Playing the game: balance or trade-off in social enterprise?

This week we have a guest blog from Dr Micaela Mazzei. Her ethnographic research with social enterprises in northern England looks at how organisations deal with operational challenges. Both the subject and the approach to her work is of interest to the CommonHealth team, so we hope you enjoy hearing about her research as much as we do!


The more social enterprise has risen as a government priority the more it has been defined narrowly around the form of a firm able to balance social and economic objectives. One aspect of my research has been to question this idea of ‘balance’ and how this plays out in practice. I adopted an ethnographic approach; involving 20 organisations for a period of time and using interviewing, observation, and interactions as the main data collection techniques. I focused my research on two northern English city regions that shared a common industrial past but varied in their policy approaches to social enterprise.

Immerging myself in the social economy of Greater Manchester and Tyne and Wear for more than a year, I found that contrary to the idea of balance, the reality is one of constant negotiation between diverse and often competing goals, motivations, and commitments that often lead to trade-offs. The nature of the tensions and challenges arising does vary, however, with differing implications and degrees of intensity depending on the circumstances, motivation and the market in which organisations operate.

Organisations operate in a volatile environment where changes can occur unexpectedly. A central challenge is dealing with changes that effect finances as this then dictates what happens to an organisations social aim. This has different implications depending on whether organisations operate in consumer markets or public service markets. In most cases organisations struggle to maintain sufficient income to guarantee service delivery and are often involved in ‘playing the game’ to gain resources. However, public funding is also seen as potentially limiting as it dictates delivery, sometimes with poor reflection on the actual needs of the communities organisations are trying to serve. Often services are costed by taking into account all expenses and trying not to work at a loss. However, the more support that is needed for beneficiaries, the more resources organisations need to deploy in order to provide a quality service. This is seldom recognised in contractual agreements. Even those organisations born from an explicit business idea that have successfully benefited from changes in the mainstream market (for example organic food sale) cannot claim a secure position. Despite establishing their offer through a solid client base and expanding organically by investing in ventures in line with their ethos, these organisations are still vulnerable to market changes.

The complex ethical space between the interests of beneficiaries, funders and organisations themselves lead to different prioritisations depending on the circumstances. Generally, when time and resources were available, organisations were found to reflect and debate about the ethical implications of change. However, time and resources were often lacking and therefore decisions had to be made quickly. It is in these situations that the propensity of organisations to focus on either high quality services/products, sharing, or reducing costs emerges, revealing the diverse ways in which organisations deal with tensions.

Recognizing the tensions social enterprises experience implies that there is a need to scale back on market expectations and/or support welfare functions more appropriately.

The department of the bleeding (non-)obvious

The last couple of weeks have seen my research move very much into the final phase as I completed my data collection for one stream of my research, and am working on drafts of a paper for the other. As I have the tentative results of each swimming around my head, things are starting to fit together and the language I have used in each has become particularly interesting.

Ron Obvious
Ron Obvious

The paper I am writing is on my analysis of social impact reports (Social Accounts and Social Return on Investment) to establish the ways in which organisations conceive of their impacts upon individuals and communities. It considers whether social enterprise can be deemed a ‘non-obvious’ health intervention- impacting upon people’s health without necessarily intending to, or recognising it. A number of recent public health experts have indicated that the harnessing of such interventions (and the institutions that deliver them) could be a solution for the future of public health provision. It does appear that social enterprises can and do impact on a number of factors within the lives of individuals and communities which have been strongly linked to improved health, although they may not have considered that their overt goal.

What struck me about the term ‘non-obvious’ was its subjectivity. To whom is it non-obvious? And what about the people who intuitively recognise the health impacts (and therefore consider it ‘obvious’)? The reports I looked at were informed by research conducted with a variety of different stakeholders, and ‘audited’ or ‘assured’ by an external observer, but fundamentally written by, at most, only a handful of staff at the organisation. If those particular members of staff did not recognise those impacts as health-related, or simply held a different perception of what constitutes health, does that make those impacts non-obvious, or simply not considered?

