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Stories are an important way to convey the impact that community enterprise can have on people’s lives. They appeal to the heart and open the mind and imagination to what is possible. But in the financially constrained world in which we operate, winning hearts is not enough. Local authorities considering investment in community enterprise need a hard-headed evidence based business case.

Community Catalysts is the network organisation for community micro-enterprises that invest in the health and well-being of their local area. We are passionate about and ambitious for the future of community micro-enterprise because we have seen over and over again the impact that they have on people’s lives, and on whole communities.

We know that when an area invests in and values community innovation and enterprise, it will benefit; not just from more choice of highly personalised and co-produced local support for people who need some help to live a good life, but also from more local jobs and volunteering opportunities, more people connected to and contributing to their community and more public money spent and circulating locally. We also know that the services provided by community entrepreneurs are cheaper than more traditional public services, helping to provide great outcomes for local people and save public money.

We were delighted then with two reports published recently – one by Birmingham University and the other by TLAP – which go some way to developing the ‘head’ case for community micro-enterprises with a focus on health and well-being.

The Birmingham University report Does Smaller mean Better? Evaluating Micro-Enterprises in Adult Social Care is a research project looking at the value and contribution of  community micro-enterprise in contrast with larger more traditional care providers. It provides evidence that confirms conclusions drawn from our own work with community micro-enterprise over the last 8 years - that community micro-entrepreneurs offer more personalised support than larger providers, deliver highly valued outcomes, are better at innovating, and offer better value for money.

Despite the benefits, researchers found that one of the biggest barriers facing community micro-enterprises was the ‘invisibility problem’ – an inability to reach people who might be interested in using their services. Our own experience confirms that lack of referrals happen because local authority systems are geared towards traditional providers and a risk-averse culture which favours ‘doing what we have always done’.  

Community micro-entrepreneurs often offer support to people in creative and interesting ways, rejecting the more traditional forms of home care or day care and designing (often co-designing) new models and ways of doing things. These imaginative ways of providing support are often unregistered by the Care Quality Commission and this, together with their size and newness can raise (usually unfounded) questions of risk and quality in the minds of commissioners, as well as making them much less visible to the local authority.

Local people trying to set up a community micro-enterprise with a focus on health and wellbeing unaided, enter a world where barriers and confusion loom at every turn. As the Birmingham University researchers found, would-be entrepreneurs need dedicated start-up and sector-specific support if they are to become established and thrive. But this kind of support has a cost attached to it and needs to be funded – meaning that the ‘head’ case for investment is vital.

As important as investment, is a clear government strategy for social care which values community enterprise and understands the importance of choice and control. We have this in the Care Act 2014 which, in Clause 5 (now coming tripping off my tongue!) sets out the requirement for that local authorities promote market diversity. The second report published last week by TLAP and entitled Top Tips: Commissioning for Market Diversity forms part of the suite of guidance to local authorities on implementing the Care Act.

The ‘heart’ case is made over and over again through the real life stories of community micro-providers and in reports like those published last week. The ‘head’ case is building, but needs strengthening in order to persuade the cash-strapped public sector to invest. Without investment, community enterprise will wither and die.

Community Catalysts is working with academic partners like Birmingham University to build the case both for community micro-enterprise and for its support. We have seen over and over again the impact that they have on people’s lives and have links to over 750 community entrepreneurs, each with a unique combination of skills, knowledge and experience, shaped to the needs of people in their community.

We’re also working to try and reduce the barriers and support the local authority systems and culture change needed for innovation to thrive. We can’t do this alone and are always seeking allies and partners – come and join us in the fight to ensure people who need care and support have real choice of home-grown local help to enable them live a full life. 

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