Our time for research is up, but don’t worry you haven’t heard the last of us!

Our 5 year programme comes to an end this month, so in this blog we update you on how far we’ve come in that time and where we’d still like to go. And don’t just take our word for it, we’ve been gathering the perspectives of a host of experts too.

GCU Common Health Pic Peter Devlin

On Monday evening we hosted a Forum to mark the end of our research time here at CommonHealth. This included an exhibition of posters showcasing the findings from the 8 CommonHealth projects, reflections from 4 experts from the worlds of social enterprise and public health, and summaries from Prof Rachel Baker and Prof Cam Donaldson.

GCU Common Health Pic Peter Devlin

The distance travelled

Prof Rachel Baker introduced the evening summarising the advances made by the collective findings of the programme:

  • New evidence of the nature of the benefits realised through the activities of social enterprises across a range of geographies, industries, and activities, and working with people who have different needs and vulnerabilities
  • A developing discourse around social enterprise and public health and the interface between those ‘worlds’
  • Potential for new avenues of research in partnerships and lots to talk about for the future.

This was supported by Prof Cam Donaldson’s comments that:

“We have pulled off one the largest ever research programmes on social enterprise and managed to conceptualise and evidence a new idea for public policy; that any social enterprise, even without mentioning health in its mission, can be portrayed as acting on social determinants of health. This is because the various contexts in which social enterprises operate almost always involve addressing some aspect of social vulnerability that will likely be associated with health. As well as completing and publishing the results of our projects, CommonHealth has produced a cadre of talented researchers across Scotland, which is much needed for this important area of social and economic activity in which Scotland leads the way.”

Expert opinions

Pauline Graham (CEO, Social Firms Scotland):

“The project has made new connections within the sector and with policy –it’s been an example of research informing policy and policy informing research.”

Prof Carol Tannahill (Director of GCPH and Chief Social Policy Advisor to Scottish Government):

“CommonHealth has helped understand how social enterprise could be an important aspect of that fifth wave thinking, to develop a public health response that is located in communities, and with potential to impact on key challenges of social isolation and loneliness, and mental health.”

Leona McDermid (Chief Executive, Aberdeen Foyer):

“Social enterprise is a unique vehicle for bringing communities, organisations and the state together.  CommonHealth has highlighted the strengths of academic input and partnerships.”

Aiden Pia (Executive Director, Senscot):

“A strength of CommonHealth has been its commitment to getting out and about and including smaller Social Enterprises; acknowledging some of the under the radar organisations and bringing to the attention of policy the grass roots work at a local level. This is especially important in the context of the current public health review and using it to provide a springboard to localism.”

GCU Common Health
Pic Peter DevlinGCU Common Health
Pic Peter DevlinGCU Common Health
Pic Peter DevlinGCU Common Health
Pic Peter Devlin

Investment in the future

The investment made in CommonHealth by our funders, MRC and ESRC, has not only ensured a range of academic outputs, but built relationships with the Scottish Government, and the social enterprise sector. We hope that our research has provided valuable evidence that the sector can draw upon in years to come. Finally, all our researchers will be carrying on their work in a new range of projects, so watch this space for what comes next.

Thank you to all those who have participated in our research over the last 5 years –we couldn’t have done it without you.

Our researchers have been beavering away on three more briefing papers for you. One from Focus 50+ -our project that studies the impact of social enterprise on the health and wellbeing of older adults- and two from our project on impact management based on collaborative research with Aberdeen Foyer. We’ll launch them properly in the new year, but head to our website for a sneak peek!

Common threads in CommonHealth: weaving a tapestry of research

How do you draw concluding messages from a 5 year, multi-disciplinary research programme that involved 8 individual projects exploring pathways between social enterprise and health?

