A developing Social Firm Philippa Simkiss RNIB

Definition of Social Firm

'Social Firms are a combination of real business with a social purpose'.

  • created for the employment of people with a disability or other labour market disadvantage
  • use production of goods and services to pursue a social mission

'Social Firms are a combination of real business with a social purpose'.
The European Confederation of Social Firms and Co-operatives agreed that a social firm is a business: that is created for the employment of people with a disability or other labour market disadvantage which uses production of goods and services to pursue its social mission.

Work opportunities should be equal between disadvantaged and non disadvantaged employees and all have the same employment rights and obligations

Every worker is paid a salary appropriate to the work whatever their productivity.

3 social firm values

  • Enterprise
  • Employment
  • Empowerment

There are three values held by social firms themselves, namely enterprise, employment and empowerment.

Enterprise: social firms are businesses that combine a market trading with social mission

Employment: social firms are supportive workplaces where the working environment provides all employees with support, opportunity and meaningful work

Empowerment: social firms are committed to the social and economic integration of disabled people through employment.
Economic empowerment is a key means to this end and is achieved by paying market wages to all employees.

With all of this in mind RNIB has a target to support development of social firms. We had a business idea; to develop a conference facility with on site catering in an RNIB centre in Birmingham, England's second largest city.

Is the business viable?

Feasibility study to consider:

  • market potential
  • competitor analysis
  • risks
  • Result: sector growth and location

Within half a mile of the RNIB centre there are:
63 businesses serving food
50 banks and building societies, at least 30 insurance companies, over one hundred shops and numerous other businesses.
Most of the competitors are at the top end of the market - the most expensive.
Gap for good quality provision at a price that undercuts the majority, but not all, of the competition and represents good value for money.
All competitors had the capability to provide simple buffet food, though not necessarily from their own kitchens and they all were capable of providing basic audiovisual and presentation equipment.
This feasibility study led us to establish 'Concept' as a pilot project and this has been operating since January 2006. There are several business reasons for choosing to focus on this activity.
Birmingham City Council has encouraged tourism.
The business links directly to the 'visitor economy' and this is forecast to be a growth sector industry in Birmingham over the next five years.
RNIB has a regional centre very close to the railway station in the centre of the City so the venue is in an ideal location


  • Achieve full social firm status by 2009
  • Engage visually impaired people as employees, trainees, trustees
  • Work experience and training in administration, marketing, event management, catering, hospitality and business administration.

To develop Concept into a commercially sustainable, stand alone social firm by 2008/9, by expanding catering facilities and increasing staffing To become a true social enterprise Concept must operate as an independent trading organisation from which no individual or group of individuals profit. It will provide goods, services, employment and training opportunities that are not already available, and will be locally “owned and controlled”.

Work experience – real jobs Note: This is proving a popular service and we have currently attracted 43 applications from blind and partially sighted job seekers with additional disadvantages to 4 Trainee posts within the Concept Team.

Objectives 2

  • Provide life skills training in cooking, budgeting, healthy eating
  • Develop links with mainstream training providers and employers
  • Showcase for good practice in employment of visually impaired people

Links with mainstream - Concept has a link with Birmingham College of Food and Tourism. Martin attends a course there one day per week and we have offered work experience to mainstream students. The College has made a commitment to increasing the numbers of blind and partially sighted people into this vocational area.

Show case - We want this model of Social Firm to be transferred to other geographical areas, and a wide range of vocational areas.

4. Facilities and staffing

As a business Concept competes with local commercial businesses offering conference and catering facilities. There are two immediate sources of income; meeting room rental fees and catering services. The premises offers a range of meetings room and conference room accommodation

Competitive delegate packages are offered with or without catering services. After 6 months of operation Concept is forecasting a £50,000 profit for the end of it's first year. This does include subsidy as RNIB is paying for rent of premises. If this subsidy is included Concept is forecasting a £15,000 loss. The best case scenario forecast for 2009 based on no RNIB subsidy is £100,000 profit. The worst case is a £9000 loss. Where we fall within that range depends on how many customers we serve.

Concept currently has 6 staff. The kitchen is staffed by 3 people, all of whom are visually impaired - chef Joanna Miller who is registered blind, assistant chef Martin who trained in catering but has not worked for years, since he lost his sight because no one would give him a job, and kitchen assistant Anni who is visually impaired and has a learning disability.

The administration staff include Sue Nelson who is the Events Co-ordinator, Carol Tyler who has Ushers Syndrome so her vision and hearing are impaired and Lee who has a visual impairment and a learning disability.

Of these Joanna and Sue are permanent staff. The other people are trainees on 9 month contracts supported by funding from Birmingham City Council. They have real jobs and receive a real salary.

They also receive training and job search support so that at the end of their contract we can support them into a permanent job outside Concept.

This is Martin receiving his certificate for passing his food hygiene certificate at College, from our Chief Executive when she visited our centre.

This last picture shows the Mayor of Bham as he visited Concept to see how the local authority money is spent.

To conclude, Concept provides:
An innovative approach to providing a sustainable supported employment opportunity.

An opportunity to develop and showcase good practice in supported employment.

Invite all to Bham.