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Pandemic sparks rise in social enterprise start-ups in North East.

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a wave of people launching businesses with a social purpose.

The coronavirus pandemic has reached into many parts of society and caused millions of people – some voluntarily, but many not – to embark upon new careers.

The challenges the pandemic has thrown up has also reinforced a sense of community among many, including some of those launching new ventures in the region.

And according to the North East Business and Innovation Centre – a centre in Sunderland which supports start-ups and helps small firms to develop – the pandemic has inspired a new wave of social entrepreneurs who are developing business ideas to support their Covid-stricken communities.

The BIC has reported a rise in demand for the business advice services of its social enterprise experts since the outbreak of the virus, with inquiries coming from people looking to start-up new businesses aimed at making a difference to local people and places, as well as from existing enterprises with plans to expand everything from counselling services to food co-operatives.

Kevin Marquis, the North East BIC’s social enterprise manager, said more people are realising that the social enterprise model – businesses that trade with the aim of tackling social problems and improving communities – is a good fit for our troubled timed.

He said: “As with all crises, the pandemic has brought out the best in a lot of people and has inspired them to take collective action to consider how they can best support others.

People are thinking more about their social objectives and their own accountability and responsibility to their communities. They’re turning to social enterprise as this is the best model to support those objectives.

Private businesses too are looking to convert to this model because their social conscience has been pricked and they recognise that this route opens up income and diversification opportunities that will make them more sustainable.”

The latest State of the Sector report by Social Enterprise UK found that there were around 100,000 social enterprises in the UK with a combined income of £60bn. Companies House records show there are almost 1,000 in the North East, almost three-quarters of which have been registered in the last five years.

The new wave of social enterprises that has sprung from the pandemic has been welcomed, but the sector also needs help to get individual organisations through the crisis, according to Andrew O’Brien from Social Enterprise UK.

He said: “It is incredibly hard to predict what it is going to happen at the moment, but what we know for certain is that social enterprises are going to be needed at every point in our journey. Now in the middle of this crisis, social enterprises are stepping up to the plate and providing support to their communities and living their values.

Once the crisis has passed, we will need social enterprises working in our economy to ensure that the people who have been worst affected are supported and that we rebuild our economy in a way that helps people and planet. The climate emergency and growing social inequality are not going away due to Covid-19. If anything, they may get worse as governments focus on propping up the status quo.

Our message is, therefore, a simple one. The British Government must not ignore the social enterprise sector.

We’ve made so much progress in recent years to grow this sector and make our economy a better one for all our communities. We cannot allow Covid-19 to knock us off course.”

Support for a number of social enterprises in the North East has come from the North East Small Loan Fund, part of the wider European-backed North East Fund established in 2018 with the aim of backing 600 companies over five years.

The North East LEP has also backed social enterprises and voluntary groups, with chief executive Helen Golightly saying that “we recognise the central role that voluntary, community and social enterprise-led projects have to play as we work together as a region to build a stronger post-pandemic North East.


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A post shared by Big River Bakery (@bigriverne)

One social enterprise that has thrived in recent times is Newcastle’s Big River Bakery, originally launched eight years ago by Andy Haddon while he was working as a senior researcher at Newcastle University’s Sustainability Institute, and which recently moved into a bakery, cafe and training space at Shieldfield.

As well as making baked goods for its local community and providing employment and training opportunities, the bakery has constructed its supply chain around an ability to give back to society and create communities that can support and sustain themselves. This includes outreach education projects, and partnering with other local businesses and charities.

Mr Haddon said: “We can help support businesses who are committed to delivering true social impact but are constrained in doing this themselves due to the nature of their sector.

Such organisations can partner with us through investment in our social enterprise, and because we are much closer to the communities that need the most help in our society, we are able to deliver that benefit on their behalf.

In so doing, we can help them to secure public sector contracts, by helping them to build a better and more equal society.”

The above article by Graeme Whitfield first published on in Jan, 2021.