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If you run it, will they come?
1 A Practical Guide to Cluster Development, Ecotec Consulting (DTI, 2004)
2 Social Enterprise Action Plan: Scaling New Heights, Office of the Third Sector' (Cabinet Office, 2006)
Although networks can make an impact, there's no guarantee that social enterprises will come flocking to their doors. Katie Boswell of the Rocket Science consultancy says networks must prove their worth if they want to win resources and expand
The dictum that ‘form follows function' is particularly pertinent when considering the proliferation of social enterprise networks which has taken place across the country. As a report for the DTI reminds us: ‘Networks should not be encouraged for their own sake; they are a means to an end and not an end in themselves.'1
Both the sector itself and its supporters, notably government, have increasingly recognised the important role that networks can play in supporting and growing social enterprises. The 2006 Social Enterprise Action Plan recognised the value of networks and set out a commitment to ‘address any gaps in provision'.2
When the Office of the Third Sector (OTS) commissioned Rocket Science to review social enterprise networks operating across England, we quickly identified more than 60 national, regional, sub-regional, local and sectoral networks - and that doesn't even include the many that operate on a very local and less formal basis.
These networks take many different forms. Some are set up and run for the sector, often by a third party external funder, while others are set up and run by participants. Most are geographically based, with members coming from the same region or locality, while others are sector-based, with members across England who are working in the same field, such as recycling. There are also a growing number of ‘cluster' networks, which combine a geographical base with a particular sector, eg community arts enterprises in West Yorkshire.
To date, with a few notable exceptions, little attention has been given to determining the effectiveness of these networks. Our research explores the characteristics of effective social enterprise networks, the obstacles to overcome in creating them, and good practice taking place across the country. In order to help practitioners and funders draw up an image of an effective network, we identified seven factors that impact on the performance of networks:
LONGEVITY of existence
MEMBERSHIP - participation by a significant proportion of eligible organisations
Level of ACTIVITY - which maintains momentum and commitment
CONNECTIONS taking place directly between members
STRUCTURE providing direction, co-ordination and organisation
Level of RESOURCES to deliver objectives
These factors can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, depending on the purpose and maturity of the network. For example, a new cluster network aimed at giving social enterprises access to specialist business development expertise would have a shorter longevity, but higher levels of activity and resources, than a long-established organic network that provides its members with an informal place to share experiences.
Nonetheless, the seven factors provide a framework against which the effectiveness of existing networks can be measured. As practitioners look to develop their networks and funders look to support those that have the greatest potential, there is benefit to be gained from using these factors as a basis for evaluating networks.
A number of networks are already evaluating their effectiveness. In 2005, the Business Advice Network in the South West conducted a self-evaluation based on research, a member survey, and stakeholder interviews. And, each year, Social Firms UK evaluates its own progress using its Social Firms Performance Dashboard.
As the government looks to encourage the scale and reach of social enterprise networking, there is an opportunity for networks across the country. Through reflection and evaluation they can prove and improve their effectiveness in much the same way that social enterprises themselves are proving their value and improving their business by using methods like social accounting and audit.
Evaluation can help networks to leverage resources and funding for their activities, as well as increase their reputation with existing and potential members and the public. Networks need to look more closely at themselves, be prepared to prove their effectiveness, and be ready to make the case for more resources that can help them develop further.
Across the country, there are many effective social enterprise networks that are having a real impact. Some of these are highlighted in our research, which shows that the sector has much experience on which to build.
Ultimately, a ‘good network' is one that is valued, used and enriched by its participants. Identifying and supporting such networks is the challenge.
Katie Boswell is a consultant at Rocket Science UK Ltd, an organisation which provides support to policy makers and practitioners in a range of fields related to economic regeneration, community engagement and social policy. She has recently played a key role in projects reviewing social enterprise networks for the Office of the Third Sector and assessing the infrastructural support priorities for social enterprise for the Social Enterprise Coalition.