Start a Social Firm

ISE green shoots.jpg

There are four main ways to set up a Social Firm:

Whichever route is open to you, the best resources to refer to at the early stages are:

Social Firms UK also offers consultancy services in addition to access gained through membership to its many tools and resources to assist with development, so do contact us if you think this might be of interest. We're keen to collect case studies also from anyone who's started up their Social Firm in any of these ways listed above, or indeed ones not mentioned, so do let us know if you've got experiences to share.

Starting from scratch

Arguably the easiest and most straightforward way of starting up a Social Firm, this is the 'blank sheet of paper' approach. An ideal opportunity to really assess where the market opportunities lie for a new business. It might be in partnership with another organisation, e.g. a private sector company, or a third sector organisation, for instance. Unless it is an individual, driven by the need to improve the society in which we live in, it is usually organisations and especially service provider organisations, who start up Social Firm businesses in order to create paid, sustainable employment for their particular client group (e.g. with the RNIB it would be for people with visual impairments, with MIND it would be for people with mental health issues, etc.). Because of this starting point, it is usually groups of people who need to be involved in the process of Social Firm development, rather than one or two individuals, and this is where things can take longer than they would in the normal business start up environment. Refer to the tools we have on offer to equip yourselves with everything you're going to need to know, over and above what is normally entailed in a business start up situation (at least 80% of what a Social Firm needs to think about is exactly the same as any other business).

Converting from an existing trade activity (might be a project) into a Social Firm

Many organisations already run some kind of sheltered work, or project trading activity, and it is easy to assume that, with a bit of tweaking, these could convert into Social Firm businesses. It can be done, but not just with a bit of tweaking quite often! A lot of questions need to be asked in order to conclude whether or not an existing activity has the potential to become financially viable and sustainable enough to actually create paid jobs for people who would otherwise be excluded from the labour market, such as:

  • what is our organisation's approach to risk?
  • is the culture the right one for turning this activity into a real business?
  • is there really a market for what we're doing to the extent that trade income can be increased significantly?
  • what is the staff approach to radical change of this kind and do they have the appropriate skills, expertise and attitude to embrace the necessary shift to a more accountable, business culture? If not, what are the implications in terms of cost etc.?
  • what needs to change in order to turn this from a project into a business?

It may well be that, following exploration into these initial questions, another Social Firm development route is followed instead - conversion is certainly not the easiest option!

Replicating an existing Social Firm

It is possible to take on a licence opportunity which might potentially save with some of the development time for a new business. Replication and licensing is an area that Social Firms UK has done considerable work in and there are several licence opportunities currently available thanks to this work, including: Pack-IT fulfilment and distribution Social Firm (, and Wholefood Planet (, a retail outlet and warehouse which packs down and sells on wholefood and ecologically aware products to the general public. See also the page on this site on licensing and replication opportunities. Any interested parties need to start by completing an expression of interest form and their enquiry will be taken forward from there.

Buying an existing business and turning into a Social Firm

Some experience from our colleagues in Social Firms Australia has shown that this might be a possible route forward for growing the number of Social Firms in this country as well. As a result, Social Firms Scotland is leading currently on a business acquisition programme which is funded by the Big Lottery. Social Firms UK will keep a close watch on the progress and learning of this experimental approach, and in the meantime it is best to keep linked in directly to the business acquisition project website operated by Social Firms Scotland at

Other ways which we're keen to explore include private sector companies leading on Social Firm start up as part of their CSR work, and approaching private sector franchisors to see if they would be amenable to operating something similar to the 'partnershop' programme run by Ben & Jerrys in the States whereby they actively encourage third sector organisations taking on their franchises through a series of incentives. If we progress with either of these two to the extent that they can become 'mainstream', we will make sure it's added to this page!