Monday 24 November 2014
  • Significant number of social enterprises trading overseas
  • Almost half saw a rise in income from overseas in the last quarter
  • Majority of social enterprises surveyed expect income from exporting to rise in next three months
  • Almost half of respondents not yet accessing export support
  •  Report Authors call for more targeted support from export support organisations, social enterprise bodies and social investors

A significant number of the UK’s social enterprises are exporting goods and services, according to a new report published today, but greater support is needed to help them break into new markets overseas.

The ‘Exporting Social Enterprise’ report, published by the British Council and Social Enterprise UK and launched this morning at the social investment conference Good Deals, found that almost half of social enterprises surveyed (46%) saw an increase in income from trading overseas in the last quarter. In a sign of business optimism, two thirds (65%) said they expected an increase in income from exporting in the next three months. 

However, the research, which is the first of its kind in the UK, identified a number of barriers to social enterprises trading overseas, with respondents citing access to local networks as the biggest obstacle to exporting (45%), followed by access to finance (35%).

The authors of the research say greater collaboration is needed between export and social enterprise support bodies and social investors to help overcome these barriers, as well as greater awareness among social enterprises of existing support that is available. Almost half (49%) of social enterprises surveyed said they received no support with their exporting activity.

The report follows the 2013 national survey of the social enterprise sector, which showed 11% of social enterprise trade overseas. Social enterprises are businesses with social or environmental purpose that reinvest profits for a social cause. 

Paula Woodman, the British Council’s Global Social Enterprise Adviser, said:

“The UK is a global leader in social enterprise and social investment - but the social enterprises currently best known for operating at scale internationally are outside the UK. UK social enterprises should have a competitive advantage in trading and franchising internationally, but almost half of the social enterprises surveyed said they receive no support with their exporting activity.

“The UK is very well placed to enhance its international social enterprise trade. We hope this report inspires a range of agencies and intermediary organisations in the UK to join the British Council and SEUK in supporting the growth of this promising export market. Doing so will create jobs, deliver social benefits and foster sustainable and inclusive development at home and abroad.”

Peter Holbrook Social Enterprise UK’s Chief Executive, said:

“Social enterprise is showing itself as a key player in the export market and our research suggests the sector’s stake in exporting is set to get stronger.

“Exporting can bring lots of benefits for social enterprises, but breaking into overseas markets can be a daunting and challenging task. Not all social enterprises know how to go about developing international opportunities. It’s the job of organisations involved in social enterprise here in the UK and abroad to connect social enterprises with support that’s available and help them to develop their export offer.

“Building a strong export market is one of the UK’s major priorities to help grow its economy. We want to ensure social enterprises are at the heart of this - their work is vital to help tackle some of the greatest global challenges of our time.”

Further findings show:

Europe is the region that the majority of social enterprises surveyed export to (79%), followed by North America (49%). Canada is the most popular country to export to, with 16% of respondents exporting there

Collaboration is important: of those social enterprises recorded as exporters, a third said they are working as part of a joint venture

Exporting isn’t exclusive to large organisations: the majority (72%) of exporters have less than 10 employees, while 80% have turnover of less than £500,000

The research is based on findings from 113 respondents.

Case study: Realise Futures

Suffolk-based Realise Futures is an award winning social enterprise that supports disabled and disadvantaged people into work. The organisation was exploring the international potential for its garden furniture made from recycled plastic, when it won a competition to be part of a UK Trade & Industry (UKTI) trade mission to Moscow. This kick-started the social enterprise’s exporting activity. Since then staff have completed the UKTI’s Passport To Export training programme and continue to develop international leads; selling play castles in Ireland and benches in Spain. Export has opened new business opportunities for Realise Futures to get disadvantaged people employed in supply chains. Now, working with a partner in Amsterdam, Realise Futures arere considering exploring the potential to make and export shoes.

Notes to Editor

The report is available to download online:

For more information, to arrange media interviews, or request a copy of the report please contact Sam Simmons in the Social Enterprise UK press office: / 020 3589 4951.

About Social Enterprise UK

Social Enterprise UK is the national body for social enterprise. Social enterprises are businesses that are changing the world. When they profit, society profits. Together with our members we are the voice for social enterprise in the UK. What unites them is their commitment to changing the world through business. Visit for more information.

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations. Our Global Social Enterprise programme draws on the UK experience in social enterprise to promote its growth around the world. We build capacity in the sector, forge international networks, and support policy leaders to create ecosystems in which social enterprise and social investment can thrive. Our work supports positive social change, inclusive growth and sustainable development while building trust and creating opportunities between the UK and other countries.