Heart and head: The case for community micro-enterprise

Sian Lockwood, Community Catalysts

Sian Lockwood welcomes two new reports from Birmingham University and Think Local Act Personal. Together they start to evidence the benefits of community micro-enterprises.

The ‘heart’ case for community micro-enterprise

Community Catalysts people are passionate about and ambitious for community micro-enterprises that invest in the health and well-being of their locality. We have been working since 2007 to support their development and growth, and have seen over and over again the impact that they have on people’s lives – and on whole communities.

Alongside our development work we are the network organisation for community micro-enterprise and ventures, and have links to over 750 community entrepreneurs, each with a unique combination of skills, knowledge and experience, driven by different interests and passions and shaped to the needs of people in their community. Each with a different story.

Stories are an important way to convey the impact that community enterprise can have on people’s lives. They appeal to people’s hearts and open their minds and imagination to what is possible. But in the financially constrained world in which we operate winning hearts is not enough. Local authorities considering investment to support the development and growth of community enterprise need a hard-headed evidence based business case.

New reports make the ‘head’ case

We are delighted then with the two reports published recently – one by Birmingham University and the other by Think Local Act Personal or TLAP – which go some way to developing the ‘head’ case for community micro-enterprises with a focus on health and well-being.

The Birmingham University report Does Smaller mean Better? Evaluating Micro-Enterprises in Adult Social Care  is on a research project looking at the value and contribution of community micro-enterprise in contrast with larger more traditional care providers. It provides evidence that confirms conclusions drawn from our own work with community micro-enterprise over the last 8 years:

  • Community micro-providers offer more personalised support than larger providers, particularly in home-based care
  • People using community micro-enterprises were more likely to get help to do the things they valued and enjoyed, compared with people using larger services
  • Community micro-providers are better than larger providers at some kinds of innovation. They were more flexible than larger providers in the way care in the home was delivered (e.g. staying to have a meal with someone rather than simply preparing food and leaving)
  • Community micro-enterprises offered support in potentially marginalised communities, with some set up and run by people from those groups e.g. disabled people
  • Micro-providers offer better value for money than larger providers

Barriers facing community micro-enterprises

Despite all those benefits, researchers found that one of the biggest barriers facing community micro-enterprises was the ‘invisibility problem’ – reaching people who might be interested in using their services. This mirrors our findings in our project areas and through our network website Small Good Stuff .Nearly all the community micro-providers we link with report difficulties in getting referrals from local authorities and in getting information about their service out to people funded through personal budgets.

As the researcher confirms, the lack of referrals were because of local authority systems geared to larger and more traditional providers and to a risk-averse culture which favoured ‘doing what we have always done’. Researchers were told that councils favoured larger agencies providing traditional models of service, referred people to their own in-house trading companies or gave people alphabetical lists of services to contact, leading people to just call the first few on the list.

Community micro-entrepreneurs often offer support to people in imaginative and interesting ways, rejecting the more traditional forms of home care or day care and designing (often co-designing) new models and ways of doing things. This, their size and newness can mean they find it all but impossible to get on to local authority framework agreements and preferred provider lists. Few are able to become Care Quality Commission-registered, which can raise, usually unfounded, questions of risk and quality in the minds of commissioners as well as making them much less visible to the local authority.

These challenges means that local people trying to set up a community micro-enterprise with a focus health and wellbeing unaided enter a world of where barriers and confusion loom at every turn. UnLtd an excellent national charity which supports social entrepreneurs recently began a social care and health project and memorably commented that they felt they were ‘loosing fledgling entrepreneurs into a  maelstrom of negativity’.

The Birmingham University research was undertaken in 3 different areas of the country – all of them places that Community Catalysts has nurtured community-micro enterprise. When talking to researchers micro-providers were clear about the importance of the kind of dedicated start up and sector-specific support that Community Catalysts provides.

But this kind of support has a cost attached to it and needs to be funded even in these financially straightened times – meaning the ‘head’ case for investment is vital.

Market diversity

As important as the ‘head’ case for investment, is a clear government strategy for social care which values community enterprise and understands the importance of choice and control for people needing care and support.  We have that in the Care Act 2014 which, in Clause 5 (now tripping off my tongue!) sets out the requirement for the first time that local authorities promote market diversity. The second report published last week by TLAP and entitled Top Tips: Commissioning for Market Diversity forms part of the suite of guidance to local authorities on implementing the Care Act.

The guidance draws upon learning from targeted focus groups and a call for evidence. It reinforces the conclusions in the Birmingham University report about procurement barriers:

‘Over-complicated or inflexible procurement practice can unintentionally exclude small businesses and community organisations and preclude innovations in cross-organisational collaboration and new ways of working. A range of approaches to commissioning and contracting are required to promote a genuinely diverse market for care and support.’ 

It also highlights the benefits of community enterprise and the importance of nurturing this part of the local market:

Small-scale providers and micro-enterprises can form a vibrant and valuable part of local care markets through the close local connections they often have and by their ability to provide very bespoke support in response to individual requirements. However, commissioners may need to take a proactive stance to nurture and support this capacity since conventional commissioning approaches can inadvertently exclude or minimise their involvement’.

The ‘heart’ case is made over and over again through the real life stories of community micro-providers and in reports like those published last week. The ‘head’ case is building but needs strengthening in order to persuade the cash-strapped public sector to invest. But without investment community enterprise will wither and die in that ‘maelstrom of negativity’ identified by UnLtd.

Working together

Community Catalysts is working with academic partners like Birmingham University to build the case both for community micro-enterprise and for its support .We’re also working to try and reduce the barriers and support the local authority systems and culture change needed for innovation and enterprise to thrive. We can’t do this alone and are always seeking allies and partners – come and join us in the fight to ensure people who need care and support have real choice of home-grown local help to enable them live a full life, connected and contributing to their local community.

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