Plunkett conference: ‘Community businesses can’t stand still’

A one-day event by the foundation looked at how the sector can face the future together

The Plunkett Foundation – the national charity that supports rural community businesses across the UK – held a one-day event in Birmingham on 6 July. Representatives from the sector shared experiences and ideas for tackling issues in their communities with peers, keynote speakers and panellists, partners and suppliers, and Plunkett advisers.

Following a welcome from Stephen Nicol, Plunkett’s chair, the first session featured a discussion about how the funding and support landscape for community businesses is evolving.

“We can’t stand still”, said Dame Caroline Mason, chief executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, as the panel called for innovation from funders and community businesses themselves. She agreed that there are small steps community businesses can take to make a big difference to the sustainability and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agendas.

This theme was continued through the day, with panellists in the ‘Creating inclusive community businesses: A rural perspective’ session arguing that the growth of the community business sector points to the future of business in the UK. 

Immy Kaur, founder of Civic Square, told the audience not to let anyone make community businesses feel that what they’re doing is small. Woosh Raza, director of People, Culture and Inclusion at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, explained that if businesses start with inclusion, diversity will follow. And in a session exploring the road to net zero, the panel encouraged community businesses to work together to become beacons of sustainability, role models for society, and to provide services that help to create a new norm.

Delegates also heard from James Lowman, CEO of the Association of Convenience Stores, and Emma McClarkin OBE, CEO of the British Beer and Pub Association, on the current trends, opportunities and challenges facing the retail and hospitality sectors – including rising energy costs and the challenges in recruiting and retaining staff – and the lobbying and advocacy work being done.

The conference’s ‘Ask the Funders’ panel featured representatives from a range of grant funding bodies, as well as John Dawson from the Community Shares Unit, who provided advice on the Booster Fund.

In his closing keynote, Adam Henson, farmer and BBC Countryfile presenter, spoke about purpose-driven, values-based business and the importance of building an excellent team around you; urging them to consider environmental impact and food provenance in their work.

Elsewhere, a programme of workshops focusing on the streams of ‘Investing in People’ and ‘Finance and Fundraising’ were delivered by Plunkett advisers and external speakers throughout the day. 

“I couldn’t have been prouder of our team for pulling off such a fantastic event. We had an incredible venue, line up of speakers, exhibitors and a very engaged audience,” said Plunkett CEO, James Alcock.

For him, key takeaways included the acknowledgement that grant funding is becoming increasingly competitive and that being ‘more than’ what the business used to be under private ownership and building customer experience was critical to ensuring a business is relevant to a broader section of the community and so able become more inclusive and resilient.

“Community businesses are inherently inclusive, but they should take the time to ask who is not currently involved and why that might be,” Alcock added. “Reaching out and being more inclusive to people currently under-represented will lead to greater diversity, and in turn your business will become more impactful, successful and resilient.”