Archipelago FolkSchool is a Community Interest Company (CIC) and a collaborative social enterprise based on the Isle of Mull that provides short residential craft courses that teach skills, but also encourages participation in communities and connection with the environment.
We caught up with Ben to find out more about Archipelago Folk School, how they got started, why set up a social enterprise and the impact they have had within the community.
(All opinions expressed in this case study are those of the Archipelago Folk School and do not necessarily reflect the position of Firstport)
To begin with, can you tell us more about Archipelago Folkschool, what was your initial idea and how did you get started?
Archipelago Folkschool is a social enterprise whose purpose is to connect people with craft. We aim to create a welcoming environment where people can connect with themselves and with each other through hands-on making. We believe that craft is a vital part of our culture and heritage, and that it supports community and strengthens our society. Our main focus is boatbuilding education. Our activity centres around a yearly programme of courses and workshops where participants work together to build and launch small wooden rowing boats, canoes, and sea kayaks. Our boats are based on traditional designs, and are made in marine plywood from pre-cut kits, enabling first-time builders to complete their work comfortably within a week-long course.
The cost of participation in training courses is often prohibitive for those on lower incomes, and even where financial barriers can be overcome, social and cultural barriers continue to make craft activities and training difficult to access. We are committed to breaking down these barriers, and supporting a wider range of people to take part in craft-based learning. In addition to our commercial course programme, we offer tailored courses and workshops for community groups serving people from backgrounds of exclusion, and/or those on low incomes. We know first hand that engaging in collaborative craft activity is a powerful way of building both self-confidence and community spirit. Our courses are about practising new and valuable skills, but also about working and learning together for mutual benefit.
When setting up Archipelago Folkschool, why did you decide on becoming a social enterprise?
I came from the 3rd sector and have seen first hand how difficult it is for small charities to survive, especially in the current climate. We knew that by running courses we could earn our own income and become sustainable but we wanted to ensure that social good was enshrined in what we do – social enterprise was the obvious way to go about this.
One of the most common questions people ask when starting out on their social enterprise journey is, What legal structure should I use? How did you decide on becoming a CIC, and where do you think deciding on a legal structure sits when starting out?
We immediately landed on registering as a CIC as the clearest and simplest way to allow us to protect the assets of the business for the social good. Deciding on this was one of the very first things we did.
In addition to having a legal structure, a social enterprise requires setting up a board. How did you decide on who to have on the board, and what was the process that helped you decided?
We started out with only two people, myself and Ruth Little who has since had to move on. I was the main person starting the organisation, but Ruth provided so much support and wisdom in our early stages. Later we looked for specific experience bringing two more individuals on – a solicitor and someone from a back ground of youth education as we starting to do more work with young people.
As a social enterprise, like many other businesses, you may need to hire staff or volunteers, how did you find this process and how did you feel about handing over some of the responsibility?
We have recruited from our existing network as boat-building skills are so specific, we were very lucky to have a great network of skilled people to draw from. We are just about to do a more open recruitment process for a new member of staff and are thinking very carefully about what skills we need and what we can teach. We have decided that someone who gets the culture and ethos of the organisation is far more important that any particular skill.
Archipelago FolkSchool has received supported from Firstport, how has this helped you in your journey?
Firstport have been absolutely instrumental in the last few years of the companies growth. Without their thoughtful and patient support I do not think we’d be anywhere near where we are now.
It is often assumed that social enterprises are not for profit and that some services should be provided free of charge. Can you share your thoughts on approaching profit-making and how focusing on profit can further your social impact?
This is a real balance for us. We have to run courses at a profit to survive at all at the moment, we have sought funding to cover our more socially beneficial elements and have worked with a wide variety of partner organisations to develop projects that really work for specific groups. In years to come we will be better set up to balance our profit generating activity with free or very cheap offers to people who we would like to work with.
As a social enterprise based in rural Scotland, what are challenges you have faced in particular during a time of difficulty such as the pandemic?
We are based rurally, but have staff in Glasgow as we are a distributed organisation. We often find that traveling to groups’ own location is very beneficial too, so we expect to spend a lot of time traveling. Getting materials to Mull often requires a bit of planning, but we find the beautiful location is a huge draw in itself so it’s somewhat of a challenge and a huge benefit.
Finally, what are the future goals and ambitions for Archipelago FolkSchool
Our next big project is to complete out home workshop on Mull, this base will allow us to settle in and be more stable in our operations. Over the next few years we aim to essentially steady things after an initial period of fast growth with a huge pandemic disruption we are ready to get to a point where things are a little less changeable! As we settle into this we hope to offer more opportunities on Mull, including public good courses for visitors, locally beneficial activities over the winter and developing range of other crafts and opportunities from the ever developing space.