A personalised approach to financial inclusion for women

A few years ago I was introduced to the new leader of a long-standing Charity in Benwell which is in the West End of Newcastle, a place that has been consistently featured on national league tables for high rates of deprivation and poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and poor health for many years. The CEO, Sarah Miller, and the Charity’s Board of Trustees, had a clear mission to re-position the charity from purely a community centre – that was set up two decades ago to stimulate and enable cohesion amongst the diverse local population – into a forward-thinking, proactive support organisation that would enable women in the local area to have the self belief, skills and experience they needed to ultimately achieve financial independence. The cumulative effect would be an enhanced livelihood for local families – men, women and children – and for the community as a whole.

Three years on I have maintained a keen interest in the work of the Millin Centre charity, continuing to engage in the capacity of mentor, advisor and now champion. The transformation the charity has made in this time-frame has been staggering. Through the resilience and determination of the staff team, the board and community members the charity has managed to secure grant funding to sustain its activities in the mid-term, but as importantly has developed a clear forward strategy which will build on its knowledge assets to develop new sources of income for the long-term. The local team now aspire to grow and extend the charity’s impact across the local area, and also far beyond.

The Millin Centre has become an enterprising and entrepreneurial charity that is making a real difference to local women, and tackling social and financial exclusion at grass-roots level. Here’s how they’ve done it.

Your journey. Your choice. Your enterprise.

The main focus of the charity’s work is to enable women to move confidently towards financial independence, and enterprise is the primary medium. The Local Women Local Enterprise programme is their key support programme, however success is not simply measured on whether women have ultimately set up a business. Sarah Miller, the charity CEO, believes that this linear way of thinking would lead them to miss lots of opportunities to enable women to build better futures for themselves and their families.  What the Local Women Local Enterprise programme does is use enterprise as a tool, to help women to do 3 things:

1. Start a journey – enabling women to start thinking about the future

Many of the women who engage with the Charity are stuck. Their life circumstances have led them to have little hope of making a positive future for themselves. Through working with each woman as an individual, and helping them to address whatever barriers are standing in their way of moving forward, the charity helps women to start their own personal journey.

For this reason, the Millin Centre ‘community hub’ is not just accessible by women – it is an inclusive centre that supports local people with welfare services, childcare, health and fitness, basic skills education, and provides an access point for a whole range of local services, specifically geared to the needs of local people. By being an open centre the charity can engage with women at the time and point that is right for them, supporting them to address whatever issues matter to them most so they can start moving forward in some aspect of their lives.

At this stage, at the point of initial engagement, self-employment is rarely on the agenda, but enabling women to develop peer networks and start building their self-confidence is all part of the journey to ultimately achieving financial independence, so once women have initially engaged with the centre, they are encouraged to get involved with training and support, including:

– A dedicated development worker who helps women to identify what support they might need, and help them to acquire it;

– Confidence-building workshops;

– Basic skills courses;

– ‘Have a go at enterprise’ programme, which is an accredited training course which enables women to work together for a period of 6 weeks to simulate setting up a cooperative, culminating in the group selling their products at a local market;

2. Start making choices – giving women a taste of what might be possible

What the charity has learned over the years is that women often aren’t clear about what options are available to them, particularly when it comes to self-employment. Through providing the chance to explore and experience enterprise in a supportive safe environment, women are able to start to make choices about what they may want to achieve in the future.  Opportunities offered through Local Women Local Enterprise include:

– Volunteering, both in the centre and in local social enterprises, which provides valuable experience in a supportive environment;

– ‘Working for yourself – the essentials’ course, which allows women to explore the possibility of setting up a business, and understand what it will mean to them and their family, to enable them to make an informed decision about whether they want to work for themselves, or apply for a job;

– ‘Going to market’ course, providing hands-on learning about how to sell products and services at craft fairs and markets, with the opportunity to set up a stall and test out their business idea at the end of the course. The charity has real tangible evidence that this course has given women the opportunity to develop both confidence and peer networks, and to increase their likelihood of taking positive action to move closer to financial independence. Details of recent successes can be found at http://localwomenlocalenterprise.com/women-get-confidence-to-start-their-journey-to-self-employment/

3. Start a business – supporting women to make a positive start in business

This third element of the support offered through the Local Women Local Enterprise Programme is specifically geared to helping women who have made a decision to set up a business to actually get started, and to develop the skills they need to make it a success. As well as providing localised support and training, women are also encouraged to work with a business adviser who in turn links them to mainstream and external agencies as and when the need arises, and when the time is right.

As well as providing business workshops and one to one support, the Local Women Local Enterprise programme also offers involvement in ‘Ask a Question’ sessions with local business women who have developed their own businesses and have knowledge to share to help beneficiaries on the programme to consolidate their learning to enable them to put it into practice. ‘Women Working Together’ sessions are also being planned for roll-out later this year, providing a space and time for women to work on their businesses within the Millin Centre, and take advantage of peer support networks while they work, away from the challenges of home life. CEO Sarah Miller believes that this final element will enable women to set aside quality time to make their plans come alive, so they can ultimately access the financial independence they strive to achieve.