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“We’re shifting things, we’re making progress.’’ - Kate Welch, CEO of Acumen CIC


Kate Welch has long been an important advocate and driver of the social enterprise movement. She tells us what drives her and talks about the sector

Kate Welch

Kate Welch is a pioneer of social enterprise, respected and influential in the sector.


She founded Acumen, CIC, more than 15 years ago, is a trustee of the Greggs Foundation, a director of Communities Together Durham, director/trustee of ACEVO and a non-executive director of the North East Social Investment Company.


In recognition of this work, Kate was awarded the OBE in 2008 for services to social enterprise in North East England and was winner of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion 2016.


Her early working background was in small business, running the family garden centre in Chester-le-Street, County Durham after university. She then worked briefly in the charity sector, before working in the public sector for the Training and Enterprise Council.


She says: “Social enterprise came about when I was a secondment into what became Job Centre Plus in East Durham in the old Easington district. I was given some government money and charged to help people find jobs and to be creative and innovative in the way that we did it.


“But, there came a point where I really couldn’t make things happen through the vehicle of the public sector. It was just too difficult to earn income or bring funds in, so in 2003 I established Acumen Development Trust, which was effectively the first social enterprise. That was about helping long-term unemployed people become more economically active.’’


Social Enterprise Acumen CIC, now based in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham, has undergone many changes since Kate launched it back in 2003. In fact, she tells me it is technically in its 17th iteration. It supports social entrepreneurs and organisations that want to become social enterprises to start up, develop and grow. It works closely with partners to create a stronger social enterprise ecosystem.


“Acumen Development Trust has grown and shrunk again,’’ says Kate. “At peak, when we were delivering government employability contracts, we had a turnover of about £3.6m with 80 staff. But that world has changed completely and we are a lot smaller now and all of our income is earned. We have about £250,000 annual turnover and about three or four staff and we work with associates.’’


Its work is by no means confined to the North East but it operates throughout the UK and internationally. It has done consultancy and support work in India, Vietnam and Taiwan and Kate has attended world forums in Brazil, Seoul and Milan.


She explains her motivation.


“I’m not interested in large personal gain, so I’m happy to be paid a salary and I think people should be paid for being part of a social enterprise. But I’m not interested in wanting to make millions and I happen to be a Christian so that is also part of my motivation. I can make a difference with people, and for people, but by doing it with a business model, so you’re not feeling as though you’re begging and passing on of the results of that begging to other people.’’


A business model lies at the core of the social enterprise concept and much of what she does lies in helping people to frame an appropriate model to suit their social purpose.


“What we find with social entrepreneurs is that very often they come to us with a clear idea of the social, so part of our work is to really help them find the business model. Business and charity does mix, in the sense that if you are going to run the charity you have to be business-like.’’


There is also the question of being entrepreneurial.


“There is another issue with entrepreneurship which is really quite different because that is about taking risk but doing it in a managed fashion. I think entrepreneurs are generally those slight risk takers and they are resilient and are prepared to put their efforts into making something work. A more old-fashioned charity mind-set is to go off and find the money and then, when you know what your budget is, to go and spend it.


An organisation that is a straightforward business does not have a social purpose. Even businesses that embrace corporate social responsibility or have a desire to do some good still fundamentally exist for shareholder gain. Social enterprise sits in the middle, between business and charity.


“If you’re not financially sustainable and successful you can’t do the social, but I genuinely think that the social is the driver for it,’’ says Kate.


And social enterprise is effective in making a difference.


“My experience - and there’s quite a lot of supporting research out there now - suggests that ultimately people are more empowered by being part of that sort of business model than if they are the beneficiaries of charity. So, if you want to help people, you’re better at getting them involved in something enterprising,’’ she adds.


Social enterprise is growing in popularity and importance and Kate identifies two reasons for this. First, it is demand led, with consumers – particularly millennials – being increasingly ethical concerned in their purchasing. When they buy things, they want to feel they’re also making a positive social impact.


Second, it’s proving an increasingly attractive model to those working in the charitable sector.


“There’s a sense that people who have been running grant and donation-dependent charities see they’re not being as effective as they were, because, partly there’s not the money around,’’ says Kate. “Therefore there’s a sense that you need to find a model that is more enterprising, not just because it’s a better way of doing things, for the reasons outlined, but because it reduces your reliance on that kind of hand-to-mouth existence where you keep going until you get the next grant and you put a grant application in and just don’t know whether it will come off. All the time, it’s like watching a tennis match, looking to one side to raise the funds and to the other side to spend them.


“If you incorporate it into a social enterprise model and, if you have the right business model, you deliver your business model and it delivers social purpose and charitable aims. And it’s much more fun and exciting.’’


The Public Sector (Social Value) Act of 2012 calls for all public sector commissioning to factor in economic, social and environmental well-being, which Kate welcomes, but she believes that something else is needed.


She says: “What’s really interesting is looking at Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. Scottish government has a social enterprise strategy. The Scottish government has people in social enterprise in policy and at other levels. So in Scotland the ecosystem of support is massively better than in the rest of the UK. So it’s bigger than policy, it‘s about policy and commitment.’’


Kate is also keen to get the public on board, In the North East, Social Enterprise Acumen promotes a regional social enterprise network and an annual social enterprise festival. She also believes in the power of promoting individual initiatives and cites the example of Newcastle YMCA which sells mushrooms grown mushrooms on coffee grounds.


She says: “So it’s telling the public that if you buy your mushrooms from them, you are making a greater contribution to society.’’


Her advice to anybody wanting to start a social enterprise is that first they should thoroughly understand the social challenge they want to address.


She explains: “I’m always very keen that people drill down and really try to understand the issue that they’re trying to tackle.


“Second, what is your theory of change? How are you actually going to make the world different? How are you actually going into resource that? So, the final and crucial element is what is the business model to make that work? Is that being able to directly trade to tackle your social purpose? People need to work through what is the best model for what they want to do.’’


Kate Welch has done much to help define and refine the concept of a modern social enterprise. She knows it works and she’s confident for the future.


She says: “We’re shifting things, we’re making progress.’’


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