CEOs and Socialism: A photo blog of The Global Social Business Summit, Berlin

My first knowledge of Muhammad Yunus was when I was given his first book, Banker to the Poor in my second year of university. It managed to combine my previously irreconcilable beliefs in the power of small businesses and the need to help the poorest in society through an elaborate yet practical description of the mainstreaming of microfinance provision as a non-state solution to poverty. I had a bit of an identity crisis in considering whether I should continue with my politics degree or start again with business and economics but instead tried to include microfinance in everything I did. This culminated in incorporating social enterprise into my final dissertation by considering its ethos and processes in relation to Marxist theory, under the title: “Right-Wing Means to Left-Wing Ends: Can Social Business Achieve the Goals of Marxism in the Modern Capitalist Economy?”

ESMT mosaicThis question arose in more ways than I had ever conceived of a couple of weeks ago when I presented a paper at the academia conference of the Global Social Business Summit which was held, very appropriately, at perhaps the most poignant meeting place of ‘right’ and ‘left’- Berlin. The summit, now in its 7th year, was the brainchild of Yunus and is one of the biggest events in the social business calendar.

ESMT family

Our conference venue was the former East German government building, beautifully adorned with mosaics of the revolution, red-flag-waving workers, functioning industry and smiling families. The building is now home to The European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), a business school which specialises in executive education programmes. This irony was not lost on the school as they took pride in the tiled mosaic of the ‘hammer and compass’ which towered over the laptop-strewn lecture theatres teaching profit-maximisation strategies. I felt even Checkpoint Charlie struggled to match up to that collision of cultures.

ESMT mosaic2The summit itself continued this juxtaposition with corporate CEOs and Syrian musicians alike speaking of the ‘double bottom line’ of economic and social returns to the assembled company of academics, social entrepreneurs, corporate ‘high heid-yins’ and idealistic young people in an abandoned airport hangar. This meeting of very well paid minds took place in Hangar 7 of the former Tempelhof airport, where you could buy an ethical glass bottle for €25, while the other hangars were apparently being used for the temporary housing of Syrian refugees.

GSBS summit

I don’t know whether these parallels and juxtapositions are impossible to avoid in Berlin, or just served as a constant reminder of the clash of cultures engrained in social enterprise, which it could be argued are the very reason for its success. There is a line in Banker to the Poor where Yunus says that when he was setting up the Grameen Bank he was criticised by the Far-Left in Bangladesh for ‘removing the revolutionary zeal’ of his borrowers by giving them just enough that they didn’t want to risk it. He saw this as a good thing, that he was mitigating against the detrimental forces of the market to the extent that people didn’t need to resort to armed rebellion and top-down reorganisation.

GSBS Marx EngelsOne can only guess what these two might have had to say about that.

The department of the bleeding (non-)obvious

The last couple of weeks have seen my research move very much into the final phase as I completed my data collection for one stream of my research, and am working on drafts of a paper for the other. As I have the tentative results of each swimming around my head, things are starting to fit together and the language I have used in each has become particularly interesting.

Ron Obvious
Ron Obvious

The paper I am writing is on my analysis of social impact reports (Social Accounts and Social Return on Investment) to establish the ways in which organisations conceive of their impacts upon individuals and communities. It considers whether social enterprise can be deemed a ‘non-obvious’ health intervention- impacting upon people’s health without necessarily intending to, or recognising it. A number of recent public health experts have indicated that the harnessing of such interventions (and the institutions that deliver them) could be a solution for the future of public health provision. It does appear that social enterprises can and do impact on a number of factors within the lives of individuals and communities which have been strongly linked to improved health, although they may not have considered that their overt goal.

What struck me about the term ‘non-obvious’ was its subjectivity. To whom is it non-obvious? And what about the people who intuitively recognise the health impacts (and therefore consider it ‘obvious’)? The reports I looked at were informed by research conducted with a variety of different stakeholders, and ‘audited’ or ‘assured’ by an external observer, but fundamentally written by, at most, only a handful of staff at the organisation. If those particular members of staff did not recognise those impacts as health-related, or simply held a different perception of what constitutes health, does that make those impacts non-obvious, or simply not considered?

The second stream of my research consisted of interviews with numerous stakeholders around three social enterprise case studies. Comparing similar stakeholders across the case study organisations it can be seen that those working in the council or local NHS often do recognise the health impacts of organisations, and indeed commission services directly from them. Social enterprise leaders often see a holistic view of individual and community health, recognising the wellbeing impacts of the work they do. Indeed that is often why they do it. Staff and service users with a personal view of the work of social enterprises can recognise the impacts on people’s lives and can conceive of impacts upon health, tending to consider these in terms of noticeable changes in physical or mental health outcomes.

