Community Wealth Building – what can we learn from rural and island based social enterprise?

Ailsa Clark, Founder and Development Manager at Inspiralba, a social enterprise and charity providing support to rural social enterprise.

We have seen a much welcomed growing interest in community wealth-building and the need to re-evaluate our priorities was brought in to harsh focus as a result of Covid 19, with health, the environment and importance of localism all being elevated in value.

Community wellbeing and wealth building is a key driver for social enterprise and is very much the case in a rural context, where 1/3 of all of Scotland’s 6,000+ social enterprises are based with only 17% of the population. (data from Social Enterprise Census 2019).

Rural communities have particular challenges such as; logistics, market size, demographic change, as well as opportunities of; natural resources and effective local networks.  These challenges and opportunities have been a strong influencer and call to action, with a Social Enterprise model assisting communities to maximize resources for community benefit, respond to market failure and/or ensure vital services are sustained.

Rural Social Enterprise businesses are wide reaching, (operating within high growth areas such as renewables) however the majority are small (with a median income of £26,600).  These are often providing lifeline services for rural communities including; village stores, fuel filling stations, meeting spaces and care services and make a significant contribution to inclusive and fair work opportunities.  Securing land and assets for community benefit has also been a key driver for rural social enterprise.

Many rural social enterprises are driven by collective action and able to benefit from local connectedness as well as the passion, energy and determination for the local area, bringing a range of skills and experience from across the community to deliver collective benefit.  The business model often requires a complex approach to finance, with a reliance on fundraising and donations alongside traded income for sustainability.

The small turnover and complex business model doesn’t detract from the depth of impact and resilience.  The average rural social enterprise has been trading for over 25 years, delivering a broad range of social, economic and environmental benefits, contributing to the viability, social fabric, wellbeing and sustainability of our rural communities.

The Rural SE Hub  was established in 2019 to provide a focus for research to inform research and policy, as well as space for collaboration, networking, tools, resources and information for rural social enterprise.  Work over the past year has identified that while every community and organisation is unique, there are several common themes emerging across rural social enterprises, such as:

  • small, locally based/supported/connected/proud,
  • often responding to market failure,
  • acquiring and managing assets for community benefit,
  • often not considered as ‘successful in terms of traditional value base on turnover, growth, scale’,
  • financially lean yet impact rich,
  • financially fragile, yet resilient, well established and innovative.

As this work develops there is an opportunity to look at how we can bring the learning from these key themes and alternative approaches to inform the wider inclusive growth and wealth-building policy context, recognizing that alternative approaches will be required now more than ever for our communities across Scotland.

You can find out more about Insipralba and their work here.