The second stream of my research consisted of interviews with numerous stakeholders around three social enterprise case studies. Comparing similar stakeholders across the case study organisations it can be seen that those working in the council or local NHS often do recognise the health impacts of organisations, and indeed commission services directly from them. Social enterprise leaders often see a holistic view of individual and community health, recognising the wellbeing impacts of the work they do. Indeed that is often why they do it. Staff and service users with a personal view of the work of social enterprises can recognise the impacts on people’s lives and can conceive of impacts upon health, tending to consider these in terms of noticeable changes in physical or mental health outcomes.

So when all of those with a knowledge of the work and impacts of social enterprises can recognise their impact on health, and when academic theory recognises that the impacts upon numerous ‘intermediate outcomes’ can have a direct impact on health, to whom is it non-obvious? Hopefully one of the outcomes of the CommonHealth project will be to fire the starting gun on shifting the perception of social enterprise from that of a ‘non-obvious’ to an ‘obvious’ public health intervention, reflecting the thoughts of the individuals and organisations that have contributed to my research.

I’ll drink to that


In July this year Edinburgh opened its doors to its first social enterprise pub ‘The Southside Social’ who’s joints aims are to provide a nice wee place to drink, and also to provide sustainable employment for young people in Scotland. The profits of the pub will be donated to charity or re-invested into the programme. The pub will train its staff in the skills needed for a career in the hospitality industry, using a 19 week program including classroom based study and on the job work experience, almost like an apprenticeship. The outcome of which is the receipt of a certificate of work readiness, and qualifications in food hygiene and first aid.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pub, particularly one that serves tasty pale ale and has a decent crisp selection. Yet the sceptic in me wants to jump up and down waving a red flag, how can the promotion of alcohol use be conducive to the achievement of social and environmental benefit of the community? Yes, these young people are gaining relevant skills for the industry, but will they be trained how to deal with noise pollution complaints when students are drunkenly singing ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba at the 1am kick out time? And what if the pub is facilitating anti-social behaviour and negative health outcomes? The NHS has found that alcohol goes hand in hand with instances of violence across social groups, with alcohol related illness and injury putting the most pressure on accident and emergency departments across the UK. Most notably, alcohol is a depressant, with suicide and self-harm more prevalent in those who have an alcohol problem.

On the flip side, this site was previously a pub called ‘The Meadow Bar’, of which I used to frequent in my student days. If this pub had not been taken over by a social entrepreneur, it may have fell into the hands of a larger profit wielding leisure company, with no regard for the social and environmental benefits they could be delivering. Moreover, it could be said that there are ethical issues related to health that will arise in any situation where alcohol is sold to consumers, such as shops and restaurants. This got me thinking, we will always have pubs, good and bad, but is it better that they become social enterprises? Or should we be cautious of promoting social enterprises that encourage behaviours that have potentially negative public health outcomes, directly or indirectly? If such pubs are donating to charities and providing sustainable employment opportunities then perhaps these negative outcomes are balanced out as health and social need is indirectly met elsewhere.

The ‘not for profit’ pub is not a new concept, as community based organisations such as working men’s clubs have been in existence since the 19th century. Such places have served to sustain social and economic means in their day, but the very thought of a working men’s club conjures up images of overweight men drinking pints of heavy and chain smoking. Yet as many of these drinking institutions are dying a death due to de-industrialisation, it may be time to further re-modernise this concept and bring it into the 21st century in the form of social enterprise pubs. The UK Government is currently offering loans and grants to communities, particularly in rural areas, who wish to take over their local pub through the Plunkett Foundation. As this diversification into social and economic sustainability in hospitality service provision is now on the government agenda, it has to be questioned whether this can be represented in a responsible and health conscious way, some way somehow.