It’s a big question, right?! In this post we share how we’ve been approaching this task since March this year, and provide details of our upcoming knowledge exchange event where you can find out more…

In March this year the CommonHealth team met to share the emerging findings from each of the individual projects on the CommonHealth programme and to discuss to what extent we could see common themes, patterns and challenges arising from our data. We asked each project to prepare a poster illustrating their strongest, tentative and most surprising findings, allowing 5 mins for each poster presentation. Immediate feedback was given using a colour coded post-it system.


After some discussion, we formed groups and asked each group to produce a ‘picture’ of the findings across the programme –focusing on strongest findings and connections between the projects.

The day itself provoked a lot of discussion and questions around ways of defining social enterprise and our ability to compare outcomes while acknowledging the diversity of interventions. Another set of questions focused on the mechanisms that connect the work of social enterprises to health and wellbeing –can we represent these in a linear model? Are there ‘loops’? What can disrupt and break connections to health and wellbeing?

After working through these questions for the last few months we’d love to share our latest thoughts with you at our next knowledge exchange event that we’ll be running as part of GCU’s research week.

Come along to hear:

  • Researchers presenting the emerging findings from their projects
  • More detail on how we’ve been connecting the findings across the programme
  • Preliminary thoughts on our concluding messages
  • Group discussion and activities
  • Networking and refreshments!

We hope to see you there.

Common threads in CommonHealth, Tuesday 19th June 2018 (9.30am-12.15pm)

TO JOIN: sign up via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/research-week-common-threads-in-commonhealth-tickets-45800106351

CommonHealth Briefing Paper Series: Paper Number 6

Project 7: ‘Housing through Social Enterprise’ A summary of interim findings

Our latest Briefing Paper is based on a study conducted by Steve Rolfe at the University of Stirling comparing tenancy experiences with three social enterprises: Homes for Good, NG Homes and Y People. Steve is still busy conducting research, but the interim findings are promising so look out for more later in 2018!

The video below provides a short introduction and the paper is available here on our website.


As ever, we’re eager for feedback so please get in touch via email (commonhealth@gcu.ac.uk) or twitter @CommHealth_blog. 

CommonHealth Briefing Paper Series: Paper Number 5

No ‘golden age’, no ‘silver bullet’: what can history tell us about connecting social enterprise, health and wellbeing?

In our first Briefing Paper of 2018 Gill reflects on the emerging findings from Project 1: A historical perspective on social enterprise as a public health initiative.

The video below provides a short introduction and the paper is available here on our website.


As ever, we’re eager for feedback so please get in touch via email (commonhealth@gcu.ac.uk) or twitter @CommHealth_blog. Or if you are going to The Gathering next week stop by our stall for a printed copy! 

CommonHealth Briefing Paper Series: Paper Number 2

Contemporary findings from a series of Knowledge Exchange For a held as part of the CommonHealth Research programme

In the second of our briefing paper series, Visiting Senior Fellow Alan Kay reports on the 7 Knowledge Exchange Forums that we’ve held so far over the course of the CommonHealth programme.

We’re passionate about engaging as many people as possible in our research, but thinking through how best to do this has been a steep learning curve! We’re developing a slightly different strategy for Knowledge Exchange in 2018, so look out for our calendar of events to be posted soon. In the mean time enjoy Briefing Paper 2, you can click on the video below for a taster….

Briefing papers and videos are a whole new adventure for researchers used to producing heavily reference journal articles, thank you for your feedback so far, please keep it coming!

CommonHealth Briefing Papers Series: Paper Number 1

CommonHealth: the largest research project on social enterprise in the world in the world’s best environment for social enterprise!

Entering the fifth and final year of our research programme we’re turning our attention to output and findings. You’ll find us at various events over the course of the next year, including The Gathering and the Social Enterprise World Forum, but we’ve started to produce a series of Briefing Papers. These Papers will provide short, 4 page summaries of aspects of our research, and will be freely available from our website.

The first in the series, written by our principle investigator Cam Donaldson, provides an overview of the project. You can view and download it from our website, or click on the video below for a sneak peak…


This is a whole new adventure for researchers used to producing heavily reference journal articles, so any feedback on the papers and accompanying videos is wholeheartedly welcomed by the CommonHealth team!

