The social value of Social Value


From very early on in this research it was clear that a central role must be given to social enterprises themselves. There was no point in only considering theory or speaking to ‘high heid-yins’, the voices of social enterprise leaders were needed to reflect the actual work of social enterprises.

But how?

The process needed to be able to gather detailed data on what the organisation does, what it produces and for what people, while also not being so time-consuming to prevent a broad cross-section of voices being gathered. The answer lay in evaluative reports: Social Accounts/Audit (SAA), and Social Return on Investment (SROI).

For those who have never encountered one of these reports, I recommend you do. Conceived as a repost to traditional financial accounting which detail the income and outgoings of businesses in terms of financial value, Social Accounts concern themselves with the social value created by the organisation. SROI involves an almost identical process, only with the addition of a financial representation of the social value produced, using the market prices of alternative methods of achieving the same social outcomes.

The reports are written with meticulous detail, regarding the organisation’s work and the impacts it has on people and the environment. Many are more than 100 pages long, are backed-up with qualitative and quantitative research and externally ‘audited’ by certified individuals. Some organisations compile such accounts every few years, using them alongside tenders and grant applications, justifying their work to the community, and self-reflecting on the work they do and what it achieves.

Despite these benefits and potential applications, a number of respondents have warned of the dangers of engaging in this form of evaluation, sometimes described as a ‘non-core’ activity. While recognising the long-term benefits of engaging in the process, it was claimed that the time it could take to compile them could have detrimental short-term impacts in terms of both the social mission of the organisation, and its sustainability.

And then there is the issue of the financial proxies. An SROI ratio denotes the number of £s of social value produced for each £ invested in the organisation. In this way, social enterprises may be favoured by the tendering process as they claim to achieve many different targets simultaneously. One worry, however, is the validity of the proxies used to calculate the financial price of social value. For example: ‘volunteers valuing their ability to give back by contributing to society’ is represented by ‘cost to individual who volunteers in Uganda for 12 months’. This proxy may have been chosen for the purpose of maximising the financial representation of the social value produced, rather than the accuracy in reflecting the price of recreating the social value. This may be beneficial to the organisation in the short term but might have the effect of gradually reducing trust in SROIs over time.

My brief analysis of the pros and cons of these reports does not do justice to the arguments surrounding them. However, what I can say is that they have proved invaluable to me in gathering data on the work and outcomes of social enterprises in Scotland. So whatever else in the writing, reading or interpretation of them could be criticised, the social value to me and my work is substantial.

For more information on Social Accounting and Social Return on Investment, visit the following websites:

Social Audit Network-

Social Value UK-

Knowledge Exchange Forum 2015

This was the third Knowledge Exchange Forum that we’ve hosted as part of the CommonHealth research programme. Instead of the old faithful academic communication method of PowerPoint and presentation we ran a series of workshops that aimed to give participants an insight into our very different research methods and draw them into our research process. We hoped that by revealing more about what we do and how we do it, we’d gain valuable feedback from our Forum members that come from the academic, social enterprise and health policy backgrounds.

The ‘history’ workshop: Déjà vu

For my workshop on historical approaches to researching the history of social enterprise as a public health initiative I tried as much as possible to immerse participants in the archive material that I work with on a daily basis. I enlisted the help of University archivist Carole McCallum, who did a great job of dispelling the myth that an archive was a dusty old place where men with white beards went to shelter from the rain. We set the participants the challenge of reading some handwritten documents and later we looked at a series of annual reports and social accounts produced by social enterprises between the 1980s and early 2000’s.

What was great to see was that the Forum members had similar reactions to the material that I have had over the last year. From the handwritten correspondence they too found a window on a way of communicating and negotiating with funding bodies that we seem to have lost in our present-day archivecommitment to application forms. For others, currently working in the social enterprise sector, reading the reports from the 1990s provoked was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, as many of the challenges that initiatives were facing then were the same as those being faced now. For me this was perhaps the most important lesson of the workshop, underlining why we want to engage members of the social enterprise sector in our research. If through our research we can help to overcome some of these challenges we’ll know that we’ve done our job properly.

