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On 18 September 2012 - 4:53pm

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Social Enterprise of the Month is brought to you in association with Blaze FM

People lose contact with friends and family for many reasons such as getting older, disability, or illness. Loneliness and social isolation have a negative affect on health and well-being. Community Network help and comfort those who feel isolated using a simple but effective tool – a voice at the end of the phone.

Community Network’s Chief Executive, Pat Fitzsimons explains:

Click here to DOWNLOAD the audio file: Septembers Social Enterprise of the Month Community Network.MP3

“The Community Network is a charity and social enterprise. We sell telephone conferencing and with the income which comes from that, we set up and subsidise the use of telephone conferencing for telephone friendship groups. We get about 60% of our income from the sale of telephone conferencing and the rest of our income we get from grants. So these telephone friendship groups are useful for supporting isolated people. The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), for example, uses us to run their over 150 telephone friendship groups for visually impaired people each week. The reason they use us is because of our excellent customer service and the way we can help visually impaired people, if they have problems on the phone.

[Interviewer, Jonathan Harris, JH]: Is the problem attributed to older people, or is it more endemic to all age groups?

[PF]: The social isolation that we talk about – we deliver telephone friend groups, primarily to older people. However they are relevant to a multitude of groups. So, one of the groups that we work with is people with mental health problems and another group is anyone with a disability – particularly a disability that hampers their mobility. Then there’s another group – carers. They’re isolated because they are taking care of someone in the home and it’s very difficult to leave the home and leave the person on their own. We also talk to other groups about how they can work with their beneficiaries over the phone because some beneficiaries will find it very difficult or frightening to come into a service. So we have worked with Parent Line Plus in the past because they work with parents who have lots of issues so it would be quite difficult for them to come in to receive a service. I was speaking to someone yesterday in Scotland about using it to work with young unemployed people. Now it would be emotionally difficult for them to attend services and they might very well attend services on the phone. We have a project in Ireland that we are working with, of teenagers who have cancer and they like the telephone group because they like to attend the group even when they are in hospital receiving treatment. We’ve worked with refugees, we’re working with seafarers – there are lots and lots of groups who will not or cannot use services necessarily, and that’s when it’s a good idea to use the telephone.

[JH]: I understand that individuals who may have had a serious life event which may have affected their lives and their routines, probably come to you for assistance and advice. And I would imagine there’s a turnaround in people’s lives that come to you and they start to develop their confidence in sharing their experiences with you?

[PF]: That’s correct. Two things usually happen – one the group stays together for as long as they can. We have a prayer group of women who are over 80 who get together on a Friday to say prayers together. Now that group has been running for years and years and years and it’s growing. We have several groups of seafarers who have been talking for 4 years, and as long as we have the funding, they will carry on talking. But for some people, you are completely right, being on the group, that motivates them and gives them self-confidence to do other things. Also what happens with the group is that they get to know each other and they widen their friendship network and then they can go out and maybe do things. But a lot of people we’re working with are hampered by their physical or emotional issues.

[JH]: Community Network is now social enterprise of the month, for the month of September. Has it made a difference to you having that accreditation?

[PF]: Actually, getting the Social Enterprise Mark has done a number of things for us:

1. It clarified our thinking about what we were because when I first became Chief Exec, what I inherited was a charity that sold telephone conferencing which was a very strange charity. When the Social Enterprise Mark became available, and I became aware of it, we thought through ‘what is it that we actually are? what is it that we do?’. I realised, actually, we’re a social enterprise – that’s what we are – because we are such an odd charity. So it made it really clear – you know – it helped with my thinking about what we are and what we should pursue. So then we were a social enterprise, we sell telephone conferencing, we still have our charity registration, so that we can get grants for our charitable work. But it clarified the thinking, then once we got the Mark, we were really pleased with that – it provided all sorts of opportunities for promoting ourselves. So the Social Enterprise Mark Company itself, does provide great opportunities for networking and for promotion. For instance, I’ve been invited to the Conservative Party Conference, I think it’s Birmingham. {Age UK and} the Mark Co have arranged a roundtable with a minister so we all have an opportunity – so I said yes. They put us on their web, they help promote what we’re doing. So that’s one thing.

2. Also through the thinking and by having the Social Enterprise Mark, I have opened up a whole new network of social enterprises. Whereas before we were just a charity – now we network with charities, social enterprises, private companies etc. So it opened up new markets for us, definitely.

[JH]: The other thing that could possibly happen – there is certainly potential there – is some of the larger social groups that are in your umbrella, could possibly be social firms?

[PF]: Yes, well I went to the social firms conference. I went to network, to learn, to meet people. I didn’t think of us as a social firm and we aren’t, really. But in terms of shared values and culture, that is one of our networks.

[JH]: I’ve noticed there’s a wide range of different groups that people can participate in. You’ve already mentioned one or two, particularly the RNIB, even to a wider audience where there has been a series of seasonal events, for example, where you’ve teleconferenced carol singing.

[PF]: Yes, we had a carol concert programme – we had it for years. BT used to support it but BT have pulled the funding now and we don’t have the funding to put it on this year and all of the people (we worked with over 400 people throughout the country) – we ring them up, we hook them into a carol concert that’s happening, we send them the order of service so they know words to the hymns etc and every single year they would sing along to the carol concert that we hooked them up with, through the telephone. But we haven’t got the funding this year, and we’ve just been to Wales to talk to Age Concern and they said ‘oh, we’re really looking forward to the carol concert this year’ and now we have to phone everybody up and say sorry we don’t have the funding. I have tried to get the funding, but it hasn’t happened.

[JH]: Let’s hope, anyone that’s listening to us would possibly help out and what we’ll do here at Blaze FM is certainly pass the message along for you. It’s a shame because obviously people have been looking forward to that a great deal?

[PF]: Yes, it’s a bit like saying, no Christmas this year because people make it part of their Christmas celebration and they do it every year, we ring them up every year, we introduce new people to it – it really is a wonderful project but I haven’t been able to get the funding. Each carol concert costs at least £3000 because we have to pay a technician. That’s what costs a lot – sending the technician and all his equipment into the church.

[JH]: I see – on average how many people engage in a teleconference?

[PF]: On average, when we’re selling it to people to run their businesses – there’s an average of 5 people on the line. When we’re setting up our telephone groups, we say between 5-7 people. You don’t want it too small and you don’t want it too big. 5-7 people allows for some people to drop out if they have a hospital appointment, or they’re not feeling well. A lot of the time that’s why they can’t attend. Then there’s still a group, but you don’t want it too large so everybody gets a chance to talk. Otherwise, people won’t get much of a chance to talk

[JH]: How do they actually get in touch with you?

[PF]: They can ring us, email, or visit the website
T: 020 7923 5250