So when all of those with a knowledge of the work and impacts of social enterprises can recognise their impact on health, and when academic theory recognises that the impacts upon numerous ‘intermediate outcomes’ can have a direct impact on health, to whom is it non-obvious? Hopefully one of the outcomes of the CommonHealth project will be to fire the starting gun on shifting the perception of social enterprise from that of a ‘non-obvious’ to an ‘obvious’ public health intervention, reflecting the thoughts of the individuals and organisations that have contributed to my research.

Reaching your goals

There aren’t many books I remember vividly from my childhood. I read the odd Roald Dahl story and was in the privileged generation of kids who progressed up through school just as Harry Potter and his friends (and indeed enemies) were doing the same. But the book I had the most pleasure reading came out every year towards the end of the summer. It was wee and red, and was creatively called, The Wee Red Book.


The Wee Red Book contained all of the football fixtures for the season ahead, profiles of each team and the result of every game that had ever been played by the Scottish national team. It detailed the top scorers in Scottish and English club football for the past 50 or so years and was an absolute fountain of knowledge. Later issues included a single page about ‘assists’- the identity of the player who provided the pass to the goal-scorer, and how many times he had done so. These records didn’t go very far back at all and appear to have only started being systematically recorded upon the founding of the English Premier League in the early 1990s.

Without getting too technical, an assist can be responsible for almost all of what it takes to score a goal, apart from providing the final touch. The legendary French striker Eric Cantona claimed that the best feeling in his career came not from scoring a goal, but from providing an assist. Apparently it was only relatively recently that the football world (at least those who are in charge of compiling statistics) recognised this vital support role and the need to acknowledge those who play it.

During the course of my research I have encountered numerous organisations that support the development of social enterprises. Some support organisations are themselves legally constituted as social enterprises while many others are private businesses, generating personal profit from a sector ostensibly constituted to value collective gain over personal enrichment. A number of people have been less than complimentary about this sector of social enterprise ‘consultancies’, with some seeing them as simply limpets, clinging on to the growth in funding and policy attention directed at social enterprises. Others, however, recognise the role played by such organisations in lobbying and developing the policy environment which supports social enterprises, doing the leg-work behind the scenes which may not directly impact on any individual social enterprise, but lay the groundwork for the potential success of the sector.

So what status should we give to these organisations that play a role in developing social enterprises, in helping to lay the groundwork for organisations to achieve their social ‘goal’ (pun intended)? Are they collaborators in delivering that goal? Do they provide the assist, the Eric Cantona to Social Enterprise’s Dennis Irwin (, or simply seek to share in the glory and riches while contributing relatively little?

The answer, as always, is ‘it depends’. However, as reflected in the recent Social Enterprise Census, the industry is going from strength to strength and shows no sign of letting up, so we can be confident that those peripheral support organisations will do the same. They may even be increasingly recognised, as those players were latterly in The Wee Red Book, for their ‘assist’ in generating social returns. And as for judging their intentions- until convinced otherwise, I will choose to follow Mr Cantona’s advice:

“You have to trust your teammates, always. If not we are lost”

Stretching the mind

Almost three months ago, my American wife left her job in New Mexico and moved lock, stock and barrel to Glasgow. Initially she had intended to take some time to settle in, enjoy a relaxed summer, start to do up our slightly dilapidated flat and gradually work her way into employment. Unfortunately, the reality is that we didn’t really get a summer this year, we have only now acquired a wallpaper steamer, and work is proving difficult to come by, resulting in her recently crossing that dangerous line between ‘holiday’ and ‘unemployment’, and giving her a fair amount of time on her hands.

File 27-08-2015 09 51 06

Two of the ways she has been filling that time is by wandering around the Mitchell Library (highly recommended) and by doing yoga. These two activities converged last week when she borrowed the above book, Yoga: The path to holistic health, by B.K.S. Iyengar. With frameworks and conceptual models swimming through my head about the ways social enterprise can impact upon health, this title intrigued me. The claim being made was that through doing yoga you follow a path which will lead to a broad definition of health and wellbeing, that people’s lives were being improved through engaging in this activity. The NHS apparently acknowledges this, recommending yoga, along with other ‘mindfulness activities’ to combat stress, anxiety and depression. Alongside the knowledge that yoga classes almost always cost money, does that mean that all yoga schools and studios are social enterprises? Is Mr Iyengar a social entrepreneur? And, through reading the book, could I increase my understanding of the processes involved in how this particular social enterprise model can be considered a public health intervention?

Many of the other social enterprises I have examined direct their social purpose toward service users who have been forgotten or marginalised by the system and have fallen through the cracks between public and private sector provision, whereas yoga consumers choose to spend their money on the service. The target group are the consumers of the service, which although less common in urban environments, is often the case in the provision of vital services to rural communities. Moreover, it is consumers who entirely fund the businesses, not relying on public sector commissioning or the selling of a separate commercial product to survive, potentially making the business more sustainable.