I hope that in years to come people can look at the archive documents as ‘the way things were done back then’ rather than feel the haunting sense of déjà vu.

You can read more about ‘The History Project’ here

Dr Gill Murray

Passage From India workshop

I’ve just finished facilitating a session at our Knowledge Exchange Forum, I’m always so nervous before events like this but it could not have gone better. The aim of the session was to give people an insight into the research methods I’ve used in my PhD and for the CommonHealth programme. I showed two videos that gave a snapshot of the project I’ve been working on and asked the group to highlight what they thought were interesting issues to follow up in interviews and fieldwork (read a little more about my research here and here). The videos showed some of my research participants notebookstalking about their experiences in the groups I’ve been researching. We had some really great discussions about how to plan for interviews and periods of fieldwork. It was exciting to see that people were interested and intrigued by many of the same things that I had been when undertaking this research. We talked about the language that women used to describe themselves, ‘just a mum’ said one woman, and the way that work, jobs and employment feature in the value that women place on their involvement in groups. We discussed the nature of work, and the quality of jobs that people have available to them. These are issues that I’m seeking to explore in the analysis and write up of this research and it was comforting to know that not only do other people see these as important and interesting but that I hadn’t simply made up these issues, or misunderstood what I was seeing. It was helpful to have fresh eyes on the work I’ve been so close to for so long.

As I’m currently in the process of writing my PhD I often feel that any time spent away from this is a waste. In actual fact the Forum provided exactly what I needed- time away from writing and a renewed sense of purpose. Hearing the interest and seeing the enthusiasm for the research I had conducted reminded me that I do enjoy what I do and that there is a world out there (or at least the 15 people in the session!) who thinks that my research is interesting and important. Now, back to writing…

Clementine Hill O’Connor

Contemporary Analysis Workshop: Drawing on opinions, lines and lessons

One of the methods I have used in getting to the bottom of how social enterprises can impact upon health is to analyse evaluative reports (in the forms of Social Accounts and Social Return on Investment reports) of social enterprises in Scotland. These reports are written by the organisations themselves, before being externally ‘audited’ or ‘accredited’ to ensure accuracy. They represent a comprehensive record of the activities of a social enterprise, and what effects those activities have.

Yesterday’s workshop immersed the group in the same process, identifying the activities and outcomes of social enterprises and connecting the two through the claims of the organisations. Bringing these reports together allows an acknowledgement of the different ways in which an aim can be achieved, as well as generating a broad understanding of the potential outcomes of a specific activity. This initial Drawing linesfindings provide a welcome reminder that for every problem sought to be addressed by social enterprises, there are tried and tested methods of overcoming them. This can appear daunting as it sometimes seems that every cause could result in every effect. But the knowing look of some of the social enterprise practitioners in the room has returned my optimism, both in the validity of my findings, and in the future use of social enterprises in achieving its goals.

There are more details about the project available here

 Bobby Macaulay

In search of ‘The Answer’

The wall of conceptual models which has 'helped' to 'guide' my 'thinking'
The wall of conceptual models which has ‘helped’ to ‘guide’ my ‘thinking’

“But what is social enterprise?”

“Well, it’s ambiguous”

“And what is health?”

“Well, it’s vague”

“Please explain…”

The above exchange has taken place on numerous occasions over the past year, with me having played both roles depending on who I’m speaking to. This post is about some of those conversations.

The first took place in my job interview. I was the respondent, sweating while giving textbook answers about the different methods of delivering social impact and the difference between salutogenesis and pathogenesis. Things often seem easier when you think you know the answer, so I learned what I thought were the answers.

And then I became the questioner, to establish what I considered a necessary foundation before the real work started. I had just started my first job in research, entitled ‘A contemporary analysis of social enterprise as a public health intervention’ and I needed to know what those things meant. As is often the way in academia, very soon you realise that everything you thought you knew (the aforementioned ‘answers’) is in actuality full of gaping theoretical holes. As I tried to wade through the mountains of literature, all contradicting each other, all I wanted to know was “What is it?” because I thought that was how you found the answer, and I thought that’s what I needed to do.

