The price of milk: The value of bringing your cows to the supermarket!

Farmers have been protesting this week over the price of milk, arguing that supermarkets are no longer paying them enough to cover their costs of production. As a self-confessed teuchter with a toddler that drinks about a pint a day it’s a subject close to my heart. While some have argued that farmers should ‘industrialise themselves into superfarms’, to reduce the costs of production, for others there is an argument for sustaining farms and farmland because of their value beyond the dictates of market forces. Farmers have literally brought their cows to the supermarket, in order to make a vivid demonstration of the value attached to milk beyond the barcode. 

Image taken from mirror.co.uk
Image taken from mirror.co.uk

These recent events are comparable to a perennial debate in social enterprise: how do you show the social value of an organisations work beyond the financial bottom line?

The need to prove your worth has become ever more important in a culture driven by contracts and outcomes. However, social enterprise practitioners have been grappling with variations on this problem since they started out in the late 1970s and 1980s establishing community enterprises and businesses. They hoped that their ability to obtain funding and contracts would be greatly enhanced if they could find a way of articulating the social benefits of their work, and attempted to show its value beyond purely financial terms. One of the methods they developed was Social Audit and Accounting. As a key practitioner in developing Social Audit and Accounting, the collection of papers and grey literature donated by John Pearce to the GCU archive contains rich material on this subject.

Analysing this material I get a sense of John Pearce as an intensely practical person. Finding a way for organisations to evaluate a double bottom line (a measure of social as well as financial output -sometimes a triple bottom line adds environmental impact too) attempts to solve a complex problem –to render an intangible quality tangible. Pearce and his colleagues developed tool kits to encourage organisations to develop questionnaires and interviews with stakeholders to reflect on and evidence the social benefit of the work they were doing. At their best social accounts can allow organisations to see themselves in a new light, show how they are making an impact on the lives of stakeholders in ways that they did not previously realise.

At times, concerns have been raised that social accounting allows private businesses to generate data on their social impact while ignoring the harmful elements of their practices; that in essence it can be used as a marketing tool by big business. Meanwhile, for many social enterprise practitioners continue to feel that their social value is still not recognised in the procurement process -even through they do articulate it, it doesn’t mean those in charge of the purse strings listen.

From a historical perspective, there’s another important element to consider here. It appears that communities scale down campaigning efforts as the co-ops, community businesses and social enterprises they create begin to feel established. They then invest their time in procurement, social accounting and proving their value within ‘the system’. This refocusing of their energies frequently means that they face problems further down the line in engaging a new generation of community participants. Potentially the means to sustainable social enterprises is to maintain the campaigning element often important in the foundation of these organisations.

Do social enterprises need to take a lesson from the direct action of farmers and continue to bring their cows to the supermarket?!

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Knowledge Exchange Forum 2015

This was the third Knowledge Exchange Forum that we’ve hosted as part of the CommonHealth research programme. Instead of the old faithful academic communication method of PowerPoint and presentation we ran a series of workshops that aimed to give participants an insight into our very different research methods and draw them into our research process. We hoped that by revealing more about what we do and how we do it, we’d gain valuable feedback from our Forum members that come from the academic, social enterprise and health policy backgrounds.

The ‘history’ workshop: Déjà vu

For my workshop on historical approaches to researching the history of social enterprise as a public health initiative I tried as much as possible to immerse participants in the archive material that I work with on a daily basis. I enlisted the help of University archivist Carole McCallum, who did a great job of dispelling the myth that an archive was a dusty old place where men with white beards went to shelter from the rain. We set the participants the challenge of reading some handwritten documents and later we looked at a series of annual reports and social accounts produced by social enterprises between the 1980s and early 2000’s.

What was great to see was that the Forum members had similar reactions to the material that I have had over the last year. From the handwritten correspondence they too found a window on a way of communicating and negotiating with funding bodies that we seem to have lost in our present-day archivecommitment to application forms. For others, currently working in the social enterprise sector, reading the reports from the 1990s provoked was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, as many of the challenges that initiatives were facing then were the same as those being faced now. For me this was perhaps the most important lesson of the workshop, underlining why we want to engage members of the social enterprise sector in our research. If through our research we can help to overcome some of these challenges we’ll know that we’ve done our job properly.

I hope that in years to come people can look at the archive documents as ‘the way things were done back then’ rather than feel the haunting sense of déjà vu.

