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Somerset social enterprises can count on their co-operative friends

Mutual support is a big feature of the co-operative movement, and Somerset Co-operative Services CIC has made this the focus of its business. 

The company, which is based in Taunton, provides business consultancy services to new and developing organisations in the county. Around three quarters of its customers are co-operatives themselves, with the remaining 25% made up of other types of social trading companies. 

“The issues faced by social enterprises are by and large the same as ‘normal’ businesses,” says Alex Lawrie, a development worker with Somerset Co-operative Services (SCS). “They need advice on management issues, team building and financial reporting, for example.

“What’s different about our approach is that we focus on the co-operative advantage. For example, we encourage businesses to measure their impact as a business on the community in which they operate, and to tap into their membership for support and expertise as required.”

Under the ‘Big Potential’ scheme,  SCS helps co-operatives who are looking for funding to explore using community share issues as an alternative to banks or venture capitalists, or the normal equity share issue. Community shares are refundable to the original provider of capital at the same value at which they were purchased, and earn a steady rate of interest that is guaranteed, so can be an attractive low-risk option for people looking for a principled and ethical investment. 

“Rather than just the monetary return on investment, community shares focus on what we call a ‘balanced return’,” said Alex, “one which takes into account social as well as financial benefits.” 

SCS also facilitates community organising – building relationships and networks in communities to bring about change for the greater good. One beneficiary of this help was Glastonbury. When not hosting the world’s most famous music festival, Glastonbury is a small town of under 10,000 people, and had seen all of the main banks and building societies shut their branches until none were left. Through effective community organisation, SCS led a campaign to persuade Nationwide Building Society to open a branch in the town, giving local people a vital ‘bricks and mortar’ banking option.

Almost uniquely amongst business support organisations, SCS has also opened its own offices as a ‘shop front’ for social enterprises like the local credit union and ethical energy providers. There’s also an incubator space for new social entrepreneurs and start-ups.

SCS will be showcasing The Phone Co-op there, too. They’ve been one of our customers for telecoms and broadband since 2016 and, according to Alex, “With our mutual values, it’s a natural fit. We can trust them and their products – everything just works.”