The model of governance and profit distribution may preclude many from social enterprise status but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that yoga studios could be democratically governed, perhaps through a form of consumers’ cooperative, and that all profits could be ploughed back into expanding the yoga business, thereby increasing the social value generated. If, as Mr Iyengar claims, yoga is one path to holistic health, and if certain governance structures are put in place, yoga studios could not only be considered social enterprises that generate social returns for their consumers, but they may also shed new light on the particular pathways involved in the health-generating potential of social enterprises.

Stretching this a little further (no pun intended), if doing yoga can help to combat some of the detrimental health effects associated with unemployment, should we find ways to overcome the financial and other barriers to involvement so that more people can gain from this form of intervention?

What should we scale when “scaling up”?


This week, Professor Cam Donaldson, Principal Investigator of the CommonHealth project, shares his thoughts on scaling-upeyeball-155174_640

As an economist, I often find myself thinking and saying things that recipients of my utterances might think contradictory to my parent academic discipline. A general example of this is that “we don’t have to put a monetary value on everything that might count within a cost-benefit analysis”. Within the context of our commonhealth research programme, my latest bugbear is going to some meeting on social enterprise and hearing some smart-arse make a comment about scaling up! This is usually a negative comment about the lack of ability of social enterprise to scale up, supported by a statement or implication that scaling up is necessary. It may even be accompanied by a smug look, reflecting on a controversial point well-made (given the audience) as the social enterprise love-in is stopped in its tracks.

Me? I just tend to copy the antics of an animated colleague of mine when such points are made – I roll my eyes!

First of all, not only is the point an easy (even lazy) one to make, but also it is factually wrong. There are plenty of examples of very large social enterprises out there; moreover, many of these entities have scaled up whilst staying true to their original missions and principles. They are not hard to find – so just make sure you go to meetings armed with a couple of examples in case the scaling-up bogey person is there.

Second, you might, if there is time, venture into a more philosophical and evidence-based debate with said bogey person. This could go along several lines such as:

  • Dismissing the point by arguing that many social enterprises, by their very nature, are local. In many respects, this is the essence of social enterprise, is it not? We know, for example, that things like social capital and social connectedness are positively related to health and well-being. Perhaps these things can only be generated by the more-intensive, community-based and local nature of social enterprises. It is these kinds of relationships that commonhealth is trying to tease out. As a result, and I am afraid to say, I do not really find myself thinking too much about issues of scale, in its conventional sense, in any of commonhealth’s eight projects. To me, it is a second order issue. Context is everything. So, if a well-functioning and socially-productive social enterprise can scale up without losing the essence of what it does, then, of course, more of this good stuff should be spread throughout society.
  • But, a further note of caution might centre on the argument that that attempting to scale-up social enterprises in terms of trying to impact positively on public health could lead to exacerbating the very same problems that we are trying to fix. Might it be that the NHS monolith is incapable of responding to differing health needs across the UK, thus leaving places with differing health needs (e.g. Glasgow and remote-rural populations respectively) underserved? So, the scale of the NHS, arguably one of the very things for which it is revered, may restrict its success through its lack of ability to get upstream in the ways that social enterprise can.
  • Returning to the issue of still wanting to spread the good stuff around, this brings another question into play – what is it that we want to scale up? There is a much more interesting discussion to be had here beyond just thinking about scaling up in some sort of financial or economic-growth terms. Can we apply thinking about scaling up to other dimensions of social enterprise and what might be the implications of this? For example, it might be that what we need to discover are answers to questions such as how we scale up social capital and connectivity. If the evidence shows that we do indeed want to do these things, the implications then become very interesting, and involve things like trying to create the right environments for economies based on principles of mutuality and reciprocity to flourish. Such flourishing might involve lots of small (social enterprise?) entities operating in their natural (localised) settings. Some, too, might still grow in the conventional manner of scaling up, because that is what is appropriate for them – and we also know that the scale of social problems in some parts of the world (e.g. Bangladesh) are so vast that thinking of scaling up in more conventional ways is more important than, perhaps, the scaling down that might be required in parts of the UK (health) economy. Context, once again, is everything.

The next time scaling up is mentioned, if there is time for the debate to go along some or any of these lines, my eyes will stop rolling and be firmly fixed on the prize!


Professor Cam Donaldson

That warm, fuzzy feeling

Warm fuzzy feeling

I decided early on in my research that I should speak to a cross-section of stakeholders connected to different social enterprises so as to build up a broad picture of potential impacts on health.