John Pearce Memorial Lecture 2017 Laurie Russell, CEO, Wise Group

Laurie Russell’s address reflected on his career in social and economic regeneration in Western Scotland. In work spanning some 40 years, his journey through community regeneration initiatives in Clydebank to Chief Executive of Strathclyde European Partnership Ltd, and finally CEO of Wise Group from 2006 had intertwined with that of John Pearce at various stages. He also considered aspects of continuity and change in the sectors relationship with local authorities, governments in Holyrood and Westminster, and Europe.


Left to right: Laurie Russell (CEO Wise Group), Gill Murray (CommonHealth Researcher), Pamela Gillies (Vice-Chancellor, GCU), Cam Donaldson (Yunus Chair in Social Business and Health, GCU)


Cycles, waves and progress

Describing social enterprise in Scotland over the last 40 years, Russell suggested that the movement of the sector could be characterised by cycles, waves, and progress.

Cycles: expressed themes and issues that periodically reoccurred, rather than being ultimately resolved.

Waves:  illustrated the feeling of one step forwards and two steps back that sometimes seeped into his working life.

Progress: despite the cycles and the waves, for Russell, it is also possible to identify growth and a level of acceptance of social enterprise, especially in rural areas.

These movements certainly resonated with my own research into the history of social enterprise since the 1970s. Issues of definition and accountability, concerns over the ability of the sector to remain independent certainly appear to be cyclical. Relationships with local authorities and governments can often appear to move with the waves of election periods where a group of sympathetic champions are lost to (local) government cuts and/or restructuring. The evidence charting the development of the sector is growing, with the recently published Social Enterprise in Scotland: Census 2017 that follows the earlier 2015 publication. The body of evidence that we are producing at CommonHealth will also contribute to a better understanding the dimensions of the sectors progress over time.


The issue of trust cut across Russell’s lecture, describing how in the 1970s and 1980s when Urban Programme and European Social Fund grants were awarded there was a sense of trust that organisations were able to deliver what they had proposed. Russell suggested that while he is absolutely invested in the accountability of the sector the tight auditing and compliance regulations that are attached to funding today in some ways undermine the sense of trust between the sector and local and national government.

In the Q&A that followed the lecture there was a palpable feeling of frustration from some sections of the audience on the lack of support for (large) social enterprises in Scotland. Concerns were raised that despite the recommendations of the Christie Commission an SNP government who ‘talk Left, but walk Right’ are missing the opportunity to contract services from social enterprises who are deeply embedded in their local communities. This connected back to some of the concerns Russell highlighted with his experiences of Scottish procurement policies that are often unfit for purpose, based solely on application forms with no opportunity for meaningful dialogue. Russell called for policies based on practices he has experienced in England, where commissioners engage in a process of discussion and negotiation with those responding to tenders to ensure a good fit that aligns economic and social value and develops a productive working relationship.

Keep working, Keep talking

Acknowledging the frustrations Russell argued that the answer was to keep working. Throughout his career his motivation has been the personal stories of the lives of people that have changed for the better as a result of engaging with social enterprise.

Thinking of how the work we’ve been doing with the GCU Archive Centre and the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, perhaps we have a role here in facilitating some inter-generational dialogue within the sector and translating the work the sector does to public sector and beyond.

reception crowd

Gill Murray

Back to the future in Community Business!

Reading a recent Guardian article on the work of Vidhya Alakeson and Power to Change got me thinking about community business in the twenty-first century and the dimensions of continuity and change in the history of community business. For me there are some interesting parallels between the community business movement that began in the west of Scotland in the 1970s and the community businesses being supported by Power to Change in England today.

We could all use a DeLorean sometimes!

