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.
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?!