Learning from Scotland's Rural Social Enterprises

 Tranquillity, beauty and nature. But the rural idyll is not always a reality, particularly if you don’t have a high income, transport or good health. Over the last couple of decades, social enterprise has stepped into the gap in rural Scotland, often providing basic services which city folks take for granted or driving economic development. And the people leading rural social enterprise are becoming ever more ambitious, developing enterprises which even a decade ago would not have been thought of as feasible.

Our colleagues in Social Enterprise Academy Australia also have a rural focus. They are based in Victoria, several hours drive from the metropolitan centre of Melbourne. Last week they spent time with social enterprise leaders across the Highlands, finding out how Scotland came to be a leader in rural social enterprise. From meeting with 8 social enterprises from Oban to the Moray Firth, three common themes emerged:

1) Connections

All the social enterprises we spoke to were well connected with other social enterprises. They shared experiences, took inspiration and traded with other social enterprises locally. The trading was commercial, but also social benefits were shared – sales were also often accompanied by philanthropic actions, particularly where social enterprises had similar social outcomes. All the leaders we spoke too had good support from government funded development bodies, notably Highlands & Islands Enterprise, and had regular contact with account managers, and access to investment opportunities.

2) Inspiration

All the leaders had been inspired by the success of other social enterprises, particularly locally. There seemed to be a ‘ladder of possibility’ - with each venture achieved, the communities took another step onto ever more ambitious enterprises. Key here is the belief, that even the smallest (or especially the smallest) communities can engage in multi-million pound investments, comfortable with a level of risk, secure in the knowledge that key community assets are secured in holding companies.

3) Resilience

Community social enterprises leaders often say that if they had known how tough it would be they would never have started! Resilience, though, is a leadership trait learned like any other. Simply making a living of any kind can require pretty high level of resilience in some rural areas, so its not surprising this was present in abundance in the people we spoke to. Long timescales, regular knockbacks, public sector officials not sharing vision, risk averse funders and the ever-present ‘nay sayers’ in the community have not been enough to deter the visionaries. Usually giving much or all their time voluntarily, often with little or no recognition, the belief in their communities and the desire for a better future for coming generations has engendered terrific determination to succeed.

Underpinning all this is a sense of place. A sense that communities, with their unique cultures, histories and personalities should not only survive but grow. That’s why most social enterprise is geographically focused, often multi-facetted. Its also why social enterprise is initiated by communities, even if they are led by key individuals. Capitalising on those assets, natural and cultural, are key to rural social enterprise, from Australia to Adrnamurchan.  

With thanks to the social enterprise leaders who kindly gave of their time at Atlantis Leisure, Lorne & Oban Healthy Options, Rockfield Oban, Strontian Community Development Company, Laggan Forest Trust, Caberfeidh Horizons, ReBOOT and Cantraybridge College, and colleagues from Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship, who will take a bit of this inspiration back with them to SEA Australia.

To connect and learn from other rural social enterprise leaders, join us for 'Leadership for Social Enterprise' (fully-funded programme) starting 12 & 13 September 2017 in the Cairngorms National Park.

NatWest Top 100
Living Wage
Scottish Government