Gerry Higgins On Building A Global Social Enterprise Ecosystem That's Positively Changing The World


Gerry is Chief Executive Officer at CEIS (Community Enterprise in Scotland) and a Director at the Social Value Lab, Ready for Business LLP, Social Enterprise UK and Social Enterprise World Forum CIC.

In 2017 Gerry was awarded an honorary fellowship and inducted into the Social Enterprise UK Hall of Fame in recognition of his work in building a global social enterprise movement. He brings over 30 years’ experience in developing and running social enterprises and works with government agencies and third sector partners in the UK and internationally to develop supportive social enterprise ecosystems.

His current work includes oversight of major programmes, to develop public sector markets for social enterprises, to build the capacity of social enterprises to create sustainable and effective businesses and to introduce new forms of social investment to support business start-up and growth.

As CEO of the CEIS Group, Gerry leads a team of over 50 people to deliver business support, employability services, project consultancy, social research, social investment, business finance and event management. Gerry joined CEIS in 2006 having previously worked across the UK as the founding Chief Executive of Social Firms UK for 7 years. During this period Gerry was a founding director of the Social Enterprise UK and worked with the DTI to draft and introduce the first UK Social Enterprise Strategy in 2002. Gerry is interested in social change and committed to social justice and has spent over 30 years working in the social enterprise sector to assist individuals, communities and enterprises to fulfil their potential.


Gerry discusses the history of social enterprise over the last 30 years, sharing valuable insights into growing the sector. Gerry provides strong advice for social entrepreneurs, talks about shifts in policy and what to expect for this year's Social Enterprise World Forum in Edinburgh.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - As one of the pioneers of the social enterprise sector, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in this space? [3:08]

[Gerry Higgins] - Back in the 1980s I was working in the U.K. in disability services, looking at establishing enterprises and leading employment ventures to create better futures for people with disabilities, and became aware, through conversations with colleagues in Northern Ireland, and Italy, Germany, that there was the beginnings of a social enterprise movement.

My first recollection of using the social enterprise term was 1988.

Which makes me first of all, very old. In Italy, it was called social cooperatives. In Germany it was called integration firms. My first recollection of talking about the same thing, using similar terminology, comes from the late 80s.

My focus then was ensuring that people with disabilities had better choice and better options and better futures. We had a lot in common with others working on similar initiatives in other countries, and that's when we began sharing information and best practises, encouraging each other and beginning dialogue with policy makers in the late 1980s.

At that time, things like dialogue with policy makers; that was a decade of kicking down the door, with the door being shut, with nobody being particularly interested.

That's why I can reflect now on the quite rich policy environment that exists in many countries around the world, and reflect on the change that has happened over the last 30 years.


Well it's certainly been a really interesting journey. Gerry, as CEO of Community Enterprise in Scotland, what sort of projects are you involved with, and how does the organisation support the social enterprise ecosystem? [5:02]

CEIS is probably quite an unusual organisation in that we work directly with social enterprises, many hundreds a year, improving their capacity to deliver their mission, whether that's serving communities or individuals, and their social and environmental value created by the work that we're doing. We've got the biggest team of business advisors supporting social enterprises in Scotland. We work on a national contract where we're leading a consortium involving nine other organisations, so ten of us in total.

If you're a social enterprise in Scotland and you need to do a new business plan, feasibility study, an ideation session, or marketing strategy, you can get free to access business support for four to six days by an experienced social enterprise business advisor, so a qualified business advisor who works, in our case, exclusively with social enterprises. That's funded through a government contract that we secured. We're on the third iteration of the contract just now. We secure that against private sector competition and with our consortium, which has held together now for over six years to deliver that programme. That's one of our main projects, and it gives us the front line of involvement in social enterprise, understanding of the issues, the pressures, the changes, the changing dynamics. That's one of our main areas.

We also work with public sector agencies on procurement and commissioning and helping them to get better at their third sector and social enterprise supply chains. We look at opportunities where, instead of contracts going out in large bundles to large commercial organisations, there might be opportunities to create more local value and more social value by putting it out in a different way, and by targeting social enterprises that are effectively working on government aims, supporting people who have disadvantages and challenges. As an organisation, we primarily win our business through tendering for contracts like the two that I mentioned, and we supplement that with our own income generation through things like event management and work on our range of non-social enterprise related contracts.

Part of our organisation does micro finance as well. That's a bit distinct, but again, it gives us a great handle on the drivers in the Scottish economy when we're meeting social enterprises and other small businesses and sole traders who are in areas of disadvantage and who have been declined their start up funding or their working capital by banks. We step in to assist. That's some of the stuff that CEIS is involved in, and supporting the social enterprise ecosystem. I guess that gives us a currency that we can speak to our partners in government not as an external consultant, but as an agency that's working directly with front line organisations and we're able to bring that experience to the policy making table.

