How social entrepreneurs are supporting communities through COVID-19

Tom Sheppard

Digital Manager

22nd January 2021



Quite a few organisations are sharing emerging insights and evidence about how social entrepreneurs are responding to COVID-19   

We thought it would be helpful to explore what the evidence is telling us about how social entrepreneurs are supporting communities to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and why they are able to do this well.  
We looked at a variety of sources, including our own data, and research published by Social Enterprise UK, Social Enterprise Scotland, Wales Cooperative Centre to draw these conclusions.

In this blog, we share the top 6 insights we have about the impact of social entrepreneurs in this time.

1. Social entrepreneurs are collaborating more, and as a result have been at the heart of joined-up community responses 

At the start of the pandemic, evidence suggested that social entrepreneurs were responding to the crisis in 4 key ways by pivoting, piloting, pausing and/or proceeding.  

Further evidence suggests that some SEs are also using an additional strategy; strengthening existing, or creating new, partnerships. This has allowed social entrepreneurs to harness opportunities to do more and/or to do things differently. A recent Social Enterprise UK survey found that only 4% aren’t actively engaged with other social enterprises at the moment. 

2. Social entrepreneurs are at the forefront of local responses to reducing isolation 

Before COVID-19, we knew that social entrepreneurs are a major force in fighting loneliness and reducing isolation. Demand for such services has since increased and many social entrepreneurs have continued to play this role throughout the pandemic in innovative ways, such as moving services and educational activities on-line, using other technology (e.g. WhatsApp) to ensure people remain connected, or doing door-to-door socially-distanced visits. The demand for such services is likely to continue as communities deal with ongoing restrictions and the long term effects of COVID-19.  

3. Many social entrepreneurs are not furloughing people, instead they are continuing to provide employment and are putting their social mission first 

Social entrepreneurs have played an integral role in combatting the unemployment crisis caused by the pandemic. In proportion to “traditional” businesses social enterprises hire more staff from groups furthest from the labour market.  

An estimated 35,000 social enterprises employ people who would find it difficult to gain employment if the social enterprise they worked for closed. Many social entrepreneurs have focussed on retaining employment throughout the pandemic rather than using the UK Government Furlough scheme, as a 20% drop in income would have significant ramifications for themselves and their families.  A recent study also suggests that a quarter of social entrepreneurs expect to take on new staff in the next three months. 

4. There are disparities in who has been able to access government funding and where additional funding has been available. More financial support is needed. 

During the crisis, social entrepreneurs have needed help with costs and overheads to avoid closing. However, financial support in the shape of the furlough scheme and/or grants and loans has not been available, appropriate, sufficient, or accessible for all social entrepreneurs.  

This is reportedly due to legal structures and other organisational properties that mean they have often slipped through the net for support. Additionally, there is some evidence of regional disparities in terms of how quickly funds and support to social entrepreneurs are being distributed. 

5. We don’t know much about social ventures that are closing, and there isn’t much support on how to do this well

There is a gap in the evidence about social entrepreneurs who are not making it through COVID-19 with their venture intact, or about social entrepreneurs who may have had to pause or close down specific activities.

This suggests social entrepreneurs may not feel safe disclosing challenges or talking about it for fear of judgement or reputational damage. We know from previous research that this can be difficult to talk about publicly and highlights the need to create an environment where they feel they can ask for help and seek support from others and their community. There is also anecdotal evidence that social entrepreneurs do not feel supported in ‘ending well’. More information on both these aspects would provide valuable insight and learning to facilitate good practice more effectively and provide a framework of difficult/failed case studies so people can learn from mistakes. 

6. Social entrepreneurs want to play a key role in creating a more sustainable society 

Social entrepreneurs are likely to be critical in supporting communities recover from the impacts COVID-19. Operating at the forefront of the crisis to address pressing social needs. Their ability to adapt to changing needs and innovate, as well as their emphasis on building networks and connecting people at the local level, means that they are seen as trusted partners and integral to resilience building in local communities.  

Their experience in leveraging resources, collaborating, knowledge sharing and advocacy means they have a role in moves to ‘Build Back Better’ and in developing a more sustainable inclusive society.  

Evidence suggests that social entrepreneurs don’t want to merely survive and go back to how it was before COVID-19, as it wasn’t an ideal situation for them to begin with. Rather they aim to ‘reset’ society and pave the way for a new era of a more inclusive, sustainable, equal, just, diverse, resilient and climate conscious society

Here are a few things that we commit to doing in response to these insights: 

  • We will continue to create spaces for peer support and see what more we can do to support collaboration  
  • We will explore how we can support social entrepreneurs to ‘end well’ and look at how we can facilitate and share learning about this (do check out our blog with some practical tips on what you can do when things don’t go as planned and our COVID-19 resources
  • Work with our partners to demonstrate the vital role that social entrepreneurs can play in the UK’s recovery and campaign on their behalf  
  • We are calling for government to make changes to the emergency finance schemes so it is easier and faster for social ventures to get necessary business loans. 

Download the learning paper for more details on these insights.

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