Social Enterprise in York: how do we build a high impact network?

Social Enterprise in York: how do we build a high impact network?


Following a recent project we did with York St John University, I consider some of the next steps and wonder what would need to happen to truly embed social enterprise into our city….

The social enterprise sector is currently fragmented. It doesn’t know what it is. It’s made up of fiercely passionate and dedicated individuals giving their all to their particular cause. Most of the time these guys work in isolation. Many burn out. Some go back to employment for security.

As humans we need to feel part of something bigger. As professionals we grow and develop through our successes, failures, reflections, interactions, inspirations, peer recognition and support. There is no single space (virtual or physical) in York where this growth can take place, and no single body that has stepped forward as the leader in this field.

Social justice cannot be solved in a few months, it is a generational investment requiring a bigger strategic vision that addresses whole systems change across multiple sectors. With a growing social enterprise sector following covid, and a public empathy towards ethical enterprise, the timing is perfect for somebody to step forward this year.

What do we need from a co-ordinator?

Attracting resources

A co-ordinator must be able to attract resources into the social enterprise sector. This could include:

  • being lead bidder for large funding pots that we, as smaller enterprises could access as seed funding for new initiatives,
  • creating and facilitating mentoring and buddying schemes to upskill sector leaders
  • championing and supporting the design and delivery of new products and services.

Facilitating networks

We need a hub to the sector’s spokes. This includes:

  • Unification of the fragmented sector – who’s out there, what do we do, and what’s a shared vision we can all sign up to?
  • Facilitating collaboration – the sum of all our parts can have a huge impact across the city, instead of the current piecemeal or competitive approach.

Building capacity

The sector is relatively good at survival, but to thrive capacity must be built in its leaders. This could come from various sources, such as university placements, knowledge exchange relationships, mentoring, coaching, networking, collaboration and professional development opportunities.

Lobbying and representing

Our voice as a sector is pretty quiet. The charity and business sectors command far more attention from the decision makers and power structures of our city. This is in part through a lack of understanding of what we are and how much impact we have. Because we don’t rely on funding and grants, perhaps we don’t shout about ourselves and celebrate our successes loudly enough? But it’s also, in my opinion, down to the fragmentation and lack of leadership which results in no unified, credible voice.

Trends and opportunities

The sector is very flexible, agile and responsive. If it had a trusted ‘early warning system’ for trends and opportunities, it could position itself to respond to need. This could come through a seat at the power tables in York and further afield.

Physical space

York is crying out for genuine incubator space for social impact organisations. Social Vision’s Tribe York model was designed by and for social entrepreneurs. Sadly paused due to covid, we had our finger on the pulse of what the sector wants and needs, and could adapt accordingly. From the price point, to the level of support, to making connections and even reconfiguring the physical space. Our Tribe Talks were hugely successful, and fully booked each time.

Who could host this?

There are numerous organisations and bodies across the city who could facilitate such a network.

  • York St John University have a great physical location in the city and a commitment to social justice through their Institute and Social Enterprise through their Gold Mark.
  • University of York have the Phase One incubator space, and strong links with local business communities. Yet their geographical isolation and lack of relationship with local communities could be barriers?
  • York CVS plays this exact role for the charity sector, and with a little extra commitment to, and understanding of the social enterprise sector it could easily become a good, central body. But how do they shift their thinking to champion and support profit making businesses – a position that often directly contradicts the charitable sector?
  • The Federation of Small Businesses and Chamber of Commerce are two bodies that focus on local businesses. They both have the resources, experience, networks and influence to play a huge supporting role in the growth of social enterprise in the city. Their current, and future, members will need to become more ethically conscious to continue to retain and attract their target audiences. Could they be persuaded to think outside the box and make a strong strategic play that will benefit their membership going forward?
  • Make it York and the York BID are two local organisations (along with City of York Council) who could, and should have a vested interest in the growth, evolution and success of the social enterprise sector. That they don’t, probably says a lot about the lack of visibility of the sector, as mentioned earlier. A thriving social enterprise sector could be a phenomenal asset to economic recovery and growth, attracting new businesses to the city, tackling social issues, making York a better and more equitable place to live. Would they commit the resources to backing up their familiar rhetoric with action?
  • Social Vision – as a social enterprise ourselves, we understand the needs and frustrations of the sector, and certainly have the space, connections and experience to facilitate a physical hub. But we don’t have the organisational capacity or finances of those above, so this position would need resourcing – it’s probably a full time post. So how could it be funded in a sustainable way that has maximum impact?
  • Or could a yet to be discovered, or acknowledged here, player enter the fray? What would they need to consider? How would they become rooted, connected and resourced? Would the local social enterprise sector accept them? And what would they need to demonstrate / deliver for that acceptance?

Whilst writing this blog, it’s become apparent that this needs to be some kind of a membership body, which is why I’ve leaned towards existing membership bodies such as CVS and FSB. Also, in curating this list, it seems clear (to me at least) that this is going to have to be a collaboration. Existing membership bodies are focussed, rightly so, on their current beneficiaries. So how can the case be made to create a mutually beneficial model that supports the city’s social enterprises?


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