My journey through the Highlands & Islands so far…..

 

The Growth at the Edge project (aka ‘the rural one’) is all about building a picture of the health and wellbeing benefits of social enterprise activity in the Highlands & Island of Scotland. As I have journeyed to some of the most remote and rural communities in Scotland in the past few months, I have been keeping a photo diary of my adventures….

I’ve met the most amazing community spirited people dealing with major transport issues, lack of services and issues that us urban folk may take for granted, such as access to fresh fruit and vegetables, or being able to reach a doctors surgery. Some rural inhabitants see themselves as the ‘forgotten people’, with ever depleting populations and a lack of vital infrastructure.

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A run down filling station in Helmsdale, the only one in the area

 

In spite of such challenges, the people of rural communities are defiant and resilient, both making the most of what they have and continually fighting for more. They are coming together and building new community centres to create meeting places and to provide activities for all ages…….

 Atlantic Centre, Isle of Luing and the Seaboard Centre, Balintore

They are encouraging people to curate their heritage, and are fiercely proud of their history….

The Mermaid of the North and Fish Sculptures, celebrating the fishing folklore of the Seaboard Villages

They are bringing education, arts and crafts to their communities, utilising and nourishing the skills that they have in their populations…

Art projects and handmade woodwork at Cantray Park, Cantray

As well as offering employment to people in the local community, including vulnerable groups and those in need……

Shetland Soap Company, Lerwick and The Elgin Youth Cafe, Elgin

They are encouraging people to ‘grow local, eat local’, with many communities investing in land for traditional crofting and market gardens and education to promote healthy living….

Blooming polytunnels at Cantray Park, Cantray and healthy living education at Elgin Youth Development Group, Elgin

And they are also investing in renewable energy and the recycling of materials to aid the sustainability of their communities for the future of their generations……

       Wind Turbines and a brand new ReStore furniture upcycle workshop at Cothrom, South Uist

I have met some very interesting service users along the way…….

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Some happy ducks and geese using the pond at the aviary at Cantray Park, Cantray (some had flown all the way from Canada just to use their service)

And I’ve literally been to the very edge of civilisation…..

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Views from sunny Lerwick, Shetland

But what is most exciting is that this is only the beginning of my project and I’m looking forward to uncovering so much more! My journey will be taking me to many more remote and rural communities, all with their own stories, of which I hope to share with you along the way!

Reflections on our Knowledge Exchange Forum: Inverness

Thursday 5th May might have been a significant date in the calendar for Scottish politics, but more importantly it was also the date of our Knowledge Exchange Forum in Inverness. The event invited an audience of social enterprise practitioners, academic researchers and associated organisations to share their thoughts and ideas of social enterprise and its links to health and wellbeing.

The forum included fantastic presentations from 3 local social enterprises; Calman Trust, Highland Blindcraft and Eden Court; alongside presentations from NHS Highland and the Highland Council. The event also allowed us the opportunity to discuss in groups what we mean by health and wellbeing, how our work might affect the lives of others, and how this might be measureable, leading to some thought provoking insights! As there were so many interesting points raised we have asked our CommonHealth team to highlight just a few……

A massive thank you to everyone who attended and shared their views, and a special mention to the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for their support and input!

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Working as a social enterprise

The presentations from Calman Trust, Eden Court, and Highland Blindcraft reflected the diverse ways in which social enterprise has become both a structure -around which you can build an organisation- and a tool -which third sector organisations can make use of to fulfil their social missions. For example Calman Trust operates the social enterprise Ness Soap and Cafe Artysans; Eden Court is a publically funded arts organisation that uses elements of social enterprise in its practice; Highland Blindcraft has existed in one form or another for 140 years. Currently it operates as a charity limited by guarantee and has been variously labelled a social enterprise, and a supportive business.

People and organisations who want to create social change and generate social value don’t worry too much about what they’re called. For many organisations, if ‘social enterprise’ is a title which might bring in funding to help their users, then they’ll happily slap ‘social enterprise’ stickers on everything. But equally, if the funding flavour of the month is ‘social business’ or ‘charity’, then that’s the name they’ll use. Participants’ commitment to their social purpose was prioritised over the label used to describe their work.

This raises questions for academics like us at Commonhealth, and suggests that we should perhaps think of social enterprise as a set of processes that organisations use, rather than a group of organisations that share common characteristics. In turn this leads to further questions for policy makers and the support that should be in place for social enterprise.

For those of you interested in this discussion you may be interested in Simon Teasdale’s upcoming professional lecture: What’s in a name?

