council, which, nowadays, given all the changes in local government, can be rare. Worcestershire Council played a major part in our project because they wanted a more diverse and vibrant local marketplace. They could see what place local enterprise could play and put in the resources to make that happen, and as a result Worcestershire now has 78 enterprises operating. In order to get the most out of the project like this, Council’s need to realise that it’s not just about small enterprises. It’s also about job creation, volunteering opportunities and people’s wellbeing; it’s absolutely massive and Worcestershire Council realised that from the very start.
Chris: It’s been really good to have people from Worcestershire County Council as strong members of our local project steering group
Jill: I went to another Council a few months ago and suggested they offer training courses to micro-enterprises and they couldn’t understand why they would give courses for free. Micro-enterprises often can’t afford to pay for training and this can stifle their development. We’ve been lucky in Worcestershire, as the council has offered over 56 training courses to local enterprises as part of this project.
And do you think that Councils, generally, have a good idea about their local area and what’s needed to help community-based enterprises to develop and thrive?
Jill: This is a bit of mixed bag – some Councils like Worcestershire have a good handle on the issues facing micro-enterprises within the health or care sector but others much less so. It’s really difficult as a little business, especially now, as the market is changing, and gaining public sector contracts isn’t always an option. Small care enterprises often have to market their services directly to self-funders, otherwise they’re just not going to be sustainable, and how do you find self-funders when you’re a little enterprise or community venture?
Chris: In the past, it’s perhaps changing a little with the Care Act, self-funders often didn’t ask for advice on where to get the help they needed. If they did ask they would often be told that they were not eligible for state funded care or support and given very little additional information. Many people in that situation ask neighbours and friends for advice. They don’t go anywhere else or knock on other doors to find that information. In order to address this issue, one micro-enterprise we work with has been really active with trying to bring the community in, such as holding events for families at weekends, and now all the people in that neighbourhood know about them and know they’re there. That particular enterprise is now quite good at getting some publicity, but originally they weren’t as strong. We helped them to rethink their strategy, to think about all the different people they might market to and to formulate an individual message to each group. But our advice always has to be tailored to the individual. If I asked half the enterprises to write that kind of strategy, they’d run out the door. What you can do for some, you can’t do for others.
Thinking about calls I get from people outside of Worcestershire, they say their Councils aren’t doing anything like Worcestershire and ask if we can help them.
We know that the challenges can be different in more rural areas from urbanised areas. How do you think geography affects both Local Authority services? And what does it mean for local people?
Jill: I think rural areas have got their own strengths but also some distinct challenges.
Chris: The first rural place I visited in Worcestershire was a place called Peopleton. Local people had taken over the village shop because the Post Office was shutting down. I managed to speak to the Vicar’s wife and learned that they have a village rota of people who go round and support people in the village who need it. For instance, if someone has just come out of hospital, the villagers schedule someone to go and visit or stay with them or to drop off meals off. It was a really good example of a rural community coming together and fits so well with the development of small community enterprises and ventures
Jill: Transport is often a massive issue in rural areas, increasing the time it takes to get from one place to another. I went somewhere a few months ago and spoke to a man who was picked up in the morning to go to a day centre at 8.30am and didn’t arrive until 11.30am. This was because the area he lived in was very rural and the established services were based in central but distant towns... In addition to transport challenges, our catalyst in that area says it is particularly difficult for people to receive continued care when they come out of hospital – going home in a rural area and finding the right home care or home help. If it’s not there, what do you do?
The Local Authority want to make use of the smaller enterprises to help local people – one example of this being directory-style websites where people can find their own care – but funding has always been difficult, perhaps even more so in recent years. Grants are harder to apply for and there are more people trying to apply. What do you see happening with the funding for micro-enterprises in the future?
Chris: Some of the discussions we have with small enterprise leaders is around how they can secure the income they need, about how they diversify and the other things they could be doing. Some enterprises need little or no income and run their venture on a shoestring. For others it is about looking at income streams. Some small enterprises gain income directly from customers in return for services or support – they might need help to think about how best to attract those customers. For some who rely quite heavily on grant or charitable funding, it’s about how they don’t spend all their time trying to raise money but perhaps hire someone to do it, who can then be paid by some of the money they raise. For some, there is an opportunity to gain income from trading on online shops or similar. They have to be flexible because we can’t change the fact that funding is tight and there are a lot more people fighting for the same pots of money. We have some people who are skilled at gaining work and doing bids and have trustees who are used to making the bids and saying things in the right way. Sometimes it’s just about connecting people so they can get tips from each other.
Based on the challenges we mentioned earlier and the clear need for ongoing, local community-based services, how could Local Authorities better support people to create and run micro-enterprises?
Chris: Thinking about all the calls I get from people outside of Worcestershire who are thinking of setting up a small care or health venture, they say their Councils aren’t doing anything like Worcestershire and ask if we can help them. Sometimes the level of insurance that Councils expect people to hold and the number of policies they require isn’t appropriate or even possible for community micro-enterprises. These become a non-negotiable set of hoops that all Providers have to jump through in order to gain a place on an e-marketplace or approved list or to gain funding. Of course, all providers must have policies and procedures in place to govern what they deliver, but Councils often set the bar too high. The result is that small enterprises can’t get onto the platform or list and they don’t get any customers.
Jill: I don’t think some Councils are creative enough; they don’t see what’s out there. Social workers and advisers have got a list of people they know and the services they deliver, and it’s easier just to use these, even if they don’t totally meet a person’s needs, than to open up the marketplace. I think people could be given a lot more information to make better decisions. There are a lot of good people in Councils, and often it’s the systems that stop them from doing the job they’d like to do.
Chris: They know they need more Provider options and they get more, but then sometimes struggle to use them because they’re not sure of this or they’re not sure of that and it might all go wrong… So they stick to the ones that they have. Even when there are safeguarding issues with the Providers they have, they find it hard to think differently and to widen their marketplace… for things to really change, I think they need to get out of that habit.