I made a point of including ‘service users’ in this cross-section. This group is different for every social enterprise but they represent the ‘social’ element of a social enterprise’s work, and I therefore assumed would be the recipients of any health impacts generated by the social enterprise. They may be adults with learning difficulties, long-term unemployed people, the population of a particular community, and are often categorised as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘needy’ groups. As well as interviewing these groups, I also asked staff and leaders of the social enterprises, as well as regional and national stakeholders, about the effects of the social enterprises on those groups. I hoped that this method would give me a number of different views of how those vulnerable groups were being helped. However, what emerged wasn’t entirely what I expected.

When asking open questions regarding the organisations’ impact on health, a number of respondents immediately interpreted the question as referring not to service users, but to the staff of the organisation: support workers, administration staff and others who were certainly not the intended beneficiaries of the social enterprise. Early interviews revealed that there were certain benefits that employed staff experienced through their work, with respondents describing it vaguely as a kind of satisfaction associated with ‘doing good’, which was beneficial to their mental health.

Following these early interviews I began asking different stakeholders about these impacts directly to try and dig deeper into this phenomenon. Two very different respondents that I happened to interview on consecutive days almost repeated each other word-for-word: people who work in social enterprises can make more money for doing the same job elsewhere, but they choose not to.

Why? What would compel a logical, rational adult to work often longer hours, for less pay, in a sector which regularly struggles to remain sustainable, instead of taking a cushy alternative in the public or private sector?

Last week I put that question directly to staff at one of my case study organisations. The answer was not straightforward and it was clearly difficult for some to put into words. One described as ‘selfish’ the positive feeling he got from helping people, and described the private sector alternative as ‘boring’. Another spoke of how ‘lucky’ she felt at being given the opportunity to help people in the community and how she couldn’t imagine herself working in the overly restrictive public sector which didn’t adequately respond to people’s needs.

What was clear from both, and indeed from others I have spoken to previously, is that the impacts on staff of working in these social enterprises cannot be replaced by a salary increase or job security. Could it be that these staff members have indeed found something better than money: the warm, fuzzy feeling (and ensuing health benefits) which comes from delivering social and economic benefits not possible in the public or private sector? Could it be that they are indeed thinking logically and rationally but are seeking to maximise their own wellbeing, not their bank balance? Either way, it is clear that my research will need to consider the impacts on the health and wellbeing of the staff of social enterprises, as well as their service users. The challenge will be to translate ‘warm and fuzzy’ into acceptable academic language.

“We have a bridge and a castle, oh Inverness is wonderful”

A couple of days ago I was in Inverness at a Social Enterprise Summit organised by Community Enterprise in Scotland (CEiS), Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and a number of other organisations.


Inverness is a lovely place to be. It was bathed in sunshine on Wednesday and it was even suggested that a break-out session be held in the leafy gardens of the conference venue. Everything seems to be on the up in Inverness: the economy, the population, even Inverness Caledonian Thistle (who’s terrace chant give this blog its title). But that wasn’t why I went, I was there to learn, predominantly, about rural social enterprise.

The event brought together over 200 social enterprise practitioners and staff, intermediary organisations, representatives from local and national government, and even the odd academic, from the Highlands, Scotland and abroad. The delegates were addresses by, among others, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, and a Land Manager from North Harris, and appeared equally impressed by both.

Amid discussions on community empowerment and financial sustainability it became apparent that rural organisations often see it as self-evident that solutions should derive from the community level. This element of confident independence and self-reliance has long been central to many rural social enterprises, often through necessity rather than choice or ideology. With the retrenchment of many public services from rural communities it is once again social enterprises which are stepping into the breach to assume responsibility over their provision. They do it, because nobody else will.

One consequence of this (according to my research) is that voluntary and community organisations are more trusted to deliver services, because they are perceived to care more about the community than the state does. In much of the remote periphery of Scotland, Holyrood and Westminster seem equally removed from the reality of life on the ground, local councils are considered too large, and voluntary organisations are often looked to for the delivery of relevant, coherent public service provision.

This phenomenon is clearly relevant to the discussions around the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act currently making its way through Holyrood. Criticisms of the act relate to the deconstruction of the public sector and the potential negative impacts on communities that perhaps lack the assets or capabilities to take charge over their own development. But from some initial findings of my research, far from decrying the deconstruction of the state, local authorities are being criticised in rural communities for retaining too many services and not contracting them out to social enterprises, who are seen as more effective at delivering them.

There is no reason for me to believe that this confidence in the ability of social enterprises to better serve communities than the public sector can is misplaced. There are measures in place to ensure that communities are capable of taking on such responsibilities and ongoing support to make sure that they remain sustainable. Over the next few years there is scope for a significant reshaping of the relationship between social enterprise and the public sector. We can only hope that, following this reshaping, Inverness and the rest of the Highlands and Islands remain as wonderful.