We've been involved with our government over quite a few years now on co-producing national strategy, on co-producing a vision for the social enterprise sector. I think our work with front line social enterprises gives us the skills and experience we need to be at the policy table as well.


Most certainly. There's certainly some really supportive services there. In your work as Founding Director of Social Enterprise U.K., you worked with the DTI to draft and introduce the first U.K. social enterprise strategy in 2002. How have you seen the social enterprise sector transform since drafting that strategy, and where do you see it heading, Gerry? [9:04]

I should clarify. There was about 20 people working with the DTI. At the time the entire board of what's now Social Enterprise U.K., which was the Social Enterprise Coalition then, and I was certainly one of the folk responsible for that.

For me that was a breakthrough moment. It was the first social enterprise strategy that we had seen. It set out an ambition for the sector. It set out priorities. I could see that in the years that followed, actually having a strategy is huge. It legitimises government participation. That trickles down to regional and local governments.

The existence of a national strategy can be a really powerful accelerator.

Some of that depends on what accompanies the strategy.

We can see today in Scotland that there's a ten year strategy for social enterprise. There's a three year action plan. Pretty well everything that happens is related to the priorities of the strategy and the actions set out in the action plan. We've gone from the first U.K. strategy, which had some broad priorities, which were delivered on in the decade that followed, to now a pretty coherent strategy that doesn't just sit within the third sector division, which is our Scottish government department that handles social enterprise, but is truly cross department.

In our context in Scotland and the U.K., there isn't a single senior official in a government department that isn't aware of social enterprise.

It is cross cutting in areas like health and social care and even true to international division, where we're speaking about an international strategy for the country also embracing social enterprise, and our current trade and investment strategy in Scotland does actually reference the work that social enterprises are doing in this area.

There's been quite a transformation. I mentioned a decade of kicking down the door. The door is very firmly opened, and we're in and out as required.

For front line social enterprises, it means that there's support available, like the business support initiative that I mentioned. There's greater levels of access to social investment of various types and sizes that means that instead of a tender being put in the bin because the organisation tendering is a company limited by guarantee of charitable status, it's now more likely to be short listed because it's a social enterprise, rather than ignored.

There's a whole range of ways that over a number of decades, that social enterprises have been advantaged by the work that's happened in the policy environment.


Fantastic. From that, I believe there are many lessons that other nations can learn from the U.K. government's approach to social enterprise. What do you think those key lessons would be? [12:24]

This is a hard one, because I never view our position as one where we should preach or teach.

It's really all about sharing experiences with others and in doing so, recognising that we gain hugely when we're on a similar trajectory with other organisations.

I'll give you an example. With the head of our third sector division and equalities in Scotland, I went to Canada last year and we did a two way exchange with Canadian government, including ministers, officials and social enterprise sector leaders in the policy environment. There's now a federal initiative in Canada boosting the social enterprise sector looking at strategy and policy. We have a very close collaboration and we're working on similar themes like procurement and social investment.

I guess one of the things that has emerged in recent years is the concept of a social enterprise ecosystem.

One of our key learning points in Scotland is that if the sector works with government to promote and support social enterprise, if the focus is narrow then it really is ineffectual.

To do it through establishing a social innovation fund is not as effective as having a decent ecosystem, because your social innovation fund will be certainly used more effectively if it's accompanied by some capacity building or business support.

If organisations are having their capacity supported and they are looking to expand and create more social impact, then that's probably assisted if there's a procurement initiative that helps with their access to contracts, or if new social entrepreneurs coming into the space are supported with professional advice and sign posted to where to go for support.

If it's a narrow range of initiatives, there's almost certainly going to be lots of wastage, whereas we see countries now, Canada, Taiwan, and others that we're working with, that are using the ecosystem terminology, and recognise that the best thing is to work broadly to make sure that people coming into the sector are supported, that organisations already in there are also supported to grow, and that the policy takes account of the various inter-related economics between policy and practise.

There's some really interesting takeaways there. As Founder and Director of the Social Enterprise World Forum, which this year will be held in Edinburgh, it's going to be a really exciting opportunity for participants to have a look at what's happening within that Scottish ecosystem and have some fantastic conversations. Gerry, what are you most looking forward to about the forum and what can participants expect? [15:26]

Participants can expect a most amazing week, where the forum proper will be two and a half days. We'll have study visits, an academic symposium, a rural symposium, an environmental symposium which will be action focused on ensuring organisations collaborate before, during and after the week of the forum; looking to move from knowing a lot of others around the world who are working in similar space, to actually establishing quite a few practical initiatives and collaborations using technology that will continue to have value after the forum. We're looking to establish a vision for social enterprise for the next decade. It's our 10th anniversary, so we'll reflect a little on what's happened, but also we'll work with participants around the world to look at what should our ambitions be for social enterprise for ten years' time.

