Is social enterprise a threat to community development?


This was a question thrown at us when Alan Kay (a partner on the CommonHealth project) and I presented at the Community Development Journal conference in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago.

The conference was an exciting mix of the old guard- seminal community development practitioners and academics, and those newer to the field (including myself). There was also really good attendance from people from overseas organisations and universities to offer international experiences and perspectives.

The Community Development Journal (CDJ) arranged the conference to celebrate its 50th anniversary and the first plenary session sought to reflect on this history. I was interested to hear that it was borne out of the development workers returning from the newly independent colonies who wanted a space to reflect on their practice and how it might be relevant to the UK context.

Other plenary sessions made reference to the Community Development Projects of the 1960s which were state owned and state controlled. Despite this, many of the community development practitioners involved were able to subvert the projects and rather than align the outcomes to the government principles at the time delivered a structural analysis of the lives of those living in deprived community. Eventually the project was pulled and yet, as pointed out by one of the conference attendees, this analysis is as relevant now as it was in the 1960s.

Reflecting on more recent times some speakers talked about the aims of the journal in its current form. CDJ  ‘adopts a broad definition of community development to include policy, planning and action as they impact on the life of communities. It seeks to publish critically focused articles which challenge received wisdom, report and discuss innovative practices, and relate issues of community development to questions of social justice, diversity and environmental sustainability.’

I have gone slightly off topic, but this potted history is merely to illustrate the established and varied nature of the audience Alan and I had to contend with. We were aware that there would be some scepticism regarding the value of social enterprise and how comfortably (or not) it would work alongside community development practices.

Despite our concerns, and the inevitable scepticism, it was a well-received session with a number of interesting debates and discussion (none of which were fully resolved!) and gave us lots to reflect upon as the CommonHealth project proceeds.

  • There is potential for social enterprise to address social isolation, a core part of health and wellbeing. It can also encourage community participation but it depends on the structure of the organisation. It is important for people to be considered as more than a service user and instead be actively engaged as members. However, this is also what good community development can do, so what is unique about social enterprise’s contribution to improved health and wellbeing?
  • Some have assumed that social enterprise can be a positive step towards moving away from grant dependency, while this can be the case it could result in market dependency which can be just as problematic.
  • There was some concern with the potential for social enterprise to represent collusion with the agenda of neo-liberal austerity as services are withdrawn and budgets reduced. Social enterprise could be seen to be justifying or managing this process.
  • Critical thinking is required whenever it comes to considering new practices and interventions, thereby making it increasingly important to consider and question the power relations within communities and organizations

Of course we haven’t managed to answer the question of whether or not social enterprise is a threat to community development, but it was very useful to explore these issues with academics and practitioners in this field. What was clear was that just as we have benefited from the collaboration of social enterprise practitioners through the Knowledge Exchange Forums we also benefited from collaboration with this diverse group of academics and practitioners from the field of community development. In answering some of these difficult questions it seems that collaboration of all types is the way forward.

Growth at the very edge

Born and bred in an inner city, I’ve had my preconceptions of social enterprises as well funded, technologically capable and fast growing entities that exist, quite commonly in urban deprived areas. The very word enterprise has synonyms of ‘boldness’ and ‘inventiveness’ that is all encompassing. Coupled with the idea of the ‘Starship Enterprise’, it might lead someone like me to believe it to be some abstract yet powerful third sector force to be reckoned with.

The reality is that many social enterprises are fragile organisations that can suffer from a lack of guidance, funding and resources. This could not be truer for many rural and remote community enterprises in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where life can change completely on the roll of a dice. Communities in these areas can live on the tipping point with depleting populations, poor transport links and lack of infrastructure. All of which can be contributing factors to the small population size in many rural communities in these areas.

Of the existing populations many choose to migrate to mainland cities like Inverness and Aberdeen to gain an education or to look for work. This can result in a disproportionately large ageing population, threatening the future development and sustainability of communities.


To me the idea of this was initially hard to comprehend. Imagine an island with only 100 inhabitants, 10 of which are aged between 18-30yrs, what happens if 7 of these leave to go to University? How do keep the remaining 3 people from leaving?

Like in inner cities, social enterprises in rural and isolated regions are built from the ground up with the intention of strengthening and sustaining communities economically, socially and culturally. Yet, if social enterprises in remote areas are primarily governed and run by ageing populations this brings into question their shelf life. The very nature of these enterprises is that they are community led and governed in such a democratic way that everyone is entitled to a voice. But what if the voices are depleting? Who continues the conversation?

It could be said that the future of social enterprises in fragile remote and rural locations lies in community development initiatives that involve a cross section of all age groups. However, opportunities and anchors for young people must be put in place to persuade individuals not to leave and also to attract young outsiders to move into these areas. This may include targeting them as service users, employing them as staff members, or electing them onto boards of governance. Their skills and opinions must be utilised and coveted. But this is not as simple as it seems.

