Wednesday 26 February 2020

I had the great pleasure of attending the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) 2019 in Addis Ababa to represent Network Personnel, one of the shortlisted organisations for the UK Social Enterprise Awards (Category 8: Education, Training and Jobs). 

Network Personnel was formed in Northern Ireland in 1989, during the height of ‘The Troubles’ and is a subsidiary of The Workspace Group, a social enterprise with its headquarters in rural MidUlster that offers an extensive portfolio of ‘back to work’ and skills-based programmes for the most disadvantaged members of the community and the furthest from the labour market. This includes ‘NEETs’: lone parents; carers; those with disabilities; the long term unemployed; migrants; families in need; and young people. I am one of two Operations Managers who lead a team of 112 staff members. 

I was incredibly honoured, excited and daunted by the prospect of travelling to Ethiopia to represent the organisation on a bursary awarded by the British Council. SEWF was an incredible experience from start to finish with countless themes and lessons throughout. 

The most striking theme that came from my SEWF experience was the thriving social entrepreneurial movement of the developing world and, in particular, the prevalence of women as initiators, leaders and influencers in this field. Many of the key speakers were female visionaries who had nurtured the seed, of a sometimes very simple idea, into a large and complex movement which had positively impacted the lives of hundreds or even thousands of individuals and their communities. (Like with so many of the SEWF key-speakers, my organisation bucks the trend with a largely female workforce and a senior management team which is 75% women.)

The stories and messages delivered by so many of these women left me feeling inspired and reinvigorated, returning to Network Personnel with a recognition of how far we have come and how much women can do in regards to making real and lasting social change, whilst balancing the demands of work, family, home-life and societal expectations.

I also noticed many (surprising) parallels between our own social enterprise and our African counterparts – whilst operating in a ‘developing world’ environment must be extremely challenging, I realised that we are certainly working in one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged regions of the UK. Our region’s barriers, whilst not so extreme, faintly echo the issues of access to employment opportunities, limited IT infrastructure, and with being in a rural setting, poor transport, experienced by our contemporaries in Ethiopia and beyond.  

Having worked in this industry for nearly 14 years, I have experienced periods when I’ve felt that sustainable change can appear minimal and too insignificant to merit celebration. Often for a Social Enterprise, it can feel like ‘one step forward, two steps back’ when measuring our successes through statistical data and ‘hard outcomes’. However, my experience at SEWF has encouraged me and in turn, my organisation, to revisit the value in measuring ‘social impact’. Many plenaries provided me with the knowledge and tools to recognise and report that the successes of a social enterprise are often better measured in ‘distance travelled’ in regards to the social, health and economic wellbeing (in both subjective and practical terms) of beneficiaries and participants. Since my return from SEWF we have taken steps to review our methods of measuring social impact, as well as how we demonstrate/publicise these outcomes. 

We have also undertaken an exercise to update our Organisation’s Values, with a view to better reflect the rural community, impact and ethos which was the focus of our origins, but which has perhaps become too diluted by ‘pseudo-corporate and urbanised language’ along our journey and growth. We’ve realised that we should be proud of our small, grassroots origins. My trip to SEWF in ‘The Land of Origins’ has reignited a pride in the rural roots of our organisation – we don’t have to be city-slickers to be the best in our field!

The whole SEWF experience stretched my confidence as a solo traveller, broadened my outlook on just how much impact a ‘simple’ social enterprise can have on a community (and beyond) and allowed me to establish multiple new networks and friendships with like-minded individuals from across the globe. Thank you British Council and SEWF!

Find out more about The Workspace Group