The world is dealing with big economic issues. We've seen a huge increase in interest in social enterprise, much of that from people switching from other sectors, much of it from young people who decide that they want a career with purpose.

We have a bit of a challenge in social enterprise, stepping up and meeting those expectations. I don't think it's effective to do that if we're not coordinated on a vision and some priorities. I'd like to be able to articulate those much more clearly after the forum than we can do just now.

We're also going to recognise, during the forum, that it's not all sweetness and light. It's not all homogenous. It's not brilliant everywhere. We're deliberately constructing sessions which will allow people to embrace differences, which will embrace conflict, which will recognise that in some countries and continents you can't have social enterprises that have non-profit distributing structures. If you do, they're prevented from trading. In other countries there's tax efficient non-profit distributing legal structures that makes it easy to be a non-profit and a social enterprise and tax efficient.

Photo credit: Peanut Productions

Photo credit: Peanut Productions

As Founder and Director of the Social Enterprise World Forum, which this year will be held in Edinburgh, it's going to be a really exciting opportunity for participants to have a look at what's happening within that Scottish ecosystem and have some fantastic conversations. Gerry, what are you most looking forward to about the forum and what can participants expect? [15:26 - continued]

We've never arrived at a homogenous definition for social enterprise globally because we're dealing with different economic systems and we're just going to not avoid that, but just recognise it and deal with some of the issues and challenges that social enterprises and policy makers face.

We're also going to look at the opportunity to use this forum to make a breakthrough in the awareness of social enterprise in the U.K. and globally.

Some people describe it as a best kept secret, although awareness of social enterprise has risen steadily over recent years. Many folks outside of the movement globally are still not quite sure or completely unaware of it.

Our programme will feature some sessions and some speakers and some activities that we believe will get some mainstream media interested because it's concurrent with a lot of global turmoil.

The old solutions are being replaced by, in many cases, a more collaborative economy and greater community participation and ownership.

We have some big ambitions for the forum this year, and it's going to work for people at all levels. If you're a social enterprise leader just growing and expanding, as well as social enterprise practitioners who want to come for professional development reasons because there will be a professional development track running throughout. We hope that we'll have something for everybody.


It sounds like it's going to be a really exciting event. Gerry, having worked with hundreds of different social entrepreneurs, what do you believe are the fundamental ingredients of successful social entrepreneurs? [19:38]

What would I know?

The successful social entrepreneurs that we see, wherever they are in the world, first of all start out with a passion for social change. Those that go and take that passion and convert it into something that produces immense social value, have the skills to network with others and to influence others to bring a team with them.

Also to recognise when it's time to step away. Many social entrepreneurs will be very creative. They'll be innovators. Their skill sets are in the creation of the social enterprise, and in some cases, they move on to their next big idea having created an infrastructure which can continue to grow and develop and deal with the operational excellence that enterprises need once they're up and established.

In terms of my own skill set, I often reflect on what I'm good at and what I'm not good at. I think others do as well, and they recognise that in some cases, it is the innovation and the creativity, and don't stay on as the founder and don't stay on to run it, because operationally that's not the skill set.

Move on and take a step to the next big thing. I think for many people, just recognising where their skills are and when it's time to move on, and what's a sustainable infrastructure to leave behind. That's one of the key things.

We've got some amazing social enterprise leaders around the world. One of the things that we're doing this year at the forum is we're deliberately putting the best social enterprise leaders who have the potential to inspire and motivate and change behaviours on main stage where we don't need to go to the commercial sector or others for inspiration. We've got incredible talent within the social enterprise sector. Some business founders who have made huge strides in some of the social value and social change they've created.

You've mentioned some really really great insights there on successful social entrepreneurs. Are there any common reasons that you see social enterprises fail, Gerry? [22:10]

There are. As part of our business support service that I've mentioned previously that's Scotland-wide, we also have a business recovery service.

Our greatest wish in that business recovery service is that people would come to us sooner than they do.

Very often we get a call when there's two months cash left in the bank, or worse, and the options available then are not as comprehensive as they might be if somebody recognises that we are about to lose, or we just lost a contract, and it's going to hit us six to nine months down the road. Let's talk now about how to restructure or change the organisation to make sure that the organisation itself isn't imperilled.

We've often reflected on whether the stuff that's around social enterprise is partly to blame. There's lots of awards ceremonies. There's been a number of instances where social enterprises in one month have received awards for their social impact, and the following months they've closed because of their cash flow. It can be hard, I guess, to have pretty constant positive feedback from a whole range of people within and outside of your business about the work that you're doing, how valuable it is for communities, and then to admit to yourself and to share with your board and stakeholders and colleagues and to engage external experts, saying, "This is great," and the underlying fundamentals are not sound. At this point we need assistance to address that.

