Playing the game: balance or trade-off in social enterprise?

This week we have a guest blog from Dr Micaela Mazzei. Her ethnographic research with social enterprises in northern England looks at how organisations deal with operational challenges. Both the subject and the approach to her work is of interest to the CommonHealth team, so we hope you enjoy hearing about her research as much as we do!

Gateshead_Angel_of_the_North

The more social enterprise has risen as a government priority the more it has been defined narrowly around the form of a firm able to balance social and economic objectives. One aspect of my research has been to question this idea of ‘balance’ and how this plays out in practice. I adopted an ethnographic approach; involving 20 organisations for a period of time and using interviewing, observation, and interactions as the main data collection techniques. I focused my research on two northern English city regions that shared a common industrial past but varied in their policy approaches to social enterprise.

Immerging myself in the social economy of Greater Manchester and Tyne and Wear for more than a year, I found that contrary to the idea of balance, the reality is one of constant negotiation between diverse and often competing goals, motivations, and commitments that often lead to trade-offs. The nature of the tensions and challenges arising does vary, however, with differing implications and degrees of intensity depending on the circumstances, motivation and the market in which organisations operate.

Organisations operate in a volatile environment where changes can occur unexpectedly. A central challenge is dealing with changes that effect finances as this then dictates what happens to an organisations social aim. This has different implications depending on whether organisations operate in consumer markets or public service markets. In most cases organisations struggle to maintain sufficient income to guarantee service delivery and are often involved in ‘playing the game’ to gain resources. However, public funding is also seen as potentially limiting as it dictates delivery, sometimes with poor reflection on the actual needs of the communities organisations are trying to serve. Often services are costed by taking into account all expenses and trying not to work at a loss. However, the more support that is needed for beneficiaries, the more resources organisations need to deploy in order to provide a quality service. This is seldom recognised in contractual agreements. Even those organisations born from an explicit business idea that have successfully benefited from changes in the mainstream market (for example organic food sale) cannot claim a secure position. Despite establishing their offer through a solid client base and expanding organically by investing in ventures in line with their ethos, these organisations are still vulnerable to market changes.

The complex ethical space between the interests of beneficiaries, funders and organisations themselves lead to different prioritisations depending on the circumstances. Generally, when time and resources were available, organisations were found to reflect and debate about the ethical implications of change. However, time and resources were often lacking and therefore decisions had to be made quickly. It is in these situations that the propensity of organisations to focus on either high quality services/products, sharing, or reducing costs emerges, revealing the diverse ways in which organisations deal with tensions.

Recognizing the tensions social enterprises experience implies that there is a need to scale back on market expectations and/or support welfare functions more appropriately.

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