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E3M ten years on

Date: 24.05.22 |Categories: Featured |Tags: , , ,

by Fay Selvan, CEO, The Big Life Group

2012 was a big year. The world was still feeling reverberations from the 2008 banking crisis, with protests against punishing fiscal policies in southern Europe. Tens of thousands marched in New York in May, in support of Occupy Wall Street’s campaign against wealth inequality. The Arab Spring had spread from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere, but protestors were meeting violent crackdowns from authorities and the military. In the UK we were preparing for the 2012 Olympics, still reeling from the phone hacking and MP expenses scandals, and had experienced a summer of riots in 2011.

The coalition government had ushered in a period of public sector austerity which was predicted to push millions of children into poverty; absolute child poverty had already leaped by 300,000 between 2010-11 and 2012, according to the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission. The UK hit a 17-year high in unemployment and had experienced the sharpest fall in average income for 35 years.

All of this impacted on Big Life. We had been growing steadily since our formation as a group nine years previously but experienced our first drop in income during 2011-12, losing £1.5m of contracts and reducing our turnover to just over £7m. Only 44% of our staff felt secure in their jobs. It was a difficult time to be running a social enterprise, and an even more difficult time for the people we worked with.

When I look back at the organisation now, it feels like a different century, not just ten years ago. We had moved to a Citrix IT system so staff could work remotely, were phasing out cheque runs and still tracking media hits, noting declining engagement and beginning to do twitter instead. We had been putting a lot of resource into policy influencing, producing manifestos and attending party conferences, and had recognised that having so few northern MPs in government would reduce our ability to make an impact.

E3M was a lifeline. It was place to meet CEOs running similar businesses, facing the same problems, and to share ideas. It was a network to access expertise – in social investment, in governance, in procurement, and to keep up to date with government policy.

Through E3M connections we secured £1m in social investment to purchase housing when the supported housing contracts dried up and we wanted to diversify into low needs support. Through E3M introductions, we commissioned a review of our structure and simplified our governance.

But most importantly E3M provided time out from dealing with the day-to-day challenges, to reflect and plan. To think about how we should respond and adapt our organisation and what we did to meet the constantly changing world around us.

Ten years on many things have changed. Our paper consumption has dropped by over 80% as records have become electronic; agile working gives our staff choice; we use social media constantly. We have more than doubled our turnover to £21m, opened two new primary schools, produced a news app (Street News) and expanded our talking therapies and social prescribing services.

But the people we work with are still facing similar challenges, if not more, than ten years ago. Inequality has continued to grow, as demonstrated by the impact of Covid19 on the poorest, most marginalised communities. And despite great political protests like Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement, we continue to experience institutional and systemic racism, sexism and transphobia.

The fact that the communities we work with are still struggling is not a sign of failure, it’s a sign of need. Social enterprises are growing, but we are a small force for good. We need networks like E3M so that we can scale up and become mainstream business in the fight for greater equality.

E3M has had, and continues to have, a vital role in this journey. We need to continue to collaborate and lobby to create an environment for profit for purpose organisations to thrive and present a real alternative to an economy which focusses on private wealth creation at the expense of the majority.