Addressing vulnerability and providing support

Several of the discussions throughout the day picked up on concerns that practitioners were witnessing increased levels of vulnerability, especially in connection to young people and youth unemployment. In this context the imperative to balance the ‘business’ elements of a social enterprise with its social purpose, becomes an ever more delicate balancing act; and for some this was likely to become a central challenge for the sector in coming years. Social enterprises therefore felt that while they could not hope to solve all the problems they faced, they could help to make young people more resilient and able to cope with the challenges they faced in the future.

When discussing support and vulnerability, often what can be neglected are the effects that social enterprise activity might have on its founders, board members and managers. When individuals volunteer their time and energy into creating and building their social enterprise we can forget to consider the impact that this might have on their personal and family life, and the sacrifices that they have to make. This can be in terms of personal finance, lack of time spent with loved ones and having to work long and anti-social hours to make things work. Yet support for such groups can be scarce.

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Amazing illustrations by Sarah Ahmad

From pathways to evidence

Social enterprises frequently need to prove (or attempt to) the outcomes of their work. Practitioners from the numerous organisations in attendance could relate to us the pathways that individuals had taken through their organisations, but often felt that these stories alone were not taken seriously as evidence of their impact on health and wellbeing.

Often the most small and subtle changes were felt to be the most powerful. In environments where social enterprise practitioners are working every day, the most satisfying aspects might be simply putting a smile on a young person’s face. Yet, not only is it difficult to measure the value of a smile, it may not be what funders are interested in anyway. There are ways of measuring impact (e.g. SROI or Social Audit) which may give a snapshot of the social value of a social enterprise. However, such measurement can be tough when funders want hard numbers not stories, or can’t think about long-term outcomes beyond the funding period.

Moreover, what was commonly found was that measures do not always account for major differences in social enterprise type and scale. For example, a community centre might benefit 1,500 community members, yet a childcare service might only benefit 5; and each activity impacts to a variety of different levels. Therefore, how can measures be truly representative of how people are individually affected?

Taking all of these insights into consideration we have a lot to keep us busy until the next event! 

Gillian Murray, Bobby Macaulay, Danielle Kelly, Clementine Hill-O’Connor, Fiona Henderson, Steve Rolfe

Can social enterprises successfully deliver rural services? Exploring challenges and opportunities to rural social enterprise development

In this blog Artur Steiner, Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health shares his observations about activities of social enterprises in rural locations. Can they really deliver rural services successfully? What stops them form and, more importantly, helps them in doing so? These are some basic questions but it is important to explore them if we want to design policies and interventions supporting the development of rural social enterprises.

So far, in my academic life I had an opportunity to participate in several research projects that explored activities of both rural businesses and rural social enterprises. We all know about challenges associated with rural life. Those challenges relate, for example, to inaccessibility of goods, services and opportunities for wide social interaction. However, rurality, as a geographical context, affects not only people living there but also activities of businesses and social enterprises. As such, in relation to business development, rural locations present challenges associated with small, widely dispersed clientele, ageing population and limited human resources, physical, technical and economic barriers, and distance from service centres. Despite this (or possibly because of this!), research indicates that rural citizens are more likely to be socially orientated in their entrepreneurship than urban dwellers (Williams, 2007) and in recent years there has been a growth in community-run enterprises (see Plunkett Foundation). This might be because of strong social networks, embeddedness and social movements that are evident in rural communities (Jack and Anderson, 2002). For many years it has been argued that rural citizens draw upon such traditional rural strengths – strong mutual knowledge, sense of community and social cohesion. Moreover, social networks are denser in rural, as compared with urban settings, with resulting outcomes of high levels of trust and active civic participation. Probably because of that rural businesses are frequently closely integrated with their local community generating loyalty and stability amongst their local customer base which may help to offset some of the limitations of the rural business environment.

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In relation to rural social enterprise research, emerging patterns across my study results indicate that the key challenges and threats to rural social enterprise development include:

  • Rurality and the challenges of the geographical context (as highlighted earlier)
  • Mismatch between national and regional level-policies promoting social enterprise and lack of rural social enterprise policies
  • Rural social enterprise risk-aversion and change resistance
  • The complex nature of funding for social enterprise development and difficulties in accessing appropriate funding by rural social enterprises
  • Persistent grant-dependence and a lack of financial sustainability of rural social enterprises
  • Lack of entrepreneurial skills across rural social enterprises
  • The challenges of complex social enterprise ownership structures
  • Difficulties in defining and measuring the contribution of social enterprises to local development
  • Perceived pressure to replace voluntary organisations with social enterprises.

