Seeing financial sustainability in a new light

When Olga Smurova visited the Refuse café – a pay-as-you-feel, community venue in Durham – she was struck by two things.

I don’t think you’d see this in Russia: some very important people, and people who are poor and have no homes eating at the same place”, said Olga, who is Deputy Director at the Social Rehabilitation Center in Nizhny Novgorod.

She was also amazed by the high level of interest in volunteering in the UK: in 2017, one in six Britons said they had volunteered for a charity in the past year, according to research by Charities Aid Foundation. Olga’s host for the week, Kate Welch, chief executive of Social Enterprise Acumen CIC, even bumped into an old schoolmate who was volunteering at Refuse.

Olga and Kate were working together as part of Euclid Network’s PeerEx programme, in the latest edition of our cross-border peer exchanges for NGO and social enterprise leaders. This time the focus was on financial sustainability, with UK participants welcoming 13 visitors last week from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Novosibirsk. The British group will visit Russia in March.

Grigory Sverdlin, Director at Nochliezka, a non-profit charity organization which provides assistance to homeless people, was paired with Tim Sadler of Oxford City Council and non-executive director at the Low Carbon Hub. As a hub for changemakers and innovation – Oxfordshire was named a social enterprise place in 2014 – Grigory left Oxford with an impression that the city “is a world capital of social enterprise.”

While inspired by his visits – “maybe the first café for homeless people will open in St. Petersburg because of this trip” – Grigory also acknowledged that the challenge back home would be to shift public attitudes. UK ventures such as Change Please now reach an increasingly broad public, but for many people in Russia the idea of being served by homeless staff would take some getting used to. “We’re just at the beginning of the social enterprise era in Russia”, he said. “Even [independent] charities are very young – less than thirty years old – and the term social enterprise is not known, even among social sector organisations.”

Irina Makeeva from the Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Centre in Novosibirsk shared a slightly different perspective. There is interest in social enterprise, she argued, but it tends to be “theoretical…. there aren’t as many real social enterprises as there should be.” Paired for the week with Lucy Findlay, managing director at Social Enterprise Mark, she finished the week with some ideas about how to become more sustainable.

First, she noted potential for a leaner approach: “I think we need to restructure the way we work. We tend to think we don’t have enough employees… but I see organisations in the UK with fewer employees doing the same if not even more work.” Irina also picked up practical tips from Lucy and other peers: “During our action learning set I received so much input into how to further develop our training programme, which is quite old-fashioned.” Finally, she wondered about doing more not just to “squeeze” an entrepreneurial approach from among NGOs, but also to “put more effort into working with ‘real’ entrepreneurs… trying to explain to them what their social impact could be and helping them to measure and show that.”

Olga also came away with some practical thoughts from her visit in Durham. A charity set up by Kate has recently acquired a building through a community asset transfer, and she plans to use it to bring in revenue through social enterprise tenants. After visiting two co-working spaces in Newcastle, Olga summed up her thoughts about how to convince people to pay for services she might provide back home: “It’s clear that we have to provide great service.”

The learning went both ways. Vanessa Swan, organisational development consultant, said she was “buzzing” with ideas after the week, and is particularly excited about one “big idea”: the Blagosfera Center established a large, creative movement to engage citizens in philanthropy and social change. “The way that they’re working – in consultation with over 70 NGOs in Russia – I don’t know of anything similar. That for me is an eye opener”, she said.

Several UK peers also commented on the creativity and resilience of Russian organisations, who are operating in a highly challenging funding environment. The fact that they’re able to deliver without any core costs being covered was “inspiring”, said Jacqueline Cassidy, head of external affairs at Children in Scotland.

“We have similar issues and problems, but often we think about them differently because we’ve been socialised differently and our structures are different”, said Tim. “That causes me to think afresh about things I take for granted and the underlying assumptions… It’s been a good week to reflect on what makes a successful social enterprise.”

The PeerEx methodology

Euclid Network’s peer exchanges match participants from different countries to work together, face to face, within a wider group. Sometimes pairs will be working on the same topic (such as homelessness), but above all the idea is to bring together people from different backgrounds and cultures to challenge one another and prompt new ideas. Often, being asked why you do something a certain way can cause a rethink or a deeper reflection.

While some aspects are guided – including introductory webinars and expert-led workshops or discussions – the emphasis is on allowing peers to work together in whatever way is most useful to them. One group in Edinburgh, for example, were visiting the Scottish parliament when the conversation turned to charity shops – a prominent feature of the British high street – so they jumped in taxi and went to visit a few nearby. “There was something about being able to build in that flexibility along with the intensity”, said Pat Armstrong, chief executive of ACOSVO. “I think we all got something out of it, because it allowed the conversation to go in whichever direction it needed to go.”

It’s also about building relationships, and sometimes that means not just talking about social enterprise but also politics, family life, and even celebrity gossip, according to Irina Makeeva. “This is what makes us closer – we are all people. I’m looking forward to people coming to Novosibirsk now. So the methodology works!”

Interested to participate?

If you would like to find out more about PeerEx contact the Euclid team

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