A decade of making a difference

Earlier this month the findings of the latest census of social enterprise activity in Scotland was published (www.ceis.org.uk). From the many facts and figures presented in the census report it is clear that the number of social enterprises has continued to increase since the 2015 census, reaching a current total of 5600. The positive economic contribution those enterprises make remains considerable. As the census report also highlights, there are social enterprises of all shapes, sizes and forms across Scotland. However, the majority are small-scale ventures. Many are based in rural locations and have been set up to meet the needs of those communities.

If you delve into the story behind the development of many of the social enterprises in Scotland, you will learn about the support and guidance provided by Firstport. This organisation was established in 2007 to help social entrepreneurs turn their ideas into action. Over the past decade Firstport has gone from strength to strength, and I am quite sure the social enterprise scene in Scotland would not be as flourishing and vibrant without the committed work of Firstport’s staff encouraging, energising and guiding dedicated and passionate people to build sustainable organisations to help individuals and communities across the country. As an academic, I am deeply grateful to Firstport for inspiring and supporting some of my students to think about how they can put their knowledge, skills and experience into action to make a difference in their own communities.

Earlier this week I received a copy of Firstport’s report “Learning to start something good”. This was produced to commemorate the first 10 years of Firstport’s operation in Scotland. The brief film accompanying the report is both insightful and inspirational. You can access a copy of both the report and the film via the Firstport website (www.firstport.org.uk). Like the census document, the Firstport report is packed full of facts and figures about what has been achieved over the past decade. The report also looks forward and incudes some clear aims for Firstport’s further development.

Reading both the 2017 census findings and Firstport’s commemorative report this week, I have been struck again by the difficulties associated with providing a comprehensive account of the impact that social enterprises are making across Scotland – the difference being made to the lives of individuals within our towns, cities and rural areas. For many social enterprises recording, measuring and reporting impact is a considerable challenge, particularly during times of limited or diminishing funding sources. Some aspects of the work of social enterprises are easy to count and report in neat charts, graphs and tables, but so much of the real “difference-making work” is much harder to account for and present.

In Project 6 of the CommonHealth Research Programme (Aberdeen Foyer – An Impact Journey) we are wrestling with precisely that recording, measuring and reporting challenge. Working in close collaboration with staff at Aberdeen Foyer, the project team is currently knee-deep in exploring and reviewing a wide array of existing tools and techniques designed to address aspects of impact measurement and/or reporting. In the midst of ploughing through the reviewing and research process, it has been uplifting this week to be reminded, through the Firstport report, that social enterprises across Scotland are truly making a difference, and that organisations like Firstport are enabling and equipping social entrepreneurs to make that difference.

Happy birthday Firstport! Thank you for the difference you have made over the past decade. I, and I am sure many others, look forward to hearing about your journey over the next 10 years!

Professor Heather Fulford

Aberdeen Business School,

Robert Gordon University

Fancy a cuppa?

Tea Post


Now with all Commonhealth projects well under way, and my involvement with a consortium project, a discussion arose between researchers regarding the way in which we conduct interviews within social enterprises.

How much do we really learn from formal interviews? Those types that you sit down and ask listed questions while that scary little Dictaphone sits there on the table, and you can almost in many cases see the fear flit across the participants face and the little bricks start to go up behind the eyes, as if it’s some sort of test or interrogation. Or when a participant picks up the phone and briefly after introduction hangs up, as that is very simple to do.(This usually only happens if a full dialogue has not been instigated beforehand and the researcher has not spent informal, but valuable, time within the organisation).

Individuals can be ‘guarded’ with the information that you gather and although explained, signed and consented feel that the information they provide may actually be used unethically, or that their honesty might end up back to the ‘wrong’ people. So how can we decrease this stigma of talking to interviewers and increase participation in research projects?

As a researcher in the social enterprise sector I have experienced this uncertainty and caution from interview participants, and I am sure I am not alone. The cultures of social enterprises are vastly different than those of private organisations and it can be argued that a different research approach, perhaps more informal is indeed needed, and could be far more effective.

An undervalued and underutilised question that can actually not only change perceptions, but gain access, rapport and relax a participant is simply ‘do you fancy a cuppa tea?’ Social enterprises are busy organisations, usually with minimum staff and finding the time for interviews (particularly if planned in advance) can be difficult. Everyone has time for tea. The informal setting facilitates a more relaxed interview and you’re not really seen as a researcher but as an interested party of the organisation (obviously no matter what role, you still are, but again, perception).

