What do we mean? Reflections on interviewing with interpreters

For the Housing through Social Enterprise research (CommonHealth Project 7), we are attempting to interview new tenants of three different social enterprises working in the housing sector. The first interview, conducted around the time when tenants move in to their new tenancy, is done over the phone, whilst follow-up interviews at 2-3 months and 9-12 months are undertaken face-to-face.

Because we’re trying to engage all new tenants in the project, this involves interviewing a wide range of people – all ages and all backgrounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the substantial increase in Glasgow’s ethnic diversity over the last couple of decades, some of the tenants we have been interviewing are relatively recent arrivals who are not yet fluent English speakers. So we’ve recently conducted a number of telephone interviews using interpreters, which led me to reflect a little on what we had learned through this process.

Firstly, working through an interpreter has been Interpreter symbol challenging, but also very useful in terms of thinking through how I describe the research. After dozens of interviews and many more initial contacts with potential research participants, it is easy to get into bad habits, rattling through the introductory spiel because I’ve said it so many times – forgetting that this is the first time that the tenant on the other end of the phone has heard it. And they’re probably thinking about something else anyway, because I’ve just interrupted their day. Breaking down the well-practiced pitch into bite-sized sections for interpretation has not been easy, but it’s really helped me to think about which points are really necessary and which are just academic waffle. For example, from our perspective it’s absolutely key that the research is about social enterprise, but for tenants this really doesn’t matter – given the challenges of defining social enterprise across countries, the last thing we need to do is confuse interpreters and tenants with terms that are really a kind of jargon. And this doesn’t just apply to speakers of other languages – if things don’t translate very easily into other languages, they probably don’t make much sense in everyday English either.

Secondly, we’ve also had to think hard about how things are translated in writing. As well as the telephone interviews, we are asking research participants to complete a short questionnaire about their health and wellbeing. Again, living in the world of social research it’s easy to assume that everyone is happy ticking boxes and understanding multiple choice question formats. In the 21st century world of endless online feedback surveys, that may be true to some extent, but we still need to think carefully about how questionnaires are worded and structured to ensure that they make sense to the respondent. As an example, I realised rather late in the day that one of the languages we were translating into is written right-to-left. The translation service did a great job of translating the questions and the answer options, but only after the fact did I realise that I would need to check that the tickboxes were also now running right-to-left.

Finally, reflecting on my own experience of working through interpreters, I was reminded just how challenging things can be for those involved in our research. The social enterprises themselves have to ensure that they can provide a service to tenants no matter which language they speak. And, more critically, tenants themselves have to navigate through a complex housing system at times when they are under considerable stress, so I am infinitely impressed at those who can manage to survive the journey when their first language is not English, let along the unique lingo of housing jargon. The next time I am getting frustrated at the number of tenants who don’t want to pick up my call or who aren’t instantly keen to participate in the research, I’ll remind myself just how hard life can be for those in desperate housing need.

Steve Rolfe

Project update: Housing through Social Enterprise


You know what they say – how time flies when you’re having fun trying to understand the health impacts of social enterprises in the housing sector. We’re nearly at the end of the first full year of the Housing through Social Enterprise project (Commonhealth Project 7), so we thought it would be a good time to provide a bit of an update. It’s been a busy year, but it’s only going to get busier…which is exciting, if a little daunting too.


What have we done so far?

Since we first outlined the project back in March, we’ve identified the three housing organisations who will be our partners in the research:

Homes for Good – a Glasgow-based social enterprise set up in 2013 as a not-for-profit hfg-logoletting agency, with the aim of supporting vulnerable households to access quality rented accommodation and sustain their tenancies. The organisation also has an investment arm, which is using social investment finance to buy and renovate properties, which it then rents out to people on low incomes who are at risk of homelessness and/or have a variety of other social needs. Unlike most letting agents, Homes for Good uses some of its income to provide a tenancy support service, helping tenants to deal with managing money, looking after their home, accessing specialist services, or whatever else is needed to help them sustain their tenancy.

Y People – a charity providing a range of support services to vulnerable people across yp-logo2Scotland. We will be working with two schemes run by Y People in Glasgow and South Lanarkshire, which provide a rent deposit guarantee for people who are at risk of homelessness, but are unable to access housing in the private rented sector because they have no savings for a deposit. The schemes provide support to tenants during the first year of their tenancy, helping them to maintain their tenancy and build up savings for the deposit.

NG Homes – a large, community-based housing association, which provides social ngh-logohousing for a substantial part of North Glasgow. As well as housing, NG Homes provides a range of regeneration and support services in partnership with other voluntary organisations, from money advice to community development. It also operates NG2, a subsidiary which provides training and employment for local people.

Through the spring and summer, we interviewed key staff from each organisation to clarify exactly how they work and to identify the different ways in which they may have an impact on their tenants’ lives. Crucially, we’re trying to understand the specific impact of these organisations as social enterprises and to develop new ways of measuring this impact. It might seem obvious enough that having a home is likely to make you feel better than not having one, but the question for this project is whether the involvement of social enterprises in providing housing delivers anything extra. Each of the organisations can be characterised as a social enterprise, but they exhibit their social-enterprisey-ness* in different ways, so looking at the three organisations should help us to understand what it is about being a trading, not-for-profit organisation with a clear social purpose that might deliver health and wellbeing benefits for various groups of tenants.


