Case study

Realise Futures Community Interest Company (CIC)

Realise Futures CIC provides products and services that create opportunities for people to succeed in work, learning and life across Suffolk


“The best continuing professional development that you are likely to encounter; it focuses the mind on what your business is really about.” - Sally Butcher, Director

Introduction to Realise Futures

Realise Futures provides products and services that create opportunities for people to succeed in work, learning and life. Realise Futures is one of the largest Social Enterprises in the East of England, with a £12.5 million turnover and employing over 440 people, 40% of whom have a disability. Realise Futures was previously part of the Suffolk County Council’s Adult and Community Services and started with the bringing together of a number of key services for adults into a single integrated model. Realise Futures became a wholly independent as a CIC and public service mutual in November 2012.

There are four main divisions within Realise Futures:

  • learning and development
  • careers solutions (delivering National Careers Service)
  • employment services
  • social business (covering retail, manufacturing, fulfillment, catering and horticulture)

These offer employment and development opportunities to disadvantaged or disabled adults.

Under the organisation’s integrated structure, services and social businesses combine to offer individuals seeking support to return to work, maintain their employment or develop their work skills. Their particular expertise is in helping those furthest from the labour market to re-engage with employment, learning and skills.

REALISE stands for ‘Real Employment And Learning Information Skills Enterprise’.

Reasons for spinning out as a public service mutual

Staff at Realise Futures had wanted to become independent for some time so when Suffolk County Council set out plans to become a commissioner, rather than a provider of services, a programme of divestment began. A key driver was the dual desire to free themselves from the bureaucracy of a large organisation and to develop an entrepreneurial and responsive culture. Cost benefits, including competitively priced HR, IT, legal and accounting services, as well as the ability to earn income through trade and funding opportunities were also major incentives. A CIC model was selected as it reflected the values of the senior leadership team i.e. a sense of social responsibility to the community but with a commercial mind-set. Support from SEUK confirmed the decision for this particular legal constitution.

Challenges and opportunities of the spin out journey

Overall, the process was extremely ‘time-resource heavy’. Senior leaders found themselves with, in effect, 2 full time jobs during the 15 month period. This was exacerbated by some gaps in knowledge from both parties.

There were, for example, many issues for which staff had little experience, such as TUPE, employment law, VAT rules, Admitted Body Status for Pensions, cash-flow forecasting etc. This was both a challenge and an opportunity.

Staff engagement was actually the smoothest part of the journey. The majority of staff understood the precariousness of providing services that were not statutory within a regime of sweeping budget cuts. At the same time, it provided an opportunity to be relieved of the burden of local government authority whilst providing the freedom to develop approaches which made better use of assets.

How employee ownership works within Realise Futures

The membership of REALISE is drawn from its employees. Their ‘limited by guarantee’ status limits all members’ liabilities. An annual staff event, frequent staff-led newsletters and regular information events such as team briefings and social events form part of the ongoing membership involvement strategy.

A staff council has been formed to ensure that all members have the opportunity to participate in the life of Realise Futures and understand decision making processes. This is particularly important as approximately 40% of company employees have some form of barrier to participation.

Governance is comprised of a Board which includes the Chief Executive, a Director of Corporate Resources, 4 Operational Directors and 3 Non-Executive Directors. They are currently seeking further Non-Executive Directors to provide additional scrutiny and support.

Benefits of the mutual model


The employees of Realise Futures are involved in many of the decisions for the organisation. They believe communication should be two-way and that employees have the right to challenge the decisions made. Being transparent to their employees has been essential in the growth and innovation of Realise Futures. They believe it has made staff more motivated, leading to greater productivity. Staff live their mission, vision and aim. They work hard to make sure new staff are aware of, and are inducted to, the service and its values.

Award winning service

Being able to enter awards as an independent company has supported brand awareness of Realise Futures across the country. Winning the Trailblazing Social Enterprise award in the 2014 RBS SE100 Index, a British Chamber of Commerce award in Sustainability and many other recognitions has helped Realise Futures become a known name in the third sector. All levels of staff are involved in the award entries, attending the celebration evenings and taking part in filming.

Innovation and creativity unleashed

Staff at all levels are encouraged to submit ‘new ideas’ to the Senior Operational meetings. One idea, from their Growing Places horticulture site, has been to grow their Veg box service across a wider geographical area. This has resulted in increased orders and employment opportunities.

Proven social return on investment

A full independent SROI report was undertaken by Anglia Ruskin University earlier this year, focusing on the social businesses within the company. It found that the social return for every £1 invested in the company is £2.63.

Extra funding

Realise Futures reached and exceed their government funded services targets in their first year. At a time when staff had gone through a lot of change, and the company was finding its feet in a new sector of trading, this was a great achievement. It surpassed their expectation but was down to teamwork and clarity of purpose. The first annual report highlights the following:

  • the Employment team achieved 117% of their job outcome targets
  • the Learning and Development team went from ‘Notice to Improve’ to Ofsted Grade 2 ‘Good’ within 16 months
  • 95,000 people across the Eastern Region were supported by the Careers Solutions team
  • 128 new jobs were created in the first 18 months, predominantly within the social businesses

Realise Futures are able to set stretching, but realistic, targets that benefit each service and provide an excellent supportive environment to enable staff to achieve.

There have been many challenges along the way, including a prime contract not being retained, but also new opportunities and new contracts won.

Top tips when spinning out

In summary, Realise Futures have the following advice:

  • persevere as it is a long and, at times, frustrating journey - focus on the end goal
  • be aspirational but realistic about what you will achieve and continually communicate that to all stakeholders and especially your staff teams
  • undertake a rigorous due diligence process; the exercise of consideration of the variables involved is a healthy one even if you cannot or do not actually divest
  • do your research, be clear about the market you are entering and determine your USP in that market

Contact information

Realise Futures or email

Published 9 July 2015