Supporting social enterprises – whatever it takes!

Supporting social enterprises

Over 2023 our team will be running new programmes to support social enterprises across Cambridgeshire to help them overcome challenges and grow their businesses. To help us understand more about social enterprises (socents), we chatted to Jane Thompson, Membership and Marketing Manager at Social Enterprise East of England (SEEE) to ask her about her experience working with socents, the challenges they may face and where they can find support to help them along the way. Martin Clark, CEO of Allia Impact is on the board at SEEE and Andrew Brisbin, our Director of Ventures, works with social enterprises to help them grow and thrive – so we asked them some questions too!

Later in the summer, we’re launching 2 new programmes for Cambridgeshire social enterprises – specifically for those social entrepreneurs wanting to start their own business, or for more established socents wanting to grow.

Find out more here:

How would you define a social enterprise?

Jane: Social enterprises are businesses that trade in order to tackle the major challenges we face in society. They make their money from selling goods and services in the open market, but reinvest their profits back into the business or the local community.

Many not only create jobs and pay taxes like any other business, but they also seek to create social and public benefit, in their communities, often supporting some of society’s most vulnerable groups.

Some common characteristics of social enterprises are they are often started/owned by the community they are set up to support, they frequently provide employment for people who could not work in the mainstream labour market. They may be owned by or grown out of existing charities (we call these spin out social enterprises). Some are commissioned to deliver public services.

Social Enterprises can be constituted in a number of ways, such as charities, co-operatives or community interest companies – and while there is no specific legal definition of a social enterprise, they tend to have the following characteristics:

  • have a clear social or environmental mission set out in its governing documents and be controlled in the interest of that mission
  • be independent and earn more than half of its income through trading
  • re-invest or donate at least half of its profits or surpluses towards their mission
  • be transparent in the way they operate and the impact they have

Could you give us an example of some of the social enterprises you have worked with/know?

Jane: At SEEE – the member organisation for socents in the East of England – we have over 200 members. Many are small start-ups but we also have some long-established social enterprises such as Realise Futures (coaching & advice for children to improve their learning and wellbeing), Parents 1st (peer support network for parents) and Your Own Place CIC (an award-winning social enterprise delivering money, housing, tenancy and cost of living workshops to prevent homelessness) – plus many more – and of course Allia! We also have lots of entrepreneurs and organisations that may not be socents but sign up to our newsletter so they can find out what is going on in the East of England.

How does SEEE help to support social enterprises?

Jane: We research & identify funding, news, events and training that we think social enterprises will be interested in and share this on social media and in our newsletter – and we’re very happy to share any news from the sector. On our Board we have business consultants who can assist with specific questions from social enterprises and we regular events such as online webinars and face-to-face training and networking events which often feature guest speakers or experts in their respective fields. A big proportion of our work is trying to source funding and support that we can pass on to social enterprises in the East, so keep checking our social media for updates.

What tend to be issues/challenges they might face?

Jane: At the moment I would say the biggest challenge is adapting post-pandemic in terms of their business offering. Many social enterprises stepped up to deliver more services during the pandemic to meet demand (e.g. mental health, social care etc) and some had to redefine their business operations to do so – now these businesses are grappling with a new identify based on what they deliver and need to decide whether it is still true to their aims or whether they need to add/remove services to be more sustainable.

Funding is always an issue, so we are always encouraging social enterprises to diversify their income streams so they’re not reliant on one specific grant or contract. Luckily by nature social enterprises are very entrepreneurial but at SEEE we’re very happy to give advice to help them grow and become more resilient.

How do you feel the programmes at Allia will support social enterprises on their journey?

Jane: I think Allia’s programmes are a great chance for a social enterprise to take their business to the next level – making a commitment to join a programme means you benefit from focusing on your purpose and growth in a supportive environment and I think this can only be a good thing. As an entrepreneur you also need to bounce ideas around and hear the experience of others to help shape your business, so Allia’s programme is a great way to get expert support whilst having a friendly community giving you encouragement but also challenging your thinking (we all need that!)

Andrew: Part of the challenge of running a social enterprise is in knowing how to invest your time. It is really easy to get caught up working in the business of creating an impact, but it is critical to spend time working on your social enterprise. Every day social entrepreneurs are striking the balance between making a difference and sustaining the business, and it is hard to prioritise stepping back to think. Identifying the key levers of growth and impact can take your social enterprise to the next level of growth without causing burnout.  Allia’s programmes create space to work on the key sustainability (commercial and environmental) issues of your social enterprise so that your impact can be amplified.

Where should businesses owners hope to be by the end of Allia’s programme?

Andrew: By the end of the Allia programme, social entrepreneurs will have grown their network, identified key opportunities to level up their social enterprise, and built a roadmap for their own definition of success.

Each persons’ journey is unique and will have different requirements, Allia is pleased to be able to provide personalised support as part of our programme and our coaches will spend time with you to ensure that your specific issues are heard and worked on.

How has Allia supported social enterprises over the years?

Martin: As a social enterprise that wants fellow social enterprises to succeed, we’ve tried everything we can possibly think of that would be helpful: we’ve run structured programmes, offered low cost space, arranged for expert mentors and 1-1s with business advisors, organised networking and events, signposted people to funding and started to invest directly. We’ve definitely gone outside the box and done the odd crazy thing like acquire a piece of land for a social enterprise to use. Whatever it takes!

What else is offered to Cambridgeshire social enterprises?

Jane: At SEEE we are busy encouraging Cambridgeshire social enterprises to join our community called Cambridgeshire Social Enterprise Place – this is a nationwide way of recognising areas of social enterprise activity and we are running events and offering support for Cambridgeshire social enterprises. Look for us on social media or visit

Anything else social enterprises should check out?

Jane: I would encourage any social enterprise to keep up to date with specific support out there and the organisations that advertise support, funding and latest sector news such as Allia and its programmes, and SEEE’s support as mentioned, but also other organisations such as the Co-op and Plunkett Foundation (great advice for community owned social enterprises such as shops and pubs). Other organisations to follow include NCVO, Pioneers Post and check out your local VCSE sector organisations such as CCVS (Cambridge) and PCVS (Peterborough) which is often very low cost to join.

I would also recommend local well-established networking organisations either specific to the sector you work in or general organisations such as the FSB and Chambers of Commerce. These often have great speakers and networking events for a relatively small amount of money when you sign up.

Lastly, keep a look out for different investment options for your business – SEEE has a page of resources and advice at

For more information about SEEE please go to and for details about Allia’s upcoming programmes for Cambridgeshire social enterprises go to: