The social enterprise census 2015

census‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,’ said Alice,
‘because I’m not myself, you see.’
Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland, p.28.

The Social Enterprise Census 2015 came out this week and shows Scotland’s social enterprise sector is thriving. It reports that Scotland currently has over 5000 social enterprises, equivalent to one for every 1000 people. The signs are promising for future growth too, as on average over 225 new social enterprises have established themselves every year for the past 5 years. That is not to say the sector is young and vulnerable – the census finds the average age of a Scottish social enterprise is 17 years – though it does report that 42% were created in the last decade, and the authors propose that this burgeoning of the sector is the direct result of a supportive policy environment. While this is great news, it also highlights one of the difficulties with collecting statistics like these, specifically that they give you very little insight into the causations and explanations behind the figures. It may be supportive policy has driven social enterprise formation, but it could also be a result of austerity and people creating their own jobs.

This is where CommonHealth and similar research projects are really important. Our work can take these figures and help illuminate some of the stories and evidence behind them, particularly where that evidence contradicts what we thought we knew. The Census 2015 has discovered that social enterprise locations in Scotland mirror the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD –, with 5% located in the 5% of most deprived areas, 10% in the 10% of most deprived areas and so on. This is contrary to the common belief that social enterprises tend to cluster in areas of poverty and deprivation, and further emphasises how important this Census is to giving us a clear picture of social enterprise activity in Scotland.

The Census 2015 also found 60% of social enterprises are run by women, and that the gender split is equal for voluntary directors and committee members. Women are very well-represented amongst employees too – 70% of social enterprises report more than half of their employees are female. Further good news comes in the finding that 68% of social enterprises are paying the national living wage of £7.85 per hour, a finding which puts the private sector to shame.

The Census has successfully managed the difficult job of trying to capture the complexity and diversity of the social enterprise sector, particularly given that 36% of social enterprises do not describe themselves as such. I came across this in my own research recently. I interviewed a social entrepreneur whose reaction to discovering she ran a social enterprise reminded me of the Alice in Wonderland quote at the start of this blog. She believed that local and traditional craft-making skills were lost once her generation passed so she decided (at almost 70 years old) to set-up an initiative training local folk in these traditional skills from within a non-profit craft shop. She was paying the shop’s rent out of her pension – all profits were ploughed back into materials for teaching and the shop’s upkeep – until one day someone from a nearby business suggested to her that she was a social enterprise. She told me when I interviewed her that her little craft shop and training efforts weren’t as important as a social enterprise sounded, so she didn’t think it could be a social enterprise. Fortunately her friend from the nearby business persisted, and she has begun applying for funding to keep the shop going and keep her pension.

Behind the Social Enterprise Census 2015 are over 5000 stories, some small and local stories like the one above, others much larger and more complicated. As we progress through the CommonHealth Project I hope to have the privilege of becoming part of a handful of these stories but I will be very careful, as Danielle reminded us in her recent blog, to Take only notes and leave only memories.