Interview: Sara Burgess

Community interest companies, or Cics, were launched in 2005 to offer social enterprises a chance to become a new type of limited company. The regulator is doing her bit to promote the little-known legal form

Some in the social enterprise sector would have you believe that the community interest company is doomed. Social entrepreneurs, they argue, have a difficult enough job raising capital without becoming CICs and having to tell investors they can pay them returns of up to only five percentage points above the base rate.

But according to the CIC regulator, Sara Burgess, the number of CICs - currently about 2,500 - has continued to increase steadily since this new type of limited company was launched in 2005. "The original estimate was that there would be only 300 or 400 registrations a year at the beginning," she says. "In relation to the millions of companies and the 50,000 to 60,000 social enterprises, 2,500 isn't many, but CICs are new and it is a question of people understanding what they are about."

Burgess spends most of her 24 contracted hours each week - and many more on top - travelling around the UK teaching local advice and infrastructure organisations about CICs.

She has also been known to telephone high-street bank branches, whose ignorance of the legal form has caused problems for many CICs. But she says she can only scratch the surface of the promotion that needs to be done with her six staff in Cardiff and a modest budget from the Department for Business and Regulatory Reform.

She says CICs are lucky because they are eligible for many of the grants that charities can apply for, but are also free to trade. As the former chief executive of a Bristol disability charity that converted to a CIC, she is anxious for CICs to work harder to generate their own income.

"They should leave the grants for those coming after them," she says. "It is not the easiest thing in the world to generate your own income, but it can be done."

She wants more CICs limited by shares to be set up: three-quarters of existing CICs are limited by guarantee. She says the dividend cap on CICs might have made issuing shares less attractive and has launched a consultation on raising it (Third Sector Online, 3 April).

But she says social entrepreneurs also need to overcome their fear of shares. "To them, shares are a big, scary thing," she says. "It starts to sound like real, big business. But it is not as scary as it seems and it is a brilliant way to generate income."

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