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Age Concern: Revolutionising Social Enterprise

Shirley Goode, chief executive at Age Concern Birmingham, says their new social enterprise concept is set to revolutionise fundraising in the recession


What is a social enterprise?
A mission-driven organisation that uses market-based strategies to achieve a social and/or environmental purpose

Since Jamie Oliver launched the first Fifteen restaurant in 2002, interest in the UK’s social enterprise sector has grown steadily. Fifteen, now a chain of restaurants giving employment to out-of-work young people, is both a socially conscious and commercially viable organisation and its success has played a significant part in increasing public interest in the sector. In the decade since then, people have become more aware of the ethical implications of the products they buy, and as a result, businesses have also had to understand that sustainability and social values are essential to their own success.

With the help of entrepreneurs working in the UK’s most deprived communities to tackle the root causes of deprivation, the social enterprise sector is out-pacing and out-innovating mainstream businesses. In fact, last year’s State of Social Enterprise Survey revealed that, despite the difficult economic climate, the sector is in growth. And amid cuts to public services and concern for how society can continue to care for its more vulnerable members, social enterprise may provide the answer to the funding gap.

Age Concern Birmingham has been affected by the recession in two main ways. First, the amount of elderly and vulnerable people needing support has increased. Older people, particularly those on the breadline, are finding it harder to make ends meet and some are running up huge debts. And second, with government cuts and reduced public spending, there is less funding available to offer them vital support.

We’re not alone either. Many charities are having a similar experience; struggling to deliver the same basic services they were providing just five years ago.

But there is hope. Social enterprises can offer a solution to funding cuts by creating a mechanism through which the public can access a wide range of products and services, as well as supporting communities at a local level.

A new beginning

At Age Concern Birmingham, we have developed a new concept, advant~age that combines traditional charity values with a modern social enterprise business model. Advant~age not only delivers benefits for the third sector, but also to the private sector and the general public. It provides a platform for commercial businesses to sell their goods or services through charities.

To give you an idea of how this looks in practice, clicking on the ‘insurance & products’ box on the Age Concern Birmingham website will direct you to the advant~age website. Once you’re there, you can purchase products like stair lifts and personal alarms and services such as travel insurance.

Buying through the site has a couple of major advantages. The first is that the consumer will get a good deal on the products they buy - Stannah offers a 12 per cent discount to customers buying products through advant~age for example. The second is that the companies selling the products will then make regular donations back to the charities driving the sales. The amount donated is different for each company but suffice to say it’s worthwhile for charities to get on board.

Advant~age is owned by four charities: Age Concern Birmingham, Age Concern Liverpool, Age Concern Hampshire and Age Concern Slough. Initially, it was designed to bolster funding for the work of a relatively small number of charities working with the elderly. But based on the success we have already achieved over the past three months, we believe advant~age has the potential to benefit a large number of charities of all sizes.

From the original four, the number of charities now involved has risen to 18 in just three months. And, although most of the charities on board work with the elderly or care in the community, the concept has the potential to attract a wide range of charitable organisations and corporate companies.

We want to share it with the sector and at the moment we’re approaching charities with a proposition that involves no initial financial outlay. 


Room for improvement

Support so far has been excellent from both the private sector and consumers. Businesses have been quick to recognise the value of advant~age, not only as another way to generate revenue, but also a way to operate in a socially responsible way. Initially the focus was on products and services that benefit older people, but the product portfolio is gradually increasing to embrace a wider audience. Consumers are also using us as a way of being socially responsible – giving something back while also getting the opportunity to buy well-priced goods and services.

As more charities get on board, we’re finding that there is increasing interest from private sector providers because this model enables them to be more socially responsible and, at the same time, conduct core business.

Advant~age does not require any upfront investment for charities to join. We’re not interested in competing with the third sector for market share; we simply want to increase the potential market for the benefit of everyone.

The Government has not put anything on the table that brings confidence to the third sector for the future so we believe it is important not only to recognise this, but also to take control by generating more of our own funding.

While this may sound altruistic, advant~age is delivering a package that is backed by sound business principles and an equitable approach. We would encourage any charity wishing to take advantage of advant~age to contact us to explore the possibilities of generating much-needed revenue for their organisation.


Shirley Goode is chief executive of Age Concern Birmingham

This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 25, January 2013

Through the ages

The pioneers of social enterprise can be traced as far back as the 1840s, in Rochdale, where a workers' co-operative was set up to provide high-quality affordable food in response to factory conditions that were considered to be exploitative.

In the UK, a resurgence of social enterprise started in the mid-1990s with the coming together of different organisations, including co-operatives, community enterprises, enterprising charities and other forms of social business, all united by the prospect of using business to create social change.

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