On the other hand, key opportunities for rural social enterprise development are:

  • Co-production of public services addressing gaps in rural service delivery
  • Turning existing rural needs into opportunities and taking advantage of emerging rural markets
  • Using advantages of the rural context (as highlighted before)
  • Creation of locally tailored solution to rural challenges
  • Benefits of ethical markets and growing recognition of social enterprises
  • Existing support structure
  • Growing awareness of the importance of being more business-like
  • Enhanced rural collaboration and networking
  • Developing self-support and a proactive approach.

So far, presented information tells us two things; first, rurality affects not only the culture, attitudes, the way how people think and support each other but also activities of social enterprises. Second, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with developing and running a social enterprise in a rural location. As such, it seems quite obvious that rural context matters. However, is this sufficiently recognised in currently policies and support structures for social enterprises?

In general, current UK policies suggest that citizens will take greater responsibility for organising services traditionally delivered by the state with communities, neighbourhood groups and community organisations doing  things ‘for themselves’ (this includes the Conservative Party, 2010 and the plans for the Community Empowerment Act that date back to 2009). Simultaneously, the UK governments have supported social enterprise through direct funding, business support and, increasingly, through procuring goods and services from social enterprises. But is this support and funding tailored well enough to address needs of rural social enterprises? Interestingly, recent Social Enterprise Census (2015) indicated that 32% of Scottish social enterprises are located in rural areas. This is substantial considering that rural Scotland is home to only 18% of Scotland’s population (Scottish Government, 2011). This would suggest that policies are efficient in supporting rural social enterprises and that social enterprises have found a fertile ground to grow. So, can social enterprises successfully deliver rural services?

My rural social enterprise research across different locations indicated that despite many potential challenges associated with the rural context, provided they have the right level of entrepreneurship, social enterprises are well placed to sustainably address local social, economic and environmental issues delivering services to local communities. Growth potential for small-scale social enterprises exists in a range of communities across rural regions. Social enterprises are well positioned to best utilise available local resources and to tackle rural challenges. Still, my research observations indicate that in order to help rural social enterprises to grow, social enterprises need tailored support that differs from the support offered in urban centres. This can include, for example, funding available at the local level aiming to build capacity and enhance the sustainability of community social enterprises, specialised practical business support that acknowledges the rural context and local characteristics, and knowledge dissemination about successful local and rural social enterprises.

Finally, in order for social enterprise to successfully deliver rural services, rural challenges and needs should be transformed into opportunities for social enterprise development. For instance, social enterprises should capitalise on the increase in consumers and businesses willing to support businesses that are ethical and socially sustainable. They should build a recognised and trusted brand, and enhance collaboration with public service markets and private businesses. Moreover, the ageing population could act as a promoter for developing the ‘silver economy’ and an incentive to set up and run social enterprises in health and care service provision. Rural social enterprises could, for example, take advantage of rural settings and become involved in food production initiatives or renewable energy projects. These aspects are especially relevant to Age Unlimited and Growth at the Edge Common Health projects that explore impacts of (rural) social enterprise on health and wellbeing of (rural) communities.

Guest Blogger: Artur Steiner

The Ins and Outs of Rural Migration (Part 2)

This week we continue our conversation about rural migration from first-hand experience. Using themes drawn from literature Bobby Macaulay will guide us through his experiences. Bobby is a CommonHealth researcher who left Shetland shortly after his 16th birthday.

Rural economies are dominated by low paid labour markets and there is a lack of training and education opportunities for young people……

Bobby: I don’t think it is necessarily true that you are more likely to go into a low paid job, but I would say that the choice of well-paid industries is much more limited in Shetland. Despite its ups and downs, the fishing industry in Shetland is still strong with some of Britain’s largest pelagic trawlers based in the isles. Another source of well-paid jobs is the energy industry, previously dominated by oil but now developing into natural gas and renewables. Through the UHI-affiliated Shetland College and NAFC Marine Centre, there are possibilities of gaining certain sector-specific training within Shetland. However, outwith these industries and the upper-echelons of the public sector, well paid jobs may be harder to come by.

Young people face scrutiny and hostility for wanting to move away……

Bobby: Cultures die if young people do not keep them alive. Therefore, there is a natural and understandable desire from the older generation that young people remain in the community to continue that culture, whether it be in the form of language or dialect, livelihood or local practices. So for those families and communities very deeply rooted in the culture of an island (which can be totally different even to the neighbouring island) there would be a desire for their young people to stay, or at least promise to return home.

I have never personally experienced hostility for leaving but that may be because (a) my parents are not native Shetlanders so don’t have such a deep rooting within the culture, (b) there may be a belief that new practices and viewpoints may not necessarily be detrimental to an island culture as it evolves, or (c) they weren’t too bothered about losing my presence within the community!