Scheduling interviews, in particular with social enterprises in rural areas where researchers have to travel to, can be problematic, it would be great to go up for a day and have one interview after the other scheduled, get them done and go. But how much are we actually learning from this? You want the organisations to stay on board, to work in partnership and collaboratively with academics, and this just would not build the rapport needed to create a long lasting relationship.

To be able to keep an open communication with social enterprises, becoming embedded in the organisation is not that far-fetched, by playing a part in their everyday activities it allows for easier access, more natural and accurate answers and observations, including introductions to people that under other circumstances you would not have had the opportunity to meet. The ability just to show commitment to the organisation and genuine interest breaks down the researcher/public barrier to an extent, and comfortability really is crucial in interviewing participants and staff as it will provide you with much richer data.

As a part of this piece I looked at the terminology ‘ethical stalking’ as this is what this form of integration could be perceived as. It sounds terrible as if researchers are out in trees with their binoculars monitoring social enterprises around the country. But in fact ‘ethical stalking’ is really just networking and particularly within the social enterprise sector the power of networking should never be underestimated. It opens so many doors and provides extensive opportunities. By getting to know social enterprises the knowledge gathered provides far more value than traditional interviewing techniques.

So what I would say is never underestimate the data you can gather from ‘hanging out’ and drinking tea. (Don’t tell the supervisors).

Melanie Liddell

The Gathering 2017

‘Do not fear the digital world, it will not kill us all’

Theophilus London

This week I had the opportunity to attend 2017’s ‘The Gathering’ hosted by the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). Alongside the numerous third sector organisations (TSO’s) in attendance, there were a number of social enterprises and an extensive variety of information sessions, workshops and presentations, which really did resonate with me.

As I wandered around the exhibition between workshops, learning and mainly chatting (professionally, of course) to those in attendance, I noticed a common theme that was a significant focus among TSO’s today. And that was the revolution of the digital world. In a world increasingly ‘going digital’ from products and services, to impact reporting to funding opportunities, to name just a few, how does the ever changing and dynamic third sector evolve and keep up with their clients and communities digitally?

David McNeill, Digital Director of SCVO, posed the question ‘has the third sector evolved the way we deliver services to support individuals and communities in response to the digital world we live in?’ And from my experience I would say no, the sector has been quite slow in adopting the digital era, but from today’s event they are sure taking the steps to change this.

I attended OneDigital’s session on using digital tools effectively and it was a very practical set up. A little like speed dating with industry experts. With 18 tables of experts and only four half hour slots it was almost impossible to decide who you wanted to speak with, but they all provided you with what you wanted to know regarding their contribution to revolutionising the digital world in the third sector, and how this can support you and your organisation. It was exciting to see not only new software, but information databases, updated websites, streamlined search engines, even information regarding cyber security (highly debated among social enterprises, how safe is the cloud?), and these were great. But developing and providing better and more efficient systems is all well and good, so long as you have the technology acceptance of the staff…..

There was a brief mention of this and significant information regarding providing training, software and hardware, it was very inclusive of teaching the staff first, to then deliver to clients and the community too. But from previous research, a significant problem faced regarding anything digital is technology acceptance, it’s preconceived, and learned attitudes towards ‘all things digital’ that can have a significant negative impact on moving things forward. So, I’m not saying that what the sector is currently doing isn’t right; it’s influential just how far they have come, even just in the past year or so. But how do we address the culture, the attitudes and the guards that we know are already up?

The refreshing thing was to see just how many participants were in attendance at the digital sessions, showing the want to be more digital with their organisations but how can we ensure that this filters down effectively throughout the organisation?

In the coming years being digital will have a significant impact on third sector organisations, it will become a need for survival. You are unlikely to exist if you do not have a significant online presence, clients and communities need to have you right there, in their hands, for you to be noticed. And today’s event evidenced that there is significant support and commitment out there to help organisations do just that.

So as a social enterprise, voluntary organisation, charity, whoever you are in the third sector, are you ready to ‘go digital’? The help and support is there, but we need you on board. Let’s take the leap and continue to evolve the way in which we deliver services.

Melanie Liddell

Social Enterprise Strategy

se-strategy-image-2Following on from a previous post regarding the social enterprise strategy (here) it sparked my curiosity regarding other social enterprise strategies that had been introduced in other countries. At first glance (google searches and networking), they are few and far between, but with some terminology tweaking you can find them buried in the depths of Government policy and literature.

The name of the documents was interesting in itself; from strategy, to blueprint, to vision, to framework. Each one of these words creates a different perspective for the reader, is the document what the Government hope to see? Is it a document that incorporates a step by step process for empowering and expanding opportunities for social enterprises? Or is the document a collection of ideas that perhaps in time would be beneficial for the sector? And it is the word from the outset that establishes the reader’s expectations from such a document.

