Procurement can be a driving force for social change

John Cully, Chief Procurement Officer
11 May 2017
Blurred image of a busy highstreet.
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I recently visited some social enterprises in the Leeds area, following an invitation from the Prince’s Trust and Business in the Community, to go and see first-hand how these small not-for-profit businesses are making a positive social impact. There was one encounter that really brought home to me the value of the work they do.

We went to see a business that provides print finishing and packaging services, employing adults with learning, physical and mental health related disabilities. A young woman, who was packaging small games, had to count out the pieces before packaging them up. She told me that before working there she had limited counting ability but now could do this much better and loved being part of a team. She was so pleased to have made that progress and the pride she took in her work was plain to see.

Social enterprises aren’t new. They have been around for a number of years but awareness of them has certainly increased recently. Much like traditional businesses, they provide services or products with the aim of making a profit. However the difference is that their core purpose, including any profit made is directed towards delivering a societal benefit – often offering work to people marginalised from the workforce.  

Amey has worked with a number of social enterprises for several years. One longstanding partnership is with Blue Sky, an organisation that supports ex-offenders back into work, with the aim of breaking the cycle of re-offending and challenging perceptions about people who have criminal convictions. We have employed over 350 ex-offenders through this partnership and are now hoping to help Blue Sky expand into other areas of the UK.

For our part, we are committed as a business to supporting the communities that we operate in – our mission is to create better places to work, live and travel. So working with organisations that help tackle social challenges is something we feel passionate about. If we can support people who might struggle to find work elsewhere by committing to spending in a local community, then that chimes with our mission statement.  Furthermore, because of the nature of social enterprises they often have loyal employees with a thorough understanding of their work. That’s a great selling point to Amey and other businesses who want to work with reliable organisations who have engaged employees.

Most social enterprises are young entities with a small workforce. What they generally need is a long-term income stream to enable them to lay strong foundations for future growth. Businesses such as Amey, with contracts spanning up to 25 years, are in a great position to provide just that. We can also support social enterprises in other ways, providing professional services to them - services that they might struggle to buy in – developing or mentoring the people that manage these businesses or helping them to market themselves.

While we’re not the only large company working with social enterprises, a lot more businesses like us could be engaging with them. We are joining the Buy Social Corporate Challenge, an initiative that sees a group of businesses set a target of spending £1 billion with social enterprises by 2020. Through our involvement and with the support of Social Enterprise UK, organisers of this initiative, we’re hoping to identify more social enterprises to work with in regions across the UK where we already operate. And our aim is not just to increase the amount we trade directly, but also to encourage our extensive supply chain to do the same as well. We have an opportunity to work with our suppliers to promote this same ethos and in turn deliver even greater impact.

We want to see social enterprises flourish. We understand the immense value they have in in terms of overall societal benefit and developing individuals – just as I saw myself when I met that young woman counting out pieces in a games set. What’s more, they can also often be surprisingly competitive.

We want others in the private sector to join our ranks. We need them to not just share our philosophy, recognising the valuable work that social enterprises do, but also to understand that their procurement can be a real driving force for social change. 

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