BLOG: Networking and Collaboration in Rural Social Enterprise

In April’s P4P blog, Ailsa Higgins, Rural SEN Coordinator, describes how digital communication has widened access to peer support, learning and knowledge across rural and remote Scotland.

Introduction

Scotland’s Rural Social Enterprise Network was established in May 2020, responding to the increased isolation experienced by rural social enterprises created by the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown.

The Rural SEN exists to connect and support social enterprises across our rural and remote mainland and island areas, recognising that while social enterprises in Orkney and Dumfries couldn’t be farther apart – they share many of the same contextual challenges and opportunities, and benefit from a mutual network of peer support and learning.

Since setting out the Rural SEN has grown steadily in membership and in reach, and despite zoom fatigue, ongoing busy schedules and the prolongment of lockdown measures, there is an ongoing and increasing desire to connect with people from far afield to share news and learning, offer emotional support, and discover opportunities for partnerships and collaboration.

The Rural SEN also offers opportunities to develop partnerships and work collaboratively, as well as engage in peer to peer learning – a valuable collective asset for our rural social and community enterprises.

The Rural SEN meets on the last Tuesday of every month, more details can be found on the Rural SE Hub website. Get in touch with Ailsa Higgins to learn more and get involved.

Research and Knowledge Exchange

We have a keen focus on supporting peer to peer knowledge exchange, and to that end, we have secured funding from the Scottish Community Alliance to run two series’ of Community Learning Exchanges in 2020, and in 2021 – on themes identified by members as “vital for their sustainability and development”.

Themes this year have included Resilience and Adapting Services (due to Covid), Involving Young People, E-commerce, and Digital Engagement – reflecting the growing focus on digital outreach and participation, and how we ensure accessibility across demographics, platforms, and within our communities.

Legacy resources from the sessions have been created from the 2020 cohort, and are in production for the 2021 series. These include ‘virtual tours’ of the social enterprises, presented via Zoom and an overview of their main challenges, opportunities, and key learning to date. The focus of these virtual community learning exchanges has been very much to replicate the traditional in-person sessions, and allow people from similar geographies or thematic areas to share what has and hasn’t worked, fostering a culture of openness and learning.

The Rural SEN also comprises a Research Focus Group, made up of SEN members geographically spread across Argyll, Highland, Ayrshire and The Uists. The aim of the Research Focus Group is to start a wider conversation about the questions that are important to rural social enterprises and rural places, and over the past year, the group has worked in partnership to produce a future agenda for research into rural social enterprise. The agenda asks what types of communities do we want in the future, what kind of local economies will support that and what is the contribution that social enterprise makes to this?

Key values and principles inform the work of the group, with a focus on the protection of local knowledge, which will be used to develop impact and voice for the communities at its heart, rather than being extracted by external agencies to develop their own profiles and agendas.

Throughout coming weeks and months, the focus group will continue to develop relationships and look to take forward research partnerships and opportunities. Please get in touch with Sue Rawcliffe (srawcliffe@inspiralba.org.uk) from Inspiralba to find out more.

Silver Lining of Covid – Digital Collaboration

The main silver lining of Covid has been the improvements to equality of access for residents in more remote and inaccessible rural and remote places. Whereas pre-Covid, video conferencing into a meeting could be a much more isolating experience, the new norm has created a much more inclusive and accessible environment for people to participate and contribute virtually.

Furthermore, the shift to online has opened up a breadth of opportunities for people to access training, networking, and support, as well as opportunities for partnership and collaboration. Our community learning exchanges have evidenced this, with the cost and time of travel negated – learning exchanges have grasped the interest of people from as far as Australia – bringing new and valuable perspectives.   

However, we do still recognise the challenges facing many rural social enterprises – who are on average smaller in size and lighter in resources than urban peers. Limited capacity in terms of staff time can be a major barrier to accessing online support and information, and with the increasing demand and pressure on services that many organisations have seen in the last year, this is a growing challenge for many rural social enterprises.

Covid has also had a significant impact, with working from home encroaching into personal and family spaces, the need for open conversations and support for mental health and wellbeing has never been greater. There is also the need to be flexible, especially for parents working from home and also juggling home-schooling or care.

The new culture of working from home has opened up the opportunity for people to access remote education and employment opportunities, which would not previously have been offered online. This is likely to boost the numbers of people seeking to relocate from urban centres to more rural locations – in search of tranquillity, access to the outdoors, and improved wellbeing. It might also have a positive effect on retention of young people, who may be more inclined to engage in distance learning and remain rooted in their local communities, especially if the new normal sees greater numbers of young people choosing to migrate to, return to, or stay in rural communities.  

Involving Young People

Social enterprises in Scotland have a notable track record of providing access routes into employment for marginalised groups, with 56% of social enterprises in Scotland employing people aged under 25. At Inspiralba, we have a longstanding commitment to providing opportunities for young people to pursue education and employment, and have a team composed 50% of people under the age of 24.

Last year, we published a report into Access Routes for Young People, giving a context of rural demographic changes, the benefits of involving young people in social enterprise, and the personal impact created by opportunities including modern apprenticeships, graduate posts, work placements, research internships and being on a board.

Earlier this month, we also co-hosted a virtual learning exchange on ‘Involving Young People’ with The Usual Place – an award winning employability social enterprise based in Dumfries, who provide SQA accredited training to young people with additional support needs. Our work in collaboration with Argyll and Bute Community Learning has seen the roll-out of a social enterprise work experience programme, bringing opportunities to school pupils and social enterprises from across the region.

Recognising that Covid has put a halt to traditional work experience opportunities for young people, the programme is supporting school pupils to gain vital experience supporting and understanding the work of social enterprises in their local communities. There is also the added benefit to social enterprises of young people bringing fresh perspectives, new ideas and skillsets. We have created an online guide for social enterprise organisations looking to pilot their own work experience placements – this can be found here.

As well as bottom up, there is also a need to engage young people from the top down, and I look keenly on to see how the Scottish Government and partners will involve young people and rural stakeholders in the delivery of the social enterprise action plan in coming months. I hope that the greater focus on remote working will encourage more young people to seek opportunities to live and work rurally, where there is a stronger sense of community identity, improved wellbeing, and access to outdoor space which has become so sought after in light of successive lockdowns.

Taking a Global View

We are looking forward to the upcoming Rural Social Enterprise World Forum, and considering how best to tap into the collective wealth of knowledge and expertise that exists globally, as well as furthering international collaboration, including through networking opportunities and knowledge exchange. The Rural SEN and research focus group will be able to provide vital input on plans for furthering research and development on rural social enterprise.

We will also be working in partnership with SENScot and the range of thematic and regional social enterprise networks across Scotland to fulfil opportunities arising from the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow this November. This will not only be a great way to showcase the significant impact that social enterprises generate for people, communities, and the planet, but also to reach a wide range of stakeholders and audiences, using storytelling, videography, and interactive demonstrations.

Most important of all though, is the lasting legacy after the COP26 summit – and how we support organisations across Scotland to commit to healthier and more sustainable practices. The desire to ‘go green’ is evident throughout the social enterprise sector, but many organisations lack resources, technical capability, and staff capacity. Collaboration and peer learning will undoubtedly assist with knowledge transfer and broadening impact within the sector.

The Rural SEN meets on the last Tuesday of every month, more details can be found on the Rural SE Hub website. Get in touch with SENScot or Inspiralba to learn more and get involved.