Reaching your goals

There aren’t many books I remember vividly from my childhood. I read the odd Roald Dahl story and was in the privileged generation of kids who progressed up through school just as Harry Potter and his friends (and indeed enemies) were doing the same. But the book I had the most pleasure reading came out every year towards the end of the summer. It was wee and red, and was creatively called, The Wee Red Book.


The Wee Red Book contained all of the football fixtures for the season ahead, profiles of each team and the result of every game that had ever been played by the Scottish national team. It detailed the top scorers in Scottish and English club football for the past 50 or so years and was an absolute fountain of knowledge. Later issues included a single page about ‘assists’- the identity of the player who provided the pass to the goal-scorer, and how many times he had done so. These records didn’t go very far back at all and appear to have only started being systematically recorded upon the founding of the English Premier League in the early 1990s.

Without getting too technical, an assist can be responsible for almost all of what it takes to score a goal, apart from providing the final touch. The legendary French striker Eric Cantona claimed that the best feeling in his career came not from scoring a goal, but from providing an assist. Apparently it was only relatively recently that the football world (at least those who are in charge of compiling statistics) recognised this vital support role and the need to acknowledge those who play it.

During the course of my research I have encountered numerous organisations that support the development of social enterprises. Some support organisations are themselves legally constituted as social enterprises while many others are private businesses, generating personal profit from a sector ostensibly constituted to value collective gain over personal enrichment. A number of people have been less than complimentary about this sector of social enterprise ‘consultancies’, with some seeing them as simply limpets, clinging on to the growth in funding and policy attention directed at social enterprises. Others, however, recognise the role played by such organisations in lobbying and developing the policy environment which supports social enterprises, doing the leg-work behind the scenes which may not directly impact on any individual social enterprise, but lay the groundwork for the potential success of the sector.

So what status should we give to these organisations that play a role in developing social enterprises, in helping to lay the groundwork for organisations to achieve their social ‘goal’ (pun intended)? Are they collaborators in delivering that goal? Do they provide the assist, the Eric Cantona to Social Enterprise’s Dennis Irwin (, or simply seek to share in the glory and riches while contributing relatively little?

The answer, as always, is ‘it depends’. However, as reflected in the recent Social Enterprise Census, the industry is going from strength to strength and shows no sign of letting up, so we can be confident that those peripheral support organisations will do the same. They may even be increasingly recognised, as those players were latterly in The Wee Red Book, for their ‘assist’ in generating social returns. And as for judging their intentions- until convinced otherwise, I will choose to follow Mr Cantona’s advice:

“You have to trust your teammates, always. If not we are lost”

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’

Margaret Mead

ethnography library

Since I started working at the Yunus Centre in 2011 I have been the sole ethnographer/social anthropologist. As the centre has grown I have happily given up this role and I now get to share this with an influx of new colleagues eager to use ethnographic methods within their work. With this in mind, a group of us from the CommonHealth project signed up for a course in Collaborative Ethnography and on Monday we travelled through to Edinburgh to learn more.

I took a lot from the course and could spend a few thousand words describing exactly what Collaborative Ethnography is and all the things I learned. Instead I’ll focus on one of the key issues that is at the heart of Collaborative Ethnography, which raised interesting questions about the ways researchers can engage with communities outside of traditional educational institutions in more meaningful and long lasting ways.

Core to the definition of Collaborative Ethnography is the explicit emphasis on collaboration across all parts of the research process and a shared commitment to the end product– whether that is a film, book, documentary or report. It is this end product that most interested me. Many people might engage in forms of collaborative research, using various methods and it could be argued that most, if not all, forms of qualitative research have an element of collaboration; although this is often limited to the data collection stage. However, within collaborative ethnography the analysis and final write up is a vital part of the process. I found this idea challenging but was keen to hear how it had been done.

The two academics running the course, Elizabeth Campbell and Eric Lassiter, had found ways to make this work and the research they helped initiate had resulted in the production of a highly respected academic text ‘The Other Side of Middletown’. They set up a collaborative ethnographic process in response to a request from a community leader who was concerned with the lack of African American voices in a previous study of the small town of Muncie, aka Middletown. Using resources from the university Elizabeth and Eric were able to set up a course for students at Ball State University who worked alongside community consultants and collaborators to conduct interviews, focus groups and oral histories and eventually write individual chapters that featured in the book. Eric and Elizabeth described to us the ways that drafts of the texts were written and rewritten in response to individual meetings, small focus groups and large community forums. The interpretation of historical events was discussed and details of each chapter pored over until there was agreement over the text, or at least the agreement to disagree. Beyond the production of traditional academic papers, books and presentations the students involved in the study remained involved in the Muncie community. They have helped to produce photo exhibitions, develop multicultural educational programmes, participate in discussions in schools and churches about race relations in Muncie and work with a local mediation team to research specific experiences of racial conflict in the area.

Reflecting on the course and the discussions we had I’m eager to consider how I might apply some of this to my own work. As I write my thesis I know the ship has sailed on using this approach within my PhD but my hope is that the relationships I have formed might serve as a basis for future collaboration. Within the CommonHealth project collaboration with WEvolution has been vital in terms of their involvement as research partners. Yet I’m wondering as I start to enter the final year of my CommonHealth involvement whether the stage is now set for collaboration in the outputs of the research and the consideration of the ways that we can continue to work together beyond the lifecycle of this specific research programme.

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.

Stretching the mind

Almost three months ago, my American wife left her job in New Mexico and moved lock, stock and barrel to Glasgow. Initially she had intended to take some time to settle in, enjoy a relaxed summer, start to do up our slightly dilapidated flat and gradually work her way into employment. Unfortunately, the reality is that we didn’t really get a summer this year, we have only now acquired a wallpaper steamer, and work is proving difficult to come by, resulting in her recently crossing that dangerous line between ‘holiday’ and ‘unemployment’, and giving her a fair amount of time on her hands.

File 27-08-2015 09 51 06

Two of the ways she has been filling that time is by wandering around the Mitchell Library (highly recommended) and by doing yoga. These two activities converged last week when she borrowed the above book, Yoga: The path to holistic health, by B.K.S. Iyengar. With frameworks and conceptual models swimming through my head about the ways social enterprise can impact upon health, this title intrigued me. The claim being made was that through doing yoga you follow a path which will lead to a broad definition of health and wellbeing, that people’s lives were being improved through engaging in this activity. The NHS apparently acknowledges this, recommending yoga, along with other ‘mindfulness activities’ to combat stress, anxiety and depression. Alongside the knowledge that yoga classes almost always cost money, does that mean that all yoga schools and studios are social enterprises? Is Mr Iyengar a social entrepreneur? And, through reading the book, could I increase my understanding of the processes involved in how this particular social enterprise model can be considered a public health intervention?

Many of the other social enterprises I have examined direct their social purpose toward service users who have been forgotten or marginalised by the system and have fallen through the cracks between public and private sector provision, whereas yoga consumers choose to spend their money on the service. The target group are the consumers of the service, which although less common in urban environments, is often the case in the provision of vital services to rural communities. Moreover, it is consumers who entirely fund the businesses, not relying on public sector commissioning or the selling of a separate commercial product to survive, potentially making the business more sustainable.

The model of governance and profit distribution may preclude many from social enterprise status but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that yoga studios could be democratically governed, perhaps through a form of consumers’ cooperative, and that all profits could be ploughed back into expanding the yoga business, thereby increasing the social value generated. If, as Mr Iyengar claims, yoga is one path to holistic health, and if certain governance structures are put in place, yoga studios could not only be considered social enterprises that generate social returns for their consumers, but they may also shed new light on the particular pathways involved in the health-generating potential of social enterprises.

Stretching this a little further (no pun intended), if doing yoga can help to combat some of the detrimental health effects associated with unemployment, should we find ways to overcome the financial and other barriers to involvement so that more people can gain from this form of intervention?