I’ve written before about my research on the history of social enterprise in Scotland and the importance of studying the emergence of the community business movement in the 1970s as part of this work. In Scotland, the use of the term community business was superseded by the social enterprise in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Therefore I’ve been especially interested in tracing the histories of the organisations that were established as part of the community business movement in the 1970s and continue trading today; examining to what extent their practice has been affected by changes in the sector.

Most of the people participating in making oral history recordings for the CommonHealth project remain committed to the co-operative values of the community business movement. Some organisations have changed their operating structure to survive, where for others this was out of the question, but a strong commitment to their the core mission was a defining feature of their work.

For me this suggests an important thread of continuity, which is why I was so struck by the report on community business in England today…

A middle class pursuit?

Vidhya Alakeson’s description of communities coming together to say ‘we can do something about this’ echoes the words of John Pearce in the late 1970s when he described people coming together to say ‘what can we do?’. As part of her work Alakeson is keen to challenge the idea that community business is something that happens in idyllic, leafy, rural, communities where retired and affluent professionals have the time and expertise to take over the running of the local pub, shop or other services.

The story of the Scottish experience of community business, certainly challenges this representation; often established in estates labelled ‘multiply deprived’, and aiming recruiting people who had been unemployed for many years due to the economic crisis of the 1970s and dramatic changes in the infrastructure of the Scottish economy. The testimony of Susan McGinlay, who started a cleaning company with 3 other women as part of Possil Community Business in the 1980s and went on to become the commercial manager of the organisation, speaks to the importance of perceptions and the role of community business in challenging them:

‘It was such a proud moment when you look back and you think my god all the work that we have created in this area. It rejuvenated quite a lot of people, it really did. It was a turning point for many of them, who started to see what they could do and what they were worth, rather than being told oh you come from Possil or Milton and you are scum and you are this and you are that. The commitment was amazing.’

McGinlay also talked through the valuable support her and her friends had received from Strathclyde Community Business over the years, a key issue if community businesses are to flourish outside affluent areas.

Reflecting on the history of community business, social need and the desire of people to come together to bring about change are constant, but the ability to put structures in place that support that need vary according to the governance of funding and policy.

Historical research also reveals numerous inspiring examples from the past that show other futures are possible.


Gillian Murray

The Way forward for Social Enterprise in Scotland: Reflections on a recent speech by Dr Michael Roy to the Cross Party Group on Social Enterprise, Holyrood (15 March 2016)

Dr Michael Roy is a senior lecturer at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at GCU and has a supervisory role on the CommonHealth team. Recently he was invited to present his thoughts on the way forward for social enterprise in Scotland, based on his many years’ experience working in the sector and as an academic, to the Scottish parliament.

Here we pick up on some of his thoughts and reflect on the links with the emerging findings of the CommonHealth researchers.

The most supportive environment in the world for social enterprise?

Dr Roy suggested that Scotland has a highly developed system of support for social enterprise:

This ‘ecosystem’ of support enables the sector to develop and provide input to policy initiatives and exert influence at various levels of government. As pressure on government budgets grows, it is important, in my opinion, to maintain the level of support to the sector, particularly given the role that social enterprise might play in alleviating some of the symptoms of austerity measures, which are already being felt most keenly in our most vulnerable communities.

Here Dr Roy was referring to both geographical communities and ‘communities of interest’.

Doing social enterprise

Emphasising the importance of the act of establishing a social enterprise for communities, Dr Roy believes that:

Doing social enterprise –people coming together to solve a particular problem in their own local community –is a profoundly political (some might say radical) act. Doing so means that you have chosen to address some sort of problem within your own community and not left it to the state, or indeed to the market, to solve it for you.

Thus, although there is often a focus on social enterprise as a deliverer of public services it is also possible to examine the act of social enterprise as an alternative way of organising the economy. This chimes with current debates that the economy is supposed to work for society, not the other way around.

An intrinsic contribution to community?

In closing, Dr Roy suggested that there needs to be a greater recognition of the ‘wider –intrinsic- contribution of social enterprise to community and individual wellbeing in and of themselves’.

