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Lucy Findlay – Social Enterprise Mark CIC

Lucy Findlay – Social Enterprise Mark CIC

Written by Joff Alexander-Frye

Photography by Nick Hook

Imagine an organisation that does for social enterprises what the Fair Trade Mark does for farmers and workers in the developing world. You’ve just imagined the Social Enterprise Mark. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Lucy Findlay, Managing Director of the Plymouth-based Social Enterprise Mark Community Interest Company (CIC), who is a leader in the field of Social Enterprise. So much so, in fact, that she recently found out that she has been awarded an MBE for ‘services to social enterprise’ in the New Year’s Honours List.

The concept of Social Enterprise is not a new one in the UK. That said, there has been steady growth in the number of social enterprises set up in recent years, with more than half of all them in the UK launched since 2006. To put it simply, by selling goods and services in the open market, social enterprises reinvest the money which they make back into their business and/or the local community. This allows them to tackle social problems, improve peoples’ lives, support communities and help the environment. So, when a social enterprise profits, society profits too.

Lucy grew up in Bedfordshire, the daughter of a farmer and a vicar. Her Mum, a lay minister, was centrally involved in church life and, therefore, the local community. Lucy told me,

“I think I got my drive to make a difference to society from her. Unfortunately she passed away after a battle with cancer but, in her final few days, I was able to tell her what an inspiration she had been to me throughout my life – something that I think really helped her during what was a really difficult end to hers. There were more than two hundred people at her funeral which just shows how many lives she impacted.

Lucy Findlay talks while gesturing with her hands.

Lucy continued,

“My Dad is also a phenomenon. He is eighty now and still runs a working arable farm, mainly producing red onions, which he grows for supermarkets. He is every bit as dynamic and entrepreneurial as when he started out in business. Despite having scoliosis of the spine, he regularly does Pilates, meaning he can put his legs behind his head and he is still a high-board diver to this day too! He’s determined not to be a decrepit old man, which has really inspired me as I approach fifty to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.”

Lucy moved away from home at the age of nineteen, attending Kingston University to study Geography before then going to Oxford Brookes University to study Town Planning. Lucy told me how she had never wanted to become a Town Planner (“as they only focus on land use, not people”) and she became interested in rural regeneration, securing post-graduate work researching potential regeneration projects in rural areas. It was during her research that she first encountered the concept of social enterprise, coming across an inspirational woman running a community business in Ystalyfera, South Wales who had bought out a row of shops, the income of which was used to sustain the regeneration of the mining community that they were in.

She then became a Policy Officer, working more closely with central government and the political processes involved in funding community initiatives, before joining the Development Trust Association, where she became Regional Officer for the South East and London.  This role saw her continue to gain experience in community regeneration work, this time in a more urban environment. It was here that Lucy really felt like her foundational understanding and experience of social enterprise work was cemented. She expanded,

“I was exposed to the upper echelons of the social enterprise world in London. I’ll never forget how, when the Greater London Council folded, Ken Livingstone (ever the rebel) did his best to divest as many of their assets as possible to the local community as part of their legacy. Sort of a two fingers up to Margaret Thatcher I think!”

Side profile of Lucy Findlay with pink and purple stripes in her hair.

Lucy was seconded briefly to the South East Regional Development Agency before taking another secondment to the Government Office working on Neighbourhood Renewal – a key part of New Labour’s strategy to renew communities in deprived areas at the time.

By this point it was 2003 and Lucy’s husband Mat was working for the Met Office, seconded to a role at Reading University. They were both feeling like they needed a change, so they resolved that they would move to the geographical location of the first job that either of them were offered. With the Met Office moving to Exeter at the time, Mat was successful in securing a role in Exeter and the rest, as they say, is history. At the same time, Lucy successfully secured a job setting up RISE, the regional body for social enterprise which was funded by the regional Development Agency.  The South West quickly became one of the country’s leading regions and RISE was a resounding success.

Fast forward a few years and early signs showed that Labour weren’t going to get back into power at the 2010 election. As a result, Lucy knew that this would’ve seen the end of the Regional Development Agencies (as they were a Labour initiative) and, at the same time, there was a gap in the market for an organisation that could engage with social enterprises, helping them to communicate and market their ethical credentials more effectively. Lucy stated,

“I think that people understand businesses and charities. But Social Enterprises are in a strange limbo somewhere between the two and, often, people just don’t have a handle on what they are or what they do. This was the need that I noticed and was a key part of the embryo which eventually became the Social Enterprise Mark.”

Lucy Findlay smiling down at the table.

And, so, using funding from the National Lottery and based on the successful model of Fair Trade, the Social Enterprise Mark was launched as a regional project in 2007 before officially becoming a CIC in its own right in 2010. It is the only internationally available accreditation for social enterprises, essentially offering them the ability to prove their credentials with an externally assessed and internationally recognised body. This then provides their clients with an independent guarantee that they are dealing with a genuine social enterprise which is committed to creating positive social change. It also helps the organisations concerned to communicate their unique social cause in, what are often, saturated or competitive markets. Sometimes, small differences like this can make all the difference.

I asked Lucy about the quality control that sits behind a reputation-based accreditation like this and she commented,

“We have an external and highly skilled certification panel which has the power to call in any application for the Social Enterprise Mark. They meet quarterly to look at new applications and spot-checked assessments. Once the Social Enterprise Mark has been attained by an organisation, they are then re-assessed annually to ensure that standards are upheld. Essentially, licensees have to be able to show social impact and show that they are re-investing the majority of any profits that they’re making back into the social cause that sits within its constitution.”  

As our discussion drew to a close, I found out that Lucy had just been talking at a global Social Enterprise Conference in Sri Lanka and, in just a few weeks, will be going out to Russia as part of a knowledge-sharing exchange. With international interest growing, there is a genuine chance of seeing the Social Enterprise Mark spreading around the globe and, with Lucy Findlay MBE at the helm, it is clear that they have an expert pair of hands holding the tiller.

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