Of course there are many factors that require consideration, but here are a few of my initial thoughts: Community development may involve the delivery of ICT education, installing of broadband internet and workplace placements for young people. But this could serve to broaden the horizons of young people and open them up to a world of possibilities outside of their community, which may make them more likely to leave. Similarly, universities across Scotland are offering opportunities for young people from rural areas to move away from home and study in large cities to improve their job prospects.

Interestingly, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) based in Inverness offers courses that cater to rural industry such as forestry, tourism, game-keeping and sustainable energy solutions. Courses can be studied online or remotely at one of their many campuses which could ensure that young people’s skills are re-invested into rural development and conservation within their communities. But, in the same breath, young people’ skill sets must have a welcome place back into the heart of their rural community home. They must be recognised as vital assets for the future of social enterprises and communities themselves.

Ultimately, without the utilisation of youth ideas and skills into rural social enterprises, we can only hope that ageing populations are living long enough to leave some kind of enterprising legacy for the next generation to build upon.


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.

History with present-tense value: A historians perspective on interdisciplinary research

Just like my colleagues I’ve been doing my bit at conference season over the last couple of weeks, so I thought I’d share my reflections on some interesting conversations I’ve been having on my travels. A lot of this chat has revolved around the issue of interdisciplinarity, and what it means for historical research.

Charles Rennie MacKintosh understood the value of an alternative perspective
Charles Rennie MacKintosh understood the value of an alternative perspective

Interdisciplinarity can mean something as innocuous as sharing knowledge across the boundaries of academic disciplines, or as potentially radical as using this shared knowledge to forge a whole new academic discipline. Like research ‘impact’ and the ‘REF’, interdisciplinary working can feel like something that is being imposed on academics from above, while already busy work-schedules allow only a tokenistic engagement with the interdisciplinary research process. There has been many an article discussing concerns and opportunities surrounding interdisciplinarity in Times Higher over the years.

Historians are often written into interdisciplinary research bids because having someone to provide the ‘long view’ of the research topic adds gravitas. Also certain skills in archival research or recording oral histories are relatively specialist and sought after. However, there are very real concerns to consider, such as how interdisciplinary research may affect the integrity of your work? Moreover, if historians are really going to engage with interdisciplinarity how can understanding of the past be meaningfully integrated with data collected from present-centred disciplines?

For many of the historians I’ve been talking to there is an appeal in working with researchers from other disciplines so that their historical research becomes relevant for the present day. There is a desire among some historians for their work to have a real present-tense value. Of course some historians do manage this without engaging with interdisciplinarity, by readdressing popular myths surrounding an event or personality, or through public engagement with schools, museums etc. But if you are interdisciplinary inclined here’s my top three tips for interdisciplinary working that I’ve picked up from my time with health economists, social scientists and anthropologists:

  1. Structure: There is no one-size fits all answer as to how an historical perspective can add value to an interdisciplinary research project. It may be through data collection -unearthing new materials from an overlooked archive. It may be how data is interpreted in the analysis stage of the project. It may be that a historian’s ability to tell a story with their research means they are most valuable when thinking about research dissemination. Therefore, it’s important to share work with your colleagues at every stage of the research process, invite them into the archive, give a ten minute work-in-progress paper at an informal team meeting. Build these meetings and opportunities for listening and learning into the research time-table.
  1. Tools: Be open to learning new ways of data collection and storage, especially if this means they are more easily shared with your colleagues. I’ve been getting to grips with NVIVO, since it’s the software that my colleagues use, and too my surprise it’s worked well and I’ve even found other historians using it too!
  1. Language: A term that you may use fairly casually in your own discipline can become a point of contention when you are talking to someone from another background for whom it’s meaning and implications are very different. Working outside your discipline can be a great exercise in simplifying the language you use and becoming more adept at explaining key concepts in your discipline. It’s imperative to encourage a practice of learning and discussion from the start, to avoid heated discussions further down the line!

Surviving Conference Season…and Wedding Season

confettiThis time last year I was getting ready for wedding season, being in my late twenties I think this is how most summers are going to go for the foreseeable future last year I had four, this year I’m down to two and next year back up to three (so far!!) Wedding season means a whole range of different things: visits to various out of the way manors; barns and hotels; wondering what I’ll wear; worrying who I’ll have to sit next to and make small talk with; bets on how long the speeches will be and who will cry first. Of course it also means celebrating the coming together of two loving individuals and all that good stuff, but other than this last bit it’s struck me just how similar wedding season is to the conference season I’m currently prepping for.