A concerning factor of the Scottish social enterprise strategy was the numerous grey areas alongside a certain vagueness regarding specific priorities and workstreams. And looking initially at another four ‘strategies’ (the names of the documents do vary), from various regions; this was also the case in three of them. The ideas, the opportunity, the potential buy in from readers’ was there, but the execution, the how we are going to achieve these, at times ambitious goals for the sector, were ambiguous. One document did break down a year by year, step by step process of how they were going to achieve sector sustainability by 2018. And it begs the question, although almost an operational plan, is this what Scotland’s social enterprise sector were hoping for with the new strategy, or do we prefer the flexibility due to the changing nature of such a diverse sector?

Although vague at times there were two prominent and recurring themes in all social enterprise strategies that will lead the way for social enterprises in the future, and that is collaboration and visibility. Both of these priorities were not only represented in all ‘strategies’, but are reiterated extensively throughout the documents.

The documents discuss and emphasise the importance of social enterprises working collaboratively with the Government, public sector, educational institutions and private sector. In turn this would reduce costs, share resources and create new opportunities in a variety of markets. These are crucial benefits for the sector, as with extensive funding cuts but increased opportunity and demand for services; the need for alternative resource is at its highest. For a sector striving for sustainability, collaboration would appear to be the answer. If this is now an international understanding, could it see a baseline for incorporating more international collaboration of social enterprises? Social enterprises taking the world by storm perhaps?

From the strategies analysed another recurring priority was social enterprise visibility to consumers. And looking at the social enterprise figures it is astounding how many are still unaware of social enterprises. There are 120,000 social enterprises operating in Thailand, 50,000 more than the UK (please note there are small differences in social enterprise classifications). The Scottish social enterprise strategy hope for the sector to be fuelled by consumer demand, and look to encourage ‘buy social’. Understandably with so many social enterprises operating worldwide, the need for consumer commitment and support is crucial in terms of survival. This is still in the learning phase for many, and it would appear to be an international challenge, but with implementation of strategies, it looks to change the perceptions of the public to understand the extensive work that comes out of social enterprises’ products and services. This in turn could lead to an internationally recognised certification for social enterprises, not just in Scotland.

Many of the social enterprise strategies identified have been implemented in the last 2-3 years with the exception of Wales who were ahead of the game in 2005. This is largely due to Governments identifying and understanding the significant contribution their social enterprises are having on their economies and the support in which they provide. Working together would increase opportunities and meet demand. But in the light of collaboration should Governments worldwide perhaps be discussing their strategies to see what is working so we can work towards the best strategies for the sectors? Learn from each other? They speak about collaborating with everyone but what if there was collaboration for policy to further support this ever growing sector.

So the question is, are these strategies/blueprints/visions/frameworks meeting, not just the expectations, but the needs of social enterprises worldwide? We can see that social enterprises are being more recognised by their individual Governments, particularly due to their contribution to economy and those incorporating support, legislation and policy do want to step up and increase opportunity, but are the documents instilling this? Can we expect to see progression to a worldwide social enterprise strategy?

With these documents being the first of their kind, the next stages (although many are looking to achieve sustainability), particularly in Scotland, should hopefully see a further understanding and descriptive, almost operational, process to move the sector forward. Perhaps this will come with the 3 year action plans?

Melanie Liddell

Scotland’s Social Enterprise Strategy

It’s finally here…..after significant discussion, debate and deliberation the Scottish Government released Scotland’s Social Enterprise Strategy for the next ten years on Wednesday 14th December. But the question is, does it live up to and meet the needs of social enterprises in Scotland?

Previously there was discussion around this strategy at the Yunus Centre’s annual John Pearce Memorial Lecture (see here for link), and the first thing that brings a little comfort is knowing that the 10 year strategy has been broken down into 3 year action plans. A previous concern was how would it be possible in a fast, dynamic and continually changing sector to put together a 10 year strategy? Even a 3 year action plan is ambitious for the social enterprise sector! But…it is more manageable, and the strategy identifies an understanding of the world as ‘volatile, complex and ambiguous’, instilling confidence that the strategy hopes to continue to be re-evaluated and adapted alongside the sector as it changes.