The CommonHealth programme is focused on beginning to unravel what exactly the intrinsic quality or qualities that social enterprises contribute to health and wellbeing in Scotland. Reflecting on the points above, research so far suggests that a commitment by practitioners to network and share their knowledge and experience at regional and national levels (for example through Community Business Scotland and later Senscot) have been an important factor in raising the voice of a diverse range of organisations working in both rural and urban contexts; an important foundation for today’s ‘ecosystem’. Likewise, a feature of the sectors’ work has been to find ways of operating that assist communities to identify ways through the social and economic challenges they face.

We hope that as our work develops to connect the values that have been historically important to the sector with findings on the latest challenges and opportunities facing practitioners.

We even dare to hope, like Dr Roy, that this may assist in maintaining political support for social enterprise in Scotland.

Dr Michael Roy and Dr Gill Murray

Is there room for co-operation in self-directed support?


The Scottish government has presented self-directed support (SDS) as an opportunity for people to gain choice and control over their social care. This has been welcomed in some respects, for example, disability rights activists have long argued that disabled people are not involved enough in discussions over their care. However, others have been concerned that moves towards SDS have been under-resourced and may undermine existing services, opening up gaps in the care and support of vulnerable people.

This debate has been preoccupying us at CommonHealth for a while, so this week Gill and Fiona have teamed up to unravel some of the issues.

The history of health and social care over the last 30 years has been very present in discussions of SDS. Academics have identified a policy trend towards ‘individual support and personalisation’. This can be placed within broader moves to situate the population as consumers of health, with public health messages that have increasingly urged people to take responsibility for their own ‘health and lifestyle’ since the 1970s. As well as this changing language, there have been important structural changes to the delivery of health and welfare support, particularly the transition to Care in the Community. Care in the Community must be understood in the context of the roll back of state services and the growing accommodation of the Third Sector; a trend started by Margaret Thatcher and continued by successive governments, often referred to as neoliberalism. This combination of the individualisation of public health, the positioning of patients as consumers and changes in the makeup of the health and welfare matrix explain how the language of control and choice in health and social care has gained ground over time; but are people really experiencing greater control and choice over their health and social care?

In a recent studies including our own, SDS payments were used by individuals as one part of a ‘mix and match’ approach to their care package. Social enterprises have seen the move to SDS as an opportunity to provide bespoke health and social care services, since clients can opt to use their SDS allowance to pay a social enterprise rather than statutory services. These social entrepreneurs have recognised SDS as an opportunity to generate more inclusive local services.  For individuals with complex needs, however, we found that some recipients with fluctuating conditions revert to their previous provision as their health changed. For this particularly vulnerable group there is a danger that local authorities may cut back their social care provision, leaving the burden of support with the third sector and communities.

How can a balance between the opportunities of SDS to provide access to bespoke services be balanced with consistent access to social care?

If we travel back to the nineteenth century it is possible to identify a different set of values and ideas that prioritised collective rather individual health in contemporary social welfare debates. Mutual aid organisations in the form of Friendly Societies and Trade Unions provided a form of insurance for their working class members. The pay-outs that people received from Friendly Societies allowed them to pay for medical services, in some ways comparable to direct payments in the twenty-first century. Membership of Friendly Societies required attendance at meetings and visits to collect payments, maintaining social links within the community. It allowed people to take control and maintain a level of choice over their health and welfare, but as a community rather than an individual endeavour.

In rural Scotland, there are examples of micro providers forming cooperatives to match people with services and allow people access to new forms of care.  These social entrepreneurs have recognised SDS as an opportunity to generate more inclusive local services, but will their efforts be enough to provide empowering forms of control and choice to patients and reverse the negative effects of individualised health and social care?


Gillian Murray & Fiona Henderson


Research quoted:

Kathy Boxall et al, ‘Selling individual budgets, choice and control: local and global influences on UK social care policy for people with learning difficulties’, Policy and Politics, 37:4 (2009).