There is little to keep young people occupied in rural locations, which can affect emotional wellbeing…..

Bobby: Similarly to Jack’s response to this last week, I have never found this myself. Before I left home I was involved in a huge number of sports, clubs and activities and rarely found myself with nothing to do. Even now when I go ‘home’ there is always too much to do. This may differ between people and communities but I subscribe to the belief that ‘you get out what you put in’ so those people who are willing to get involved in the community will find that there is a huge amount to do and gain from being part of it.

There are many older retirees moving to rural communities which can be a burden on local services e.g. healthcare…..

Bobby: Of the people who have moved to the island I am originally from, I don’t know that I could say they tend to be much older. I’m not sure about the strain placed on public sector bodies but I can see the opposite effect on local businesses and schools. The bigger the population, the more products the shops can sell. The more kids are in the school, the more jobs can be supported on the island. In this way a steady in-migration to an island community can help sustainably support local businesses and preserve local jobs.

Incomers tend to interfere or try to take over the running community activities, leading to hostilities….

Bobby: This is a very poignant question for me as my parents were incomers to the island, moving there 2 months before I was born. Over the past 28 years they have been involved in a huge number of community activities. Over that time they will have undoubtedly done things in their own way, but I don’t think there is any suggestion that this has been detrimental to the island, and I am unaware of any particular hostility towards their involvement. As Jack said last week, the values held by an island culture are not necessarily compromised through the involvement of incomers. Indeed, it may be these very values which attracted people to move to the island in the first place. As any community evolves, it must decide which elements it carries forward and which it lets slip away. Perhaps the level of hostility towards incomers in community depends on which elements of the community culture fall into each camp.

Take only notes….leave only memories

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‘Just being there for someone can sometimes bring hope when all seems hopeless’ (Dave G Llewellyn)

The Growth at the Edge project will be measuring the impact that social enterprises have on health and wellbeing in rural communities. In designing a methodology I am becoming increasingly aware of the effect that ‘just being there’ will have on participant’s wellbeing, particularly in areas where community members may have little contact with external practitioners, such as researchers. This led me to ponder further about how open people might be to experiences that may affect their health and wellbeing, and their perceptions of their environment and relationships around them. What kinds of emotional tendencies do people have? What if someone’s life is filled with pessimism and scepticism? But mostly, to what extent can a very small encounter influence someone’s feelings of wellbeing?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that “wellbeing exists in two dimensions, subjective and objective. It comprises an individual’s experience of their life as well as a comparison of life circumstances with social norms and values”. The subjective side of wellbeing relates to how people perceive the quality of their lives; their emotional judgements towards happiness and how content they are with specific areas of their lives. Antonovsky (1967) expressed this with ‘Sense of Coherence’ theory, which describes how feelings of health and wellbeing are underpinned by three main components. Firstly, having a comprehension that things happen in an orderly fashion and life events are predictable; secondly, that life is manageable and you have the support and resources to take care of things; and thirdly, a belief that things are meaningful and worthwhile, giving you a sense of purpose.

My project will be adopting a participatory action research (PAR) approach embedding the principles of design thinking to measure the health and wellbeing impacts of social enterprises. Potentially, by taking part in social enterprise activities, individuals and communities may feel empowered and less socially isolated. Communities may gain collective and individual responsibilities, and work in collaboration with stakeholders to develop and engage in something socially beneficial; the health and wellbeing effects of which could be increased physical, mental and emotional health. I can only hypothesise at this stage.

Nevertheless, in using participatory action research to measure the effects of social enterprise I will be working alongside individuals and communities to co-produce research methods and will allow them to guide the research topics. Individuals will be given the resources and support to engage in issues that are important in their lives; they will be given a voice and will become important stakeholders in the future of their social enterprise. PAR will allow participants to take part in meaningful practices such as workshops, interviews and focus groups, giving them a sense of purpose in the research arena. PAR methods could be as big as organising a community wide photography project, or as small as visiting an elderly community member for a cup of tea. I may form friendships and bonds with participants, much like Clemmie has highlighted in her previous blog https://commonhealthresearch.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/objective-or-subjective/. The very nature of PAR is that it goes straight to the heart of community engagement, much like social enterprises themselves.

So going back my original question- to what extent can a very small encounter influence someone’s feelings of wellbeing? What if the processes involved in participatory action research has more of an effect on individual’s wellbeing than the actual social enterprise itself? How do we unpick this, and should we unpick this?

The answers to this may be as simple as explicitly stating what I am aiming to measure from the outset, and asking participants to only comment on the social enterprise. Yet one cannot foresee the impact the presence of the researcher may have on the social enterprise itself.

The web continues to weave.