What have we found out?

To give some examples of interesting interim findings, three issues emerged from the staff interviews which we would like to explore further in our research with tenants:

  • Tenancy support – all three organisations place a lot of emphasis on supporting tenants to sustain their tenancies, but they each approach it in different ways. We’re interested in the ways in which the organisations’ not-for-profit status may help with such support, enabling them to invest in services for tenants. And we also want to look at the ways in which the ‘social mission’ of each organisation filters down to frontline staff and tenants.
  • Affordability – not surprisingly, affordability of housing came up time and time again when talking to staff of all three organisations. The diversity of the participant organisations across the social and private rented sector should help us to explore different ways in which not-for-profit organisations can tackle the challenges of housing affordability for low-income households.
  • Neighbourhood and community – we all know that location is quite important in terms of how a house feels (isn’t there a TV programme which has something to do with location…?), but houses generally don’t move, so issues of neighbourhood and community can be thorny problems for housing organisations. Again, there are some interesting differences which arise from the different models of the three organisations involved in the research – we want to explore the ways in which their social missions play out in terms of community development or, in some circumstances, enabling tenants to choose their community.

We’re currently working on a full report of this scoping phase, which we’ll be publishing on the Commonhealth website early in 2017.


What are we going to do next?

Having worked out exactly how each organisation works and identified some of the key areas we want to explore through the research, we’re now starting to recruit tenants to the project. We’re hoping to find at least 30 new tenants from each organisation who would be willing to be interviewed two or three times over the first year of their tenancy, helping us to explore what changes happen in their health and wellbeing and what it is about their housing provider that makes a difference in their lives. If all goes to plan, we should be able to produce at least some initial findings in the second half of 2017, so keep watching this space…


Steve Rolfe, University of Stirling

Lisa Garnham, Glasgow Centre for Population Health


*social-enterprisey-ness is a new term we’ve invented to talk about the different ways in which organisations can be characterised as social enterprises, without delving into the heated debate about definitions of social enterprise. Some organisations may be more ‘social-enterprisey’ in terms of the strength of their social mission, whilst others may be more ‘social-enterprisey’ in the way they reinvest trading profits.



Innovative ways to talk about innovation


The International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC) came to Glasgow last week, bringing 236 delegates from 34 countries to hear 168 presentations on the latest research into social enterprise and innovation. It would be impossible to capture even a fraction of the conference in one short blog post, so I’m just going to outline one session – the CommonHealth panel (which was obviously the best session anyway…)

One of the strange things about academic conferences, even those that are focused on social innovation, is how inflexible they are in terms of structure – 20 minutes of incomprehensible powerpoint, followed by 10 minutes of questions, followed by 20 minutes of incomprehensible powerpoint, followed by…etc, etc. So it was nice to be able to break the mould just a little with the help of three social enterprises who are working with us in the CommonHealth research programme. Rather than dry academic presentations, we asked each organisation to talk a little about what they do, how they do it and why they do it – a direct and personal introduction to the reality of social enterprise in Scotland. Here’s a summary of what they said:

hfg-renovation-picsFirstly, Joey from Homes for Good told us how they work as a not-for-profit letting agent and landlord to give vulnerable households access to quality, affordable housing. In a world where people can wait up to 12 years to access social housing, the private rented sector is increasingly being seen as an alternative for people at risk of homelessness. But for many people private renting can be a nightmare of extortionate rent levels, poor quality housing and appalling service from letting agents and landlords. Homes for Good is trying to break that pattern by taking profit out of the equation and providing quality housing at affordable rents.

The Housing through Social Enterprise project is working closely with Homes for Good and other social enterprises in the housing sector to examine what impacts they have on tenants’ lives and wellbeing.

onc-picSecondly, Irene from Orbiston Neighbourhood Centre in Bellshill described the vast range of activities run by and in the Centre, bringing people together to tackle poverty, isolation and intolerance. From childcare to a service for older people; a food coop and café to befriending; volunteering to computer learning; not to mention providing a base for a plethora of other local groups and services, there’s not much that the Neighbourhood Centre doesn’t do. One of the big challenges for Focus 50+, the CommonHealth project which is working with the Centre and other social enterprises addressing the needs of older people, is just how to encapsulate the diversity of impacts.

wevolution-wheelLastly, Eleanor from Wevolution talked about the work that they do to support self-reliant groups (SRGs) across Scotland. SRGs enable people to come together, build a common purpose through socialising and saving collectively, and in the long run to start a small business. From very small beginnings, SRGs are now popping up all round the country.

Eleanor also reflected on the experience of being part of the CommonHealth research programme, now that Project 4, Passage from India, is coming to a close. One of the key challenges of such research is how to build on the partnership when the initial research project has come to an end.

