Social enterprise is second nature for migrants
Nick is a researcher and human rights activist. He is communications and training officer at the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum in London. At the Forum, he runs training courses on ICT and political participation for migrants. He is founder of Young Professionals in Human Rights and has published research on young social entrepreneurs and Muslim women's community organisations.
Big Society comes naturally to migrant communities. Local self-started initiatives run by volunteers and donations is how we live and breathe. By now everyone knows that the Big Society actually meant the big crunch for charities. We in the migrant and refugee sector have been feeling it for years as a change in attitudes swept the country. The last ten years have seen a shift from positive government support of integration projects and regeneration of communities to actual animosity and defunding of our work.
We know migrants have never been popular. We know that charity budgets are always tight. For us, though, the last two years have been a tribulation. The sector has all but collapsed. With the closure of the two main support organisations, our centre and local community groups have been flooded with people with nowhere else to go. In response, we have used our diminished budget in more innovative and imaginative ways: we are cleaning our own offices, working part-time and communicating to our members that the world has changed.
Our Big Migrant Society
After the first round of cuts, community groups who support the most vulnerable and destitute people in London have been forced to rely even more on volunteers because no one else is willing to fund them.
Despite this, we found another way. Like many times before, we have faced challenges and overcome them. By nature of being migrants, we are innovators and we are survivors. Whether we left our home country because of violence, to get an education, to follow loved ones, or to find a better life, we have adapted and, in many cases, thrived in new surroundings. And we are adapting again.
At the Forum, we have met the challenges of our funding crisis with innovation and hard work.
Our first challenge was to reshape our support for migrant dentists. For more than ten years, we have run a project supporting qualified dentists who come to this country but need support to verify their degrees. This process can take over two years and no other organisations exist to support them. For the first eight years, we had local and national funding but in the last three years funding dried up. We still had over 3,000 dentists coming to us for support but we were operating in a deficit.
In October 2011, we re-launched the project as the Dentist StudyBuddy with an online forum for members to study together and share resources. We also introduced a £50 membership fee and within three months made a profit of over £7,000. In the last month alone, we have made more profit from businesses who advertise to our members than membership fees.
This new revenue stream has rejuvenated the once dying project. Members are more active and find the network more useful. More importantly, the project is sustainable and members feel more responsible for its success because they are financially invested.
It was refreshing for us to shake up the structure of the traditional charity project with grant funding and user databases and think creatively about social enterprise and online solutions. In a way, the Big Crunch forced us to innovate, streamline our processes and become sustainable.
Eat your heart out, David Cameron.
Selling Our Expertise
Our second challenge was to do the same for our IT and computer trainings. For the last two years, we have run a project aimed to bridge the digital divide that leaves many migrants out of mainstream services that are offered online. Through funding by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we ran 7-week intensive training courses for migrants and refugees to skill up and activate digital leaders in our communities.
Again, we were hit by the Big Crunch when funding for IT courses disappeared. After several failed attempts at repackaging our project, we realised that we have an expertise- not only in the migrant sector but in a wider market. Because we were ahead of the pack, we now have two years experience providing simple and clear trainings on social media, blogging, and other digital tools.
We launched our social enterprise publicly, in March of this year, as Integrated Media UK, the trading arm of the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum. We provide bespoke support on digital media and one-day courses for a flat rate of £100 with discounted rates for migrants and refugees. We also offer work placements for young migrants who wish to enter the digital media or communication sector. This means that graduates of our past IT courses are now doing the teaching.
We are not a niche market; rather our niche expertise is valuable to the wider market. Let me tell you: this was a turning point in our office. We were no longer a migrant charity stuck in the sector but a business selling our experience and expertise. This shift in attitude should not be underestimated.
Our power for social change grew when we were forced to venture out of traditional models of charity. We are powerful and innovative. We are business people and creatives. We are also migrants. Come do business with us.