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Asset Based Community Development
Devon’s Regeneration Is In The Hands Of Its Communities.

Devon’s Regeneration Is In The Hands Of Its Communities.

The Covid response, Regenerate Devon Summit, and recent analysis of social enterprise activity in Exeter and Rural Devon confirm the existence of a vibrant, innovative, and disruptive social movement actively developing and delivering solutions and services that address a wide range of social issues and concerns for individual, family, and community well-being.

The response to the recent Regenerate Devon Summit demonstrated the story of this community’s power. This 3-day virtual event was hosted by the social enterprise networks of ESSENCE of Exeter, Plymouth Social Enterprise Network, and Local Torbay Spark. It was three days, 13 sessions, 30 speakers, and 10 hours of innovation and co-creation from over 600 delegates, ranging from individual social entrepreneurs and innovators to established social enterprises and local commercial businesses.

We should perhaps not be surprised by this. The COVID-19 national call to action produced 750,000 NHS volunteer registrations in less than two days, alongside a proliferation of volunteering start-ups to help vulnerable neighbours with shopping, medicine collection, and other tasks. Nearly 3,500 local mutual aid groups are registered on the COVID-19 Mutual Aid website, and around two million people have joined local support networks on Facebook.

Whilst volunteering levels during this pandemic have been extraordinary, the response reflects the fact that we live in an extremely benevolent society. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations Almanac 2020 identifies £53.5 billion in donations and income going to more than 160,000 charity and voluntary sector organisations.

Carers UK in The State of Caring In 2019 recognised 8.8 million unpaid carers delivering health and social care savings of more than £130 billion every year, and Social Enterprise UK – Hidden Revolution report (2018) highlighted that not-for-profit social enterprise contributed over £60 billion to the UK economy and employment for more than 2 million people.

An opportunity to establish a place-based view of need and partnership

At the summit, one of the innovations we had the pleasure of learning more about from the creator Kate Raworth was the Doughnut Economics framework for sustainable development and sharing the aspiration for this approach, helping to re-frame economic and social challenges and development of solutions.

This model taught us that an economy is prosperous when all twelve social foundations are met without overshooting any of the nine ecological ceilings. The area between the two rings describes this situation and represents a safe and sustainable state for communities and humanity.

This approach to map existing Exeter and Rural Devon social enterprise activity demonstrates the dynamic nature of social enterprise contribution to addressing social foundation needs and the ecological challenges. Water supply is the only social foundation category not serviced by a ‘not for profit’.

This place-based approach to understanding community needs and voluntary and social enterprise service activities creates the basis for a system stewardship opportunity whereby:

  • Gaps in service provision can become better understood.
  • Opportunities for existing providers of services to reach out and service new communities can be identified.


  • Social entrepreneurs and innovators can be encouraged to develop new solutions.

This and more are needed because, despite the public benevolence and combined efforts of charity, voluntary community, social enterprises, and public sector organisations, a huge range of unmet needs across complex social issues remained. Notable concerns included rising poverty, increased mental health demand, and continued growth in the ageing population living with one or more long-term chronic conditions. Now, as has been widely reported, the expectation is that these and other challenges are set to get even bigger because of the pandemic.

Opportunity to capitalise on the emergence of new social norms

On a positive note, as the country emerges from social isolation, we also see new and additional ways in which the entrepreneurial community spirit is rallying to respond to COVID-19. At a personal level, almost all citizens have willingly sacrificed private freedoms for the public good. The crisis has brought neighbours and communities together to care for each other and created social movements promoting ‘buy local’ and emphasising the importance of better supporting local businesses and social enterprise.

At the same time, concern for sustainability to be achieved within sensible ecological boundaries remains high. Subsequently, there is great potential for this change to persist beyond the pandemic, with entrepreneurial community spirit creating opportunities to mitigate some of the economic impacts of social isolation and reduced economic activity within communities.

As we advance the key to managing the additional impacts of COVID-19 is not in just the leveraging of these services to maximum effect but in how they are supported and assisted to meet rising demand, connect and collaborate and avoid in the process becoming less effective or constrained through lack of access to additional resources and/or funding.

Despite the challenges, there is plenty to be optimistic about

Our community organisations are already proving their ability and capability to play a pivotal role in managing local amenities and other services and how they can positively impact individuals, families and communities and their experience of life. Through these efforts, we have the foundation to build a sustainable, more proactive early intervention and preventative individual, family, and community well-being development approach.

ESSENCE, using its social enterprise network and in partnership with the charitable and voluntary sectors, is confident that an assured and robust local ecosystem can be established to build on this opportunity. The social enterprise business model is a perfect vehicle to achieve this in a socially accepting and sustainable way.

About the Author

Paul White is a Director at ESSENCE of Exeter and CEO of eCulture Solutions, and he is a passionate exponent of social enterprise and the opportunity to leverage digital innovation and technology in the delivery of sustainable, social and public service transformation and change, better addressing the development of population wellbeing.

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