The document as a whole gives good identification of social enterprises work in their communities (and is an easy read compared to some Government strategies):

  • it realises the potential of the social enterprise sector and how they are part of a global effort towards social change;
  • it realises social enterprises contribution to economy;
  • it emphasises the importance of partnership and collaboration with others sectors;
  • it recognises that social enterprises represent an important part of business and community life and will contribute significantly to a more inclusive Scotland.
  • and it promotes the need to normalise learning about social enterprises while contributing to our ‘world class research capabilities’ within the sector.

It is refreshing to see significant recognition for the work that the sector delivers, as at times it can be perceived that their contribution can go unnoticed. It is well deserved and gives assurance that social enterprises work has been realised and their contribution has been incorporated into the new strategy.

The strategy draws on the vital research conducted that formed the first social enterprise census (find here). With integrative support from active social enterprises and extensive research it can be perceived that the strategy has been constructed from the most knowledgeable throughout the sector and has the potential to succeed with the correct execution.

The document after introduction breaks down the political, social, economic and technological ‘plausible’ trend ‘predictions’, and overall the ‘predictions’ can be evidenced from within the sector. Although this has been identified the strategy seems to have a few over ambitious ideas in regards to addressing these. This will be further discussed by the research team in the coming weeks.

Before breaking down the framework the economic strategy lays out four key areas that will be the focus going forward:

  • investment
  • innovation
  • inclusive growth
  • internationalisation

The strategy then continues to elaborate and describe the three priorities for the social enterprise strategy (although vaguely at times):

  • stimulating social enterprise
  • developing stronger communities
  • realising market opportunity

These broadly cover the goals of both the Government and social enterprises. The strategy lays out the Scottish Governments ambitions for Scotland, which are closely related and interlinked with numerous social enterprises aims and objectives for their organisations:

  • to increase sustainable economic growth;
  • to create a world leading entrepreneurial and innovative nation;
  • better and affordable public services that rise to the challenge of tackling inequalities;
  • to build stronger, more resilient and supportive communities;
  • to be a good global citizen by increasing international reputation and addressing global challenges.

The majority of these ambitions (3 out of 5 in particular) are things that social enterprises have already been striving for, they have been working hard to tackle inequalities, they have been committed to building stronger communities and their dedication and devotion to making a difference shows just how entrepreneurial and innovative Scottish social enterprises are (figures can be found in the Social Enterprise Census, 2015). So it can be perceived that they have to continue doing the significant work that they have been and will have done despite the strategy but hopefully with Government collaboration it will provide further opportunities for local communities.

Although the strategy reads supportively, optimistically and praises the work of the social enterprise sector there are still a number of uncertainties. There are some things that do not align with the strategy at all e.g. cuts in funding support particularly in rural communities. The strategy’s priorities that give what looks like a great structure in fact has some very grey areas regarding just how they are going to deliver on some elements. There is concern about how much is known regarding social enterprise operations. The sector may be understood but its extensive diversity and how it operates is a lost throughout the strategy….

So…..now that we have the strategy and we have had time to digest it, we as a research team plan to bring further critical discussion to you regularly over the coming months that link in with emerging findings from the CommonHealth project. So stay tuned…….

Project 6 – Meaningful Measurement?

meaningful-measurement-imageFor the past two months I have been immersed in Aberdeen Foyer getting to know everyone and everything regarding their impact measurement processes. It has been a fantastic experience and at times provided more questions than answers! But as a researcher it just sparks my curiosity.

Throughout the project we have been using the term ‘meaningful measurement’ as it fits well with what we are trying to establish through our research. Many social enterprises find measuring their impact a chore rather than a meaningful activity. Measuring soft outcomes can be particularly difficult. You may have a variety of colourful and visual reports, spreadsheets and statistics but does it really mean anything? There is always uncertainty around whether they are measuring too little or too much, and with most social enterprises they are measuring what is required by funders.

After an initial feedback session to senior management the project will now feedback to all staff, accompanied by a lean thinking session. A change team at Foyer will then be developed to lead on everything regarding measurement processes from within.

I look forward to providing further updates and to discussing the work with the other researchers on the project team.

Melanie Liddell


John Pearce Memorial Lecture

jp-imageEarlier this month the Yunus Centre held their annual John Pearce Memorial Lecture focusing on community and social enterprise in a Scotland within Europe, an insightful lecture that really got you thinking about the challenges of the sector and the diverse perspectives of the community.

Pauline Graham, Chief Executive of Social Firms Scotland (SFS), joined us this year to provide us with a great lecture drawing on her own experiences and involvement with the government and third sector. Before joining SFS Pauline managed the Social Economy Scotland Partnership at SCVO attracting over £5million in EU funding to support social economy developments in Scotland. Pauline is an inspirational woman representing Scotland at European Commission level, and social enterprise on a range of government and Third Sector fora. She is the founding director of Ready for Business Procurement LLP, and has co-authored several publications related to the sector. It was a great opportunity to hear her speak, providing the researcher brain with some food for thought….