You can read more about ‘The History Project’ here

Dr Gill Murray

Passage From India workshop

I’ve just finished facilitating a session at our Knowledge Exchange Forum, I’m always so nervous before events like this but it could not have gone better. The aim of the session was to give people an insight into the research methods I’ve used in my PhD and for the CommonHealth programme. I showed two videos that gave a snapshot of the project I’ve been working on and asked the group to highlight what they thought were interesting issues to follow up in interviews and fieldwork (read a little more about my research here and here). The videos showed some of my research participants notebookstalking about their experiences in the groups I’ve been researching. We had some really great discussions about how to plan for interviews and periods of fieldwork. It was exciting to see that people were interested and intrigued by many of the same things that I had been when undertaking this research. We talked about the language that women used to describe themselves, ‘just a mum’ said one woman, and the way that work, jobs and employment feature in the value that women place on their involvement in groups. We discussed the nature of work, and the quality of jobs that people have available to them. These are issues that I’m seeking to explore in the analysis and write up of this research and it was comforting to know that not only do other people see these as important and interesting but that I hadn’t simply made up these issues, or misunderstood what I was seeing. It was helpful to have fresh eyes on the work I’ve been so close to for so long.

As I’m currently in the process of writing my PhD I often feel that any time spent away from this is a waste. In actual fact the Forum provided exactly what I needed- time away from writing and a renewed sense of purpose. Hearing the interest and seeing the enthusiasm for the research I had conducted reminded me that I do enjoy what I do and that there is a world out there (or at least the 15 people in the session!) who thinks that my research is interesting and important. Now, back to writing…

Clementine Hill O’Connor

Contemporary Analysis Workshop: Drawing on opinions, lines and lessons

One of the methods I have used in getting to the bottom of how social enterprises can impact upon health is to analyse evaluative reports (in the forms of Social Accounts and Social Return on Investment reports) of social enterprises in Scotland. These reports are written by the organisations themselves, before being externally ‘audited’ or ‘accredited’ to ensure accuracy. They represent a comprehensive record of the activities of a social enterprise, and what effects those activities have.

Yesterday’s workshop immersed the group in the same process, identifying the activities and outcomes of social enterprises and connecting the two through the claims of the organisations. Bringing these reports together allows an acknowledgement of the different ways in which an aim can be achieved, as well as generating a broad understanding of the potential outcomes of a specific activity. This initial Drawing linesfindings provide a welcome reminder that for every problem sought to be addressed by social enterprises, there are tried and tested methods of overcoming them. This can appear daunting as it sometimes seems that every cause could result in every effect. But the knowing look of some of the social enterprise practitioners in the room has returned my optimism, both in the validity of my findings, and in the future use of social enterprises in achieving its goals.

There are more details about the project available here

 Bobby Macaulay

The archive and the rabbit hole

When Alice famously fell down the rabbit hole she entered a world of continually altering perspectives. Her journey of discovery and wonder is in some ways like the best archival research.

There’s a little bit of magic in the archival research process…

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Picture this: I’m on the train to Edinburgh with Sociology-beau. This is unusual because I normally drive to Glasgow for work, but today I’m headed to the National Archives of Scotland so we have the opportunity to talk about what we’re going to do that day. When I tell him I’m going to the archive he fakes a yawn –this makes me laugh, but reminds me that there’s a massive gap between my experience of archival work (joyous exploration) and others perceptions of it (dusty yawnsville).

As I sit down in the archive I’m struck that this is the first time I’ve been here since I did the research for my undergraduate dissertation (on Domestic Service in 18th Century Edinburgh) and the memories of that first research experience come flooding back. Then I was untying little packets of women’s correspondence, deciphering spidery handwriting and peeking into women’s diaries. The nature of the material was highly personal and opening up these parcels the lives of these women suddenly became immediate and tangible. All the background reading I’d done started to make sense.

From that first experience I’ve been hooked on archival work ever since and have worked with a huge range of materials, letters, film, newspapers, lace patterns to name but a few. For my post-doctoral research I’m working with the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). What’s especially exciting is that as it’s the first project to make use of the material, so there’s massive potential to open up the boxes and uncover a myriad of events, people and ideas that our present-centred society has too hastily forgotten.

But I digress, back the NAS I’m looking at material related to multi-purpose co-operatives in the Highlands and Islands in the 1970s and 1980s. In the newsletters there’s great optimism and enthusiasm and I’m struck by the diverse activities of the groups that were establishing themselves across the Region –some were more successful than others, but even in failure there’s energy generated from the learning experience. I think this is what is special and perhaps misunderstood about archival research, finding data in this way not only challenges you to think again about your subject (all good data collection methods should do that), but it transmits something of the energy of the past, and that energy becomes part of the historians interpretation of that time.

The archive isn’t just well-organised stacks of paper; it’s a portal to an abundance of human experiences. Follow the white rabbit this Easter people, embrace the archive!