Growing the social economy – the crucial role of networks

From relationships to collaborations to creating the conditions for innovation and positive change

We believe that for a social economy to flourish and shine even brighter, we need more collaboration and collective action – i.e. more network development and support.

We’re a group of six organisations: Exeter Co-Lab, Torbay Community Development Trust, POP+, Essence, Plymouth Social Enterprise Network and Local Spark Torbay. We formed our strong collaborative around a common purpose of growing a robust social economy across Devon (and beyond). Originally focussed on creating a healthy market for social investment, we quickly learned that the formal and informal networks that connect social economic actors creates the conditions for connection, collaboration, and innovations to emerge, and ultimately this creates the conditions for social investment. This is a system-based approach to catalysing the development of a resilient and robust social economy.

We have witnessed for many years, and particularly during the last six months, that collaboration is vital. Yet it does not emerge naturally; charities, social enterprises, grassroots organisations and other fellow travellers are time poor and operate on very tight margins. They often find it difficult to connect to others, to organise across boundaries of geography or interest and to campaign on wider issues. These and other actors often find themselves in silos, disconnected from information, new perspectives and, sometimes, unable to fully understand the common issues we collectively face. When networks and network weavers – the roles that each of us on our collaborative play – offer light touch, easy to engage, diverse, fluid and information-rich relationship, silo walls break down, learning becomes easy, new perspective become clear, and new possibilities are illuminated. 

This is where formal network organisations and network weavers can play an important role in creating the ground conditions for the social economy to know itself, connect and collaborate, grow and become more resilient.  Some of our shared activities include:

  • Networking: We connect individuals and organisations with similar social and ecological ambitions to one another, sometimes providing the key introductions that lead to new possibilities. As network conveners, we have greater visibility and network intelligence, allowing us to reach and create bridges between unconnected spaces, places, and people. This is fundamental for any convening, advocacy and brokering.
  • Convening and co-design: We support people to engage, to bring the context, to feel like equal partners and foster deep listening and observation to inform and shape solutions across sectors. Local businesses, academia, local government, citizens and more all need to be involved in the weaving of regenerative local economics. This convening capacity enables new connections, increased peer-to-peer learning, new collaborations, and innovations.
  • Advocacy and representation: We represent our members by having a direct relationship with those that don’t have the resource to make themselves heard by themselves. This way we are able to convey opportunities and needs of a diverse group of organisations and people to other parts of society that don’t have direct links into our communities.
  • Providing and/or supporting enterprise development: Networks – our formal and informal relationships – mobilise the knowhow for the business support and investment needed for social enterprise success, which drives sustainable development of the social economy. Networks are often a first point of contact for entrepreneurs and changemakers – those starting community projects, socially enterprising organisations, etc. 
  • Information and learning: Networks create the conditions for learning, capacity building, linking information, experts, institutions, toolkits – and crucially, unlocking the peer learning and support developed by network members themselves. Networks also play an important role in distributing news, updates and other information such as government support measures in times of crises. This significantly helps smaller organisations to keep up to date with relevant developments.

These activities are not always covered by one organisation but rather an ecosystem of network support. For example, one network support agency might focus on social enterprise, another on grassroots community organisations whilst yet another might focus on social entrepreneurship within Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic communities.

We need to value networks

Th time has come to understand and value the vital role that networks and network weavers play in creating the conditions for innovation and development of the social economy. We – as a society – need:

  • A new ‘social economy contract’ among the major financial and policy enablers of the social economy – the foundations, funding bodies and government policymakers.
  • A new understanding of how economic change happens ‘on the ground’ and the change dynamics that move through the medium of networks. Networks enable flow, connection, innovation, and change.
  • To recognise that the resultant value doesn’t just sit with those being connected: value is created for the statutory sector, for funders and social investors, communities and society.
  • Statutory sector partners, funders and social investors to work with us to create a future where a fairer, more sustainable economy is supported through a rich ecosystem of infrastructure and support.
  • A conversation with partners and stakeholders about how we create a healthy balance between long-term support, impact and accountability for networks.

Where network development and support is strong, the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector is strong. Where this works well the social economy flourishes.

Regenerate Devon Summit

Photo credit – Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Devon’s regeneration is in the hands of its communities?

The Covid response, Regenerate Devon Summit and recent analysis of social enterprise activity in Exeter and Rural Devon confirms the existence of a vibrant, innovative and disruptive social movement, actively developing and delivering solutions and services addressing a wide range of social issues and concerns for individual, family, and community wellbeing.

The story of this community power was very well demonstrated by the response to the very recent Regenerate Devon Summit. A 3-day virtual event hosted by the social enterprise networks of ESSENCE of Exeter, Plymouth Social Enterprise Network, and Local Torbay Spark. 3 days, 13 sessions, 30 speakers and 10 hours of innovation and co-creation from over 600 delegates ranging from individual social entrepreneurs and innovators, through to established social enterprise and local commercial businesses.

