How to grow your turnover and maintain your social impact

Procurement social enterprise Fusion 21, which started in 2002 with a £250,000 loan, has enjoyed rapid growth over the past decade, turning over £6.5m in the most recent financial year.  

The organisation works nationally with housing and public sector organisations to help with procurement solutions to enable them save money while delivering social value. As part of this, the enterprise also delivers a wide range of training and employment initiatives that target the long-term unemployed and offenders. 

While enjoying this financial growth Fusion 21 has also managed to maintain and increase the social impact it is having - something many social enterprises often have trouble balancing. 

Over the last decade it has generated an estimated financial benefit to the economy in excess of £30m through regular paid work and reductions in benefit claims. And, by including social clauses in its contracts, it has generated a wide range of other social outcomes including over 1,361 jobs for local, long-term unemployed people.

Pioneers Post caught up with Dave Neilson, the organisation’s chief executive, who has led the organisation since it was first formed, and spoke with him about how this growth has been achieved, and how the organisations has maintained such a strong social impact at the same time.

Pioneers Post: What factors have been key in driving your growth?

Dave Neilson: I think a major part of our success is due to the fact that we have no reliance on grants or funding. We’ve got a really strong reserve that’s helped fund our growth and we have no debt or credit facilities that we need to use. All the growth has been through our own trading. From the beginning the whole point of financial sustainability was a key part of this project. We paid back the £250,000 loan in our first 12 months of operating, and we have traded a profit every year since. 

I’ve seen a lot of social businesses or projects that had fantastic intentions with a kick-start of significant cash investment that never matured to the point where they could survive on their own. You don’t get to be a business until you can survive financially. Otherwise you are tethered to someone else. 

PP: How have you managed to achieve this growth while maintaining your social impact?

DN: I think the best feature of our model is that the social value is an integral part of our model, so whenever we grow financially this automatically means we are also increasing our social impact. That’s why people buy from us in the first place. 

When we set out I never thought of us as a social enterprise. There was a thought around social purpose. We’re a company limited by guarantee, so we don’t have shareholders, and all the money we generate we put back into the business. And in order to protect this into the future, we recently created a parent charity that sits above us and secures our legacy.

Although this focus on social impact is integral, we’re also not afraid of doing things that are cash generators. You’ve got to be an enterprise first. One of the issues for a long time is we seem to be put into a sector that’s described as ‘not-for-profit’. Clearly, if you are running a business, you need to make sure you have more money coming in than you’re spending. You can’t have social impact unless you’ve got some money coming in.

Any business does three things. It manages its brand, it looks after its present and it creates its future...

PP: What advice would you give other social enterprises trying to achieve similar levels of growth?

DN: Access to finance is one of the main challenges with growth. It’s always about cash. One of the main challenges we have is chasing in debts. If we had all our payments coming in on terms we would be able to do more. When doing pubic sector contracts payments can be very tardy. That has a big impact. So good cashflow management is key.

PP: How do you split your time as a chief executive with all of the different priorities involved in running a social enterprise?

DN: Any business does three things. It manages its brand, it looks after its present and it creates its future. I have operational staff that run the business in the present, so my job is to make sure we are portraying the right image that allows us to have a future. 

As far as trying to focus on financial growth and social impact is concerned, because they are interdependent in terms of our business, I don’t need to work on one without the other. 

Getting good support and guidance is crucial. And making sure you’ve got a good talent pool is important. People who can make difficult things happen. Really good teams can make the impossible possible. And try to get good leadership. However, it doesn’t all revolve around me as the chief executive. It’s about a team effort. I don’t often do interviews like this, I’m happy to keep my head down. The Fusion 21 brand is what is important. It’s not about me. 

PP: How do you deal with stress?

DN: The role of chief executive can be a lonely place and very stressful. I maintain a very good work and home life balance - and I like to say I’m kept sane by my wife and insane by my children! I generally try not to get emotionally worked up by issues. And at the end of the day, while I may be stressed, I know I’m very fortunate. 

PP: What was the last thing to make you laugh?

DN: The last thing to make me laugh was in an executive team meeting earlier today when the operations director had his hand jammed in his jacket pocket. He got it stuck there when trying to get his parking ticket out earlier on. It took quite a while for him to get it out!

PP: If you weren’t doing this, what would you want to be doing instead?

DN: I’d probably be in property development. I took my home from a Victorian wreck when we first brought it and transformed it into the home it is today. Otherwise I would want to be a professional golfer. 

Pioneers Post Business School content is delivered in partnership with Inspire2Enterprise. Inspire2Enterprise provide a unique, free-to-access social enterprise support, information and advice service – from start-up through to initial growth and beyond. Call them on 0844 9800 760 or visit to find out more.

Fusion 21 are featured on the RBS SE100 index, the UK's social business index, and are currently supporting a social enterprise incubator, the CSV challenge, which is open for applications until 19 May.