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Katie Schmuecker: Let’s look beyond business to make most of our resources

THERE is little end to the gloomy economic news, with the Office for National Statistics announcing that growth so far this year has been weaker than previously thought.

The effects of this sluggish growth are being felt in Yorkshire, where the unemployment rate remains high. In August almost 160,000 people were claiming job seekers allowance, which is 4.5 per cent of the working age population. It goes without saying that these remain challenging times economically.

Against this backdrop, it is essential that we’re drawing on all the resources available to us to boost economic growth and build an economy that is rich in jobs and opportunities.

Our debate about how to achieve this often revolves around the need to support new business start ups, ensure businesses have access finance, improve transport networks and provide people with up to date skills.

These are all clearly important. But there is a further element we can add to the mix that is talked about less often: the role that charities and social enterprises play in our economy.

Research published by IPPR North today seeks to demonstrate and measure the contribution that these organisations also make to the economy, based on a survey of organisations in York and North Yorkshire. The term “voluntary organisations” can mislead people into thinking organisations are run entirely on voluntary effort.

While this is true of some – particularly smaller – organisations, many are significant employers. In York and North Yorkshire, we estimate the sector employs around seven per cent of the working age population, a similar proportion to the agriculture and fishing industry or the construction industry. This can hardly be considered insignificant.

Perhaps more interestingly, our survey also asked about how the services delivered by voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises in York and North Yorkshire contribute to the development of the economy.

Many of these organisations work with some of the most disadvantaged individuals and families in our society.

They seek to raise their aspirations, interest and involve them in activities, and, in some cases, provide training and support for them to prepare for and enter employment.

These activities have a tangible effect. From our survey, we estimate that voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises in York and North Yorkshire supported up to around 7,500 people to enter employment last year.

To put this figure into perspective, that is equivalent to one in five of the people that left Job Seekers Allowance last year. At a time of high unemployment, the support that these organisations are providing to unemployed people is extremely important.

And it is not just in relation to employment that the sector contributes to the economy. Over the last two years, just 91 organisations in York and North Yorkshire supported over 4,500 people to gain qualifications and 17 organisations supported 46 business start-up (in both the private and social sectors) and helped a further 420 to expand.

Clearly, the voluntary sector, charities and social enterprises have much to offer to the rebuilding of our economy. We need to make sure that this contribution is capitalised upon, and there are a number of things that need to happen for this to be the case.

First, voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises themselves need to think in more economic terms. Many organisations are established with a social mission or purpose. Their aim is to improve the society or community they see around them. But in the current context, that has to include helping people to access economic opportunities.

If organisations want to be more influential in shaping what our future economy looks like, they will need to be able to demonstrate how they already contribute to the economy and how they might be able to do more. This means monitoring and collecting data on their impact – such as how many people they have supported into employment and helped to access training. Some organisations already do this, but many more do not. On the other side, those working in economic development – whether in local authorities, job centres or the newly establish local enterprise partnerships – need to think more creatively about how they can involve voluntary sector organisations, charities and social enterprises in their work.

Not only does there need to be strong communication with the sector, but opportunities for them to influence decision-making, particularly in the areas where they have much experience to contribute, like employment, training and regeneration.

The Government is fond of saying that “we are all in this together”. In Yorkshire, we need to ensure that all those with something to offer pull together.

In this way, we can ensure we are drawing on all the resources available to return the economy to growth, and ensure as many people as possible benefit we do so.

 

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