This summer I’m attending and presenting at three conferences and many of my worries are similar: traveling to new places; planning trains, planes and hotels; packing a million different outfits and wondering if I’ll be too formal/casual; worrying if I’ll know anyone/who I’ll talk to/sit next to at the conference dinner; hoping that presentations I’ve chosen to attend will be interesting and entertaining.

These might seem like flippant worries but the ‘important’ worries of how and what to present have been well covered in my practice presentations, discussions with supervisors and advice from peers. It’s all the other bits I worry about, the flippant stuff that reminds me of wedding season!

It’s also these other more seemingly flippant concerns are the reasons why conferences are important. They are a chance to get yourself known and noticed with your peers, potential colleagues and employers. They offer the opportunity to meet the authors of the books and papers that have influenced and inspired your own research. Presenting yourself in these more informal and social settings is something that is important to consider.

I’ve found some really great advice from various places and thought I’d point you to some of the things that I’m hoping will help me over the next couple of months…

1. Try not to be afraid to meet new people

Don’t be afraid of meeting scholars whose work you know, either. If you’re feeling shy, ask a professor or mutual friend to introduce you. I scan the program for scholars whose work I use and then attend their sessions. I make sure to go up and meet them afterwards and I’ve found people are usually always gracious and friendly in these circumstances.

2. Ask More, Listen More, Talk Less About Yourself

Don’t you find annoying that guy that can’t stop talking about himself and the things he does? Guess what? People won’t like you if you keep talking about yourself.

Doesn’t it feel good when people ask you things and want to know more about you? Doesn’t it make you feel a bit important? That you are worth listening? Guess what? People would like the same from you.

3. Have 2 Elevator Pitches Ready

First elevator pitch: your grandma should understand it easily. This one you will use for non-experts in your field.

Second elevator pitch: include all sorts of complicated jargon and be so scientifically correct that your PI couldn’t find a single flaw in your speech. This is for experts in your field.

4. I also found this great ‘what not to wear’ blog that starts with the pros and cons of the ‘definitive white shirt’ and ends with a discussion of Pierre Bourdieu and cultural capital!

I’ll let you know how these tips work out in practice…

(p.s. I wonder how many of these would also help me get through wedding season?!)

“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.

The ‘rediscovery of public health’?


Studying the history of public health in Scotland and the UK since the 1970s I’ve been struck by periodic references to the ‘rediscovery of public health’. The 1976 report Prevention and Health: Everybody’s Business was hailed as one such rediscovery. However, the rediscovery was perhaps related to the idea that investing in public health was a cost effective means of public service delivery -a theme present in discussions of funding for public health since the allocation of Poor Law relief in the 19th Century, but also very familiar to us today. While the report did acknowledge the importance of structural factors in health inequalities, it also introduced a trend of highlighting a set of individualised ‘risk factors’ in understanding the health of the population and the promotion of ‘healthy lifestyles’ as a way of improving public health; suggesting that individuals should take more responsibility for their own health –sound familiar?

This debate between the importance of addressing health inequalities and the material structures that they are based in: poor housing, low incomes, lack of access to education and community resources, versus the need to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own health characterised the content of public health reports throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004 the Choosing Health white paper dropped explicit reference to health inequalities in what Elizabeth Dowler has described as a retreat ‘back towards lifestyle and behaviourist approaches’. Again public health was hailed as cost effective, but no systematic approach was implemented, despite this recommendation in the earlier Wanless review.

In Scotland, there have been signs of a different approach. Sir Harry Burns, appointed as chief medical officer, Scotland in 2005 has supported the role of asset-based approaches to public health. Asset-based approaches look at what existing resources people already have and seek to support them to sustain health and well-being rather than solely identifying good health as the absence of a list of ‘risk factors’. However research from the Scottish Public Health Observatory has warned that this approach could potentially widen health inequalities rather than reduce them.

What has struck me is not just the repetitiveness of the discussion and comment on public health from the 1970s, but how much it fails to take into account what we know about how people make choices about their health. In 1990 anthropologist Mildred Blaxter published her research on Health and Lifestyles. She concluded that if people lived in good circumstances ‘healthy’ behaviour had a strong influence on health, but that if circumstances were bad, then adopting ‘healthy’ behaviours made little difference. Moreover, few people’s lifestyles were either totally healthy, or totally unhealthy; some people smoke, but takes lots of exercise, while others may not smoke, eat well, but not do exercise. Thus an approach to health promotion that simply advocates a list of health do’s and don’ts is limited in its effectiveness, because it doesn’t take into account the realities of people’s lives.

I’ll leave you this week with this thought from pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss, who established Social Policy as an academic discipline: 

‘when we study welfare systems we see that they reflect the dominant cultural and political characteristics of societies.’ 

-What kind of culture does our current system of care reflect?