I would say that for me, that's one of the frustrations, that many social enterprises don't seek that assistance early enough, and it's a combination of organisational and individual pride and assistance in doing that. Therefore we see some crashes.

There's some very sad and often high profile cases of closure that could actually have been averted if there was more mature discussion earlier. That, for me, stands out, rather than sort of individual issues and particular businesses not grasping the winds of change in a particular sector, because all of the other reasons are simply individual circumstances related to either macro or micro economy, or leadership issues or challenges of operation issues or systems issues.

You've mentioned cash flow in there. Talking a little bit about investment, how do you think social enterprises might best approach getting investment if that's needed in order to scale their impact? [25:03]

We have a very cautious approach to this. I'm aware that you spoke to Alastair Davis at Social Investment Scotland. They're one of the agencies that has put a very significant amount of resources by way of loan-finance out to social enterprises who wish to scale.

When we work with organisations, we encourage them to consider the equalities that they want to achieve and work on preparing professionally for investment, just recognising that many have emerged from traditional third sector, where the resource was often grant funded resource, and that there's a completely different set of drivers when you're presenting a case for social investment.

We've often run courses on assisting organisations to become investment ready, just recognising that there's a fundamental difference in presenting a case for social investment of whatever type.

We're fortunate in the U.K. that there's a reasonable supply of social investment.

We encourage organisations to take professional advice and to recognise there's a difference between what they might have done in the past, which is a lot of subjective and maybe case study stuff. There's a real importance in having really rock solid financials, as well as having... In some cases it's a culture change for the organisation.

The leadership team and the board of directors need to be happy that going into a commercial finance environment is absolutely the right thing to do for the organisation. Sometimes that requires work as a senior team, to make sure that the issues, the direction, the consequences and the opportunities are equally understood, so that people can take that step into a social investment world, which, if it goes wrong, can leave you with debt that you're obliged to repay, and can be a real struggle for organisations.

Photo credit: Peanut Productions

Photo credit: Peanut Productions

Gerry, you are surrounded by a range of really exciting and inspiring social enterprises. What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which you believe are creating some fantastic positive social change? [27:30]

This is where I wish I'd had a couple of weeks to do some preparation and thinking about this, because literally there are many. I'm going to mention one that people will see in Scotland if they come to us in September, which is Homes for Good, which is an example of a social enterprise leader, who, after a decade of leading an organisation working with young people, stepped away to leave that leadership to others, to establish a brave new venture, recognising that in Scotland, we have a real problem with the service people who are on low incomes get from private landlords.

Very often, the interaction and the treatment of individuals who have income support for instance, where social security is going to be paying for all or some of the rent, we have a real challenge with that. Susan Aktemel, the founder of Homes for Good, a number of years ago stepped out of her previous role and set up the first social enterprise letting agency that treats people with dignity. It has the first ever tenancy support officer looking at the support challenges of tenants, including everything from well being to mental health, to make sure that people have the support they need to stay in their property, to remain healthy, to be socially included. It's light years away from the service that people usually get from private landlords.

This company has expanded and has been ambitious in the social investment market, has secured many millions of pounds of investment to expand the property portfolio. It rents houses that are owned by others, private landlords, and acts as the letting agent. It's also purchased and refurbished houses and lets them themselves. It's bringing a vision for recognising that as a society we have a problem, and coming up with the business model that would address the problem, stepping away from a comfortable leadership role and going into, "I have no idea where my salary's going to come from next month," into pitching to hard assed social investors down in London, and securing the investment package and taking that forward.

You know, we're fortunate in Scotland that there are a wide range of initiatives and social enterprises that are in that space, as there are across the U.K., with some outstanding practise. It's not just here. It's happening all over the world. One of the advantages of, and exciting things for us with going forward this year, is we're going to be able to showcase a lot of these and I'm certain that will go on to inspire and motivate others.

Yeah, I'm certain as well. That's an inspiring initiative there Gerry. To finish off, which books would you recommend to our listeners? [30:54]

I really wanted to body serve this question because my work life is 60 hours a week typically, doing stuff that I have to do and doing stuff that I really really enjoy. My reading, other than holiday periods, where I often read sporting biographies; rugby is my passion, so right now I'm reading a book by Paul O'Connell, the Irish rugby captain. Actually, I do a whole lot of stuff on podcasts rather than reading. I listen to Pod Save America, Lovett or Leave it, and a whole range of human interest podcasts that fill my day, as well as reading political journals. My morning starts by reading Huffington Post and Politico and the Guardian.

I'm not going to compete. I've listened to the other podcasts and I've seen some of the very sound recommendations from others, and I'm just going to say I'm not even going to try and compete with that, because that's not me at this particular moment in time.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast


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