This project examined the contribution and potential of social enterprise (SE) as a pathway to enabling prosperous, inclusive and sustainable rural economies and communities.

It used a mixed method approach: statistical analysis of the two available national UK data sets, and qualitative interviews and a focus group with SE and rural economy support providers.

It was funded through’s NICRE’s Research and Innovation Fund.

Key findings

Rural SEs comprise up to a third of the total UK SE population and nearly one tenth of all rural SMEs.

They tend to be very small, reliant on volunteers, and often women-led.

They mainly serve local markets and often address rural community needs where there are shortfalls in both public and private sector service provision.

Key barriers relate to the costs of running a business, including the affordability of premises, and challenges of income generation, particularly in smaller and more remote communities.

Conclusions and recommendations

The supportive ecosystem for rural SE is patchy and perceived to be insufficient across much of the UK, despite many individual policy elements being in place and evidence of more ‘joined up’ and better resourced support in some localities.

Three key areas of resilience and dynamism are identified which need to inform future support provision to raise aspirations and social/entrepreneurial capabilities across the rural SE sector:

  1. Income diversification and innovation - for resilience and sustainable growth;
  2. Pooling resources and knowledge of ‘what works’ - to overcome rural isolation and ‘smallness’ through peer-to-peer support, networks, partnerships and sustainable growth hubs;
  3. Engaging beneficiaries and community members - through inclusive decision-making for sustainable regeneration and democratic ownership.