Is social enterprise a threat to community development?

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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.

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