And if all of the excitement of hearing from social enterprises wasn’t enough, the session finished up with an open discussion of where the rest of the CommonHealth research is heading and how it can best fit into the growing body of evidence about the impacts of social enterprise. We even moved the chairs into a circle, although that level of innovation was a bit much for some people!

 Steve Rolfe




Living with uncertainty – the possible implications of Brexit for social enterprises

great briitain leaves european union metaphor

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

Moments such as the EU referendum seem to be of such enormous historical import that it would be irresponsible to ignore them. Hence, when I sat down to write the first Commonhealth blog of the post-referendum era, the implications of Brexit seemed the most obvious theme. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, however, it is almost impossible to distinguish between wise predictions of the future and the meaningless sound and fury that fills the 24-hour news cycle.

So what can we say with any certainty about the implications of Brexit for social enterprise? Probably not much, but there may be a few things to watch out for in the coming months…

Firstly, the economic effects of Brexit are likely to affect all of us, including social enterprises. Setting aside the inevitable dip in the markets after the vote, nobody can yet say with any certainty whether the Remain campaign’s predictions of economic doom or the Leave campaign’s forecast of long-term growth will prove correct. However, the evidence suggests that the majority of social enterprise leaders are relatively optimistic about their ability to weather the storm – according to Social Enterprise UK’s pre-referendum polling, nearly 60% said that they did not expect Brexit to put their business at risk.

Secondly, for any social enterprise which relies in part on EU funding (particularly given the importance of the European Social Fund in the employability field), these will be nervous days. Whilst such funding may disappear with Brexit, there are clearly political decisions to be made as to whether similar funding is made available within the UK, if the government is no longer contributing to the EU.

Thirdly, some have suggested that there may be new opportunities for social enterprises bidding for public contracts, if the EU constraints on procurement are removed. However, any such changes are unlikely to happen quickly, since EU regulations have largely been incorporated into domestic legislation.

Fourthly, who knows what will happen here in Scotland? As Nicola Sturgeon starts to build European alliances amid the possibility of Indyref2, Brexit could conceivably be followed by Scentry, or even supplanted by Screplacement…

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, social enterprises may be well-placed to manage the uncertainty. As Peter Holbrook, Chief Exec of SEUK suggests, “social entrepreneurs are nothing if not adaptable and I have faith that most leaders of social enterprises will see whatever lies ahead as a challenge rather than a threat.” And crucially, the Commonhealth team will continue to research the impacts of social enterprise – the world may seem different after the referendum, but we still need good research evidence if policy-makers are going to make informed decisions for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Steve Rolfe


Introducing Commonhealth Project 7…

Housing through Social Enterprise: Implications for tenants, housing providers and wider society

March 23 2016

When Bob Dylan asked how it feels to be without a home, I’m sure he knew the answer…and it probably had four letters in it. We all know how important it is to have a house that we can call home – the right to adequate housing is even enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which says that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care”. So it’s perhaps not surprising that a range of social enterprises have got involved in the housing sector and in supporting people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Housing associations, housing co-ops and employment projects supporting homeless people back into work are all examples of organisations with a clear social purpose and a significant trading aspect, even if they might not always see themselves as social enterprises.

Commonhealth Project 7 is intended to examine the roles that social enterprises may play in the housing/homelessness field and, in particular, the potential health impacts that they might deliver. The central focus of the project will be on Homes for Good, a Community Interest Company established in 2013 with the aim of supporting vulnerable households to access quality rented accommodation and sustain their tenancies. The organisation provides a letting agency service which aims to support people on low incomes using the private rented sector, and also to raise standards across the sector by delivering higher quality homes and services for both landlords and tenants. Since 2014, Homes for Good has also been using social investment finance to build its own property portfolio, directly providing housing to people in need.

HFG keys image

Being not-for-profit, Homes for Good is able to use some of its income to provide a tenancy support service, helping tenants to maintain their tenancies. This might involve help with managing their money or benefit applications, looking after their home, or accessing specialist services where needed. And Homes for Good also aims to maximise its social value by using other social enterprises to supply goods and services as it renovates properties.

Throughout the project, we’ll be working closely with Homes for Good to explore exactly how they try to deliver social value and what impacts their approach may have on the health of their tenants. This will involve tracking a number of tenants over the next couple of years, to see what changes happen in their lives and how Homes for Good has an impact, amongst the many other factors that may be important. We’ll also be trying to examine the wider social impact that an organisation like Homes for Good can have through its interactions with other agencies and the wider housing sector.

Most importantly, the project aims to understand the specific impact of Homes for Good as a social enterprise and develop new ways of measuring this impact. It’s obvious enough that having a home is likely to make you feel better than not having one, but the question for this project is whether the involvement of social enterprises in providing housing delivers anything extra. In order to get to grips with this question, the research will include comparisons between Homes for Good tenants and individuals using different services – probably some delivered by social enterprises and some delivered by other types of organisations. We’re still working out exactly how this element of the research will work, so watch this space…

 Steve Rolfe