An interesting development, but debatable win for the sector is that the Government have committed to a 10 year strategy for Social Enterprises reflecting the sector’s confidence and finally giving a baseline, this is due to be launched in November. It will be interesting to follow this development.

Some emerging questions from this development include: in a sector so diverse, dynamic and continually evolving is it possible to formulate a 10 year strategy? The sector could look completely different in the next year never mind the next 10 years. Any such strategy will need to be adaptable and flexible to the ever changing needs and developments within the sector. Will the strategy be able to adapt in a timely manner to the changing needs of the communities that social enterprises serve?

Last year’s Social Enterprise Census in Scotland turned a spotlight on the fact that 36% of social enterprises did not say that they identify as a social enterprise. This could make buy-in to the Governments 10 year strategy challenging. Having come across organisations that do not self-identify as social enterprises, it is an interesting perspective where more research could be beneficial to find out why these organisations do not identify as social enterprises. What do they identify as? And how do they see themselves within the sector? There are two sides of the government strategy: how will this 36% (an astonishing 1366 organisations) respond and relate to the strategy?

Graham also reflected in her lecture on the values that student work placements in social enterprises have, do such placements offer added benefits over placements in private and corporate organisations? How can students apply their ideas, knowledge, skills and learning to help social enterprises? Should schools and universities be providing more placement opportunities within social enterprises? What about the value of such placements for skills such as citizenship and innovation?

Pauline mentioned that a key focus for the future is collaboration. Think about what could be achieved if all the offices involved (including Government) could work together to address the needs of our communities!

Melanie Liddell

For more information on the 2015 Social Enterprise Census please follow the link: https://commonhealthresearch.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/the-social-enterprise-census-2015/

CommonHealth at Aberdeen Foyer


Introducing CommonHealth at Aberdeen Foyer!
…Now underway at Robert Gordon’s University Aberdeen, find out more about the latest addition to the CommonHealth programme…

“Every action we take impacts the lives of others around us. The question is: Are you aware of your impact?”

Arthur Carmazzi

This is an increasingly vital question for social enterprises everywhere. Under scrutiny by funders, local councils and even communities, social enterprises are having to evidence their impact more extensively to not only receive and sustain funding but to gain support and commitment to their mission.  In the current climate where funding is quickly evaporating and competition increasing, it is no surprise that social enterprises are expected to evidence a comprehensive collection of data with regular alterations to the requirements.

CommonHealth at Aberdeen Foyer intends to examine the effectiveness of existing mechanisms used to measure health and wellbeing outcomes. A comparative investigations with other social enterprises in Scotland is also being planned. Aberdeen Foyer will be the primary focus of the project. Now with over 20 years’ experience Aberdeen Foyer was initially formed to support the multiple issues that young people aged 16-25 face resulting in homelessness. Through the years they have extended their services and encompass a wider age range with young people still being their priority. Aberdeen Foyer aim to transform the lives of those with whom they work through support and opportunity for independent living, learning and work.

“Everyone needs a home, support and a springboard into independent living, learning and work. Some don’t have it. Aberdeen Foyer helps to fill the gap.”

Aberdeen Foyer

With three businesses; Foyer Graphics, Roadwise Driver Training and Foyer Works not only do Aberdeen Foyer have valuable income that supports their work, but are able to raise their profile throughout the wider community and offer employment, work experience and training opportunities. As a dynamic and ever changing organisation Aberdeen Foyer adapts to the needs of the client making them an ideal case study for measuring impact. With projects delivered in both Aberdeen City and Shire they support communities throughout the whole North East of Scotland.

CommonHealth at Aberdeen Foyer will investigate how Aberdeen Foyer collect, record, analyse, report, and transmit their data. And how this relates to action planning and decision making. Some evidence can be straightforward; number of participants, individuals moving on to positive destinations but it’s the measurement of softer outcomes that has proven to be more complex, how do you measure outcomes? With these outcomes being different for every individual, CommonHealth at Aberdeen Foyer looks to understand how these are measured currently and if there are more effective and efficient methods of doing so.

With the use of human centred design techniques the research will design, develop and test new measurement frameworks. This is with a view of helping social enterprises like Aberdeen Foyer increase the effectiveness of their health and wellbeing interventions and enable them to report more comprehensively and meaningfully on their impact.

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Albert Einstein

Melanie Liddell

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