National Housing Federation cosies up to social enterprise

The federation devoted a whole day of sessions to social enterprise at the annual conference in Birmingham. With housing associations boasting £13bn of spending power, that could be a whole lot of good news for the sector.

Housing associations were encouraged to think of themselves as social enterprises and also to ‘buy social’ at the National Housing Federation annual conference in Birmingham today. In plenary sessions with speeches by Ruth Davison, national policy director of the federation and Nick Temple of Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), the importance of keeping money within the social sector to increase social impact was emphasised repeatedly.

Ruth Davison kicked off proceedings by asking the audience if any of her audience knew who the biggest social enterprises were. She described her frustration at finding no mention of housing associations in the first five pages of results after Googling the question, despite the federation’s members “having borrowed £75bn from the banks and the bond market and having spent all that money to drive social good in this country.” 

Later Davison blamed the lack of identification of housing associations as social enterprises on the members themselves. Mentioning some of the other benefits housing associations make available to their customers such as debt advice or taking up benefits they are entitled to, “We must learn to tell our stories better”, Davison said. The federation published a document last year stating its intentions for housing associations to be seen as social enterprises. “Despite publishing ‘An Ambition to Deliver’ we still have a long way to go before the sector is self identifying in that way”.

Davison is evangelical in her zeal for social enterprise. Voicing her support for SEUK’s ‘Buy Social’ campaign, she urged members to “understand the buying power that your organisations have. You can use that buying power to enhance your social mission or to detract from it. Make sure that you’re getting the maximum amount of return for the communities you serve when you’re signing contracts.”

Should any of the housing associations present be in the dark about how they can get more social enterprises into their supply chain, Nick Temple was on hand to explain more about ‘Buy Social’ and the forthcoming ‘Social Saturday’ event. Handily, he had Rachel Woolliscroft, head of sustainability of the building firm Wates alongside him to act as a willing case study.

Wates are advanced in their integration of social enterprises into their supply chain. Woolliscroft explained that Wates have, in partnership with SEUK, set up a social enterprise brokerage so that staff members can search for service providers that have met the requirements Wates have. She explained that Wates “don’t make exceptions (for social enterprises) - as far as we’re concerned they are commercial businesses, they just reinvest their profits differently.”

Temple finished by mentioning the online Buy Social Directory, where businesses looking for social enterprises to trade with can search by business type or post code. Should any further encouragement be needed, he offered printed copies of the directory too. As delegates filed out of the room, it was encouraging to see that demand for it had exceeded supply, with Temple running out of copies. The conference continues tomorrow.

Photo credit: John Dalkin