We perhaps should not be surprised by this. The Covid 19 national call to action produced 750,000 NHS volunteer registrations in less than 2 days, alongside a proliferation of volunteering start-ups to help vulnerable neighbours with shopping, collecting medicine and such like. There are nearly 3,500 local mutual aid groups registered on the Covid-19 Mutual Aid website and around two million people have joined local support networks on Facebook.

Whilst volunteering levels during this pandemic have been extra-ordinary, the response is in effect a reflection of a fact that we live in an extremely benevolent society. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations Almanac 2020 identifies £53.5 billion in donations and income going into more than 160,000 charity and voluntary sector organisations.

Carers UK in The State of Caring In 2019 recognised 8.8 million unpaid carers delivering health and social care savings of more than £130 billion every year, and Social Enterprise UK – Hidden Revolution report (2018) highlighted that not for profit social enterprise contributed over £60 billion to the UK economy, and employment for more than 2 million people.

An opportunity to establish a placed-based view of need and partnership

At the summit one of the innovations we had the pleasure of learning more about from the creator Kate Raworth was the Doughnut Economics framework for sustainable development and sharing the aspiration for this approach helping to re-frame economic and social challenges and development of solutions.

In this model, we learned that an economy is considered prosperous when all twelve social foundations are met without overshooting any of the nine ecological ceilings. This situation is described by the area between the two rings and represents the place of safe and sustainable state for communities and humanity.

Using this approach to map existing Exeter and Rural Devon social enterprise activity demonstrates very well the dynamic nature of social enterprise contribution to addressing social foundation need as well as the ecological challenges. Water supply is the only social foundation category not serviced by a ‘not for profit’.


  • This place-based approach to understanding community need and voluntary and social enterprise service activities creates the basis for a system stewardship opportunity, whereby:
    gaps in service provision can become better understood.
  • opportunities for existing providers of services to reach out and service new communities can be identified.
  • social entrepreneurs and innovators can be encouraged to develop new solutions.

This and more is needed because despite the public benevolence and combined efforts of charity, voluntary community, social enterprises, and public sector organisations a huge range of unmet need across a range of complex social issues remained. Notable concerns included rising poverty, increased mental health demand, and continued growth in the ageing population living with one or more long-term chronic conditions. Now, as has been widely reported, the expectation is that these and other challenges are set to get even bigger because of the pandemic.

Opportunity to capitalise on the emergence of new social norms
On a positive note and as the country emerges from social isolation, we are also seeing new and additional ways the entrepreneurial community spirit is rallying to respond to COVID-19, at a personal level, almost all citizens have willingly sacrificed private freedoms for public good. The crisis has brought neighbours and communities together to care for each other, and created social movements promoting ‘buy local’ and an emphasis toward better supporting local business and social enterprise.

At the same time concern for sustainability to be achieved within sensible ecological boundaries remains high. There is subsequently great potential for this change to persist beyond the pandemic, with entrepreneurial community spirit creating opportunity to mitigate some of the economic impacts of social isolation and reduced economic activity within communities.

Going forward the key to managing the additional impacts of COVID-19 is not in just the leveraging of these services to maximum effect, but in how they are supported and assisted to meet rising demand, connect and collaborate and able to avoid in the process becoming less effective or constrained through lack of access to additional resources and / or funding.

Despite the challenges, there is plenty to be optimistic about
Our community organisations are already proving their ability and capability to play a pivotal role in how local amenities and other services are managed, and how they can positively impact individuals, families and communities and their experience of life. Through these efforts we have the foundation to build a sustainable and more pro-active early intervention and preventative individual, family, and community wellbeing development approach.

ESSENCE, through utilisation of its social enterprise network and in partnership working with the charitable and voluntary sectors, is confident that an assured and robust local ecosystem can be established to build on this opportunity, and that the social enterprise business model is a perfect vehicle to achieve this in a socially accepting and sustainable way.

About the author – Paul White is a Director at ESSENCE of Exeter and CEO of eCulture Solutions, is a passionate exponent of social enterprise and the opportunity to leverage digital innovation and technology in the delivery of sustainable, social and public service transformation and change better addressing development of population wellbeing.

Survival in a New Normal World

The UK Chancellor has rolled out a titanic flotilla of financial life rafts, yet from the perspective of our own sinking ships, it appears that there are very few spaces for social enterprises and entrepreneurs. We are finding that many of our members simply do not fit into the mould of business to which the Government has (so far) put out their steadying hand. A look inside the world of three Exeter social enterprises and a proposition for survival in a ‘New Normal’ World. 

Read the whole article written by Amerie Rose, Director and project manager at ESSENCE of Exeter CIC:​ survival_in_a_new_normal_world – FULL VERSION with ERDF branding