But what if it wasn’t? Everyone has theories and opinions, some of them are written in journal articles and some aren’t. So without an answer (and fearing being asked the questions in case I was found out) I ventured out into the field, once again playing the questioner but with a very different perception of the answers I received. People at the top of the public health and social enterprise sectors seemed far less adversarial than academic papers and theories. They compromised and welcomed differences, taking on differing views and opinions. They didn’t have answers to the questions, and often they weren’t looking for them. They were far more concerned with what worked, and how, and less about what it’s called.

So what about a new approach? Don’t ask the questions at all? And don’t worry about the dearth of answers? Use an accepted definition of social enterprise as a means to an end, use a theory of the ways in which health can be improved, find examples where the former does the latter, and ask how they did it. This involved examining why and how certain processes were undertaken, who was impacted and in what ways. What has emerged are a number of processes undertaken by organisations that could be considered social enterprises, leading to a number of outcomes associated with health.

This tentative result appears unremarkable, it doesn’t even answer the initial questions. But it has the potential to form a contemporary analysis of how social enterprise can act as a public health intervention, which is, fundamentally, what I’m employed to do. So when someone asks me the questions again, and I answer them as above, I’ll do so with much more confidence than I did in my interview. It’s funny how academia does that, makes you very proud of knowing less than when you started. But crucially, leading you towards what you need to know.

Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary…

group 2

As a PhD researcher and member of the CommonHealth team I’ve been working closely with groups of women who have come together, with the support of a social enterprise, to share skills, save and lend together, provide peer support and eventually form small scale businesses. I’ve taken an ethnographic approach to my research which has consisted of in-depth interviews, informal conversations and participant observation. In less formal terms- I’ve laughed, cried, chatted, been embraced by and (sort of) learned to sew with a group of women who have given a lot of their time talking to me about their lives. It has been a series of ups and downs, trials and tribulations which I’m sure will be the subject of this blog at some point in the future. For now I’ll focus on a seminar I attended earlier this month which served as reminder of why I chose to take this approach to research despite the emotional ups and downs!

Earlier this month I presented some my preliminary findings at a seminar ‘Social Enterprise as Lived and Practice: The Methodological Potential of Ethnography’ organised by researchers from University of Liverpool, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Leipzig. It was an exciting day, with a chance to meet other researchers in the field of social enterprise using the same methodology as me. The CommonHealth programme is made up of an inter-disciplinary team, so I’m keen not to place ethnography at the top of some kind of research hierarchy but it was exciting to be surrounded by people extolling the value of ethnographic research and gave me a chance to reflect on my own research. I’ve always been aware of the potential of ethnography, but I’ve sometimes been unsure of how to articulate it.

Stefanie Mauksch from University of Leipzig started the day with an introduction to what she saw as some of the potential contributions ethnographic research can make, specifically to the field of social enterprise. She argued that ethnography offers the chance to move beyond the grand narratives of social enterprise and engage with the complexities involved in organisations seeking to balance social and commercial aims. Stefanie re-introduced me to the 5 operations of ethnography as defined by prominent ethnographer and anthropologist John Comaroff which I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar. Comaroff talks about the importance of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary which requires ethnographers to explore and unravel the cultural processes that lie behind the norms we might take for granted.

So it’s this that I’ve been thinking on the most since the seminar as I engage in analysing and writing. I’ve been trying to think critically and focusing on the idea of looking beyond what is taken for granted and exploring the processes that have created that which is taken for granted. Is it cultural, political, social, economic? Chances are it’s a combination of all of the above! It is this inquisitive and critical approach which has always attracted me to anthropology and ethnography. I’ve been starting to wonder whether this can this be a principle from which all research begins? Or is this somehow specific to ethnography? What would a quantitative study look like if this was the start point?Or is it, that regardless of the methods, this where our research questions can (should?!) start from? We can engage morecritically in the social world, whatever our methods, if we ask what it is that has created that which we take for granted.

The archive and the rabbit hole

When Alice famously fell down the rabbit hole she entered a world of continually altering perspectives. Her journey of discovery and wonder is in some ways like the best archival research.

There’s a little bit of magic in the archival research process…


Picture this: I’m on the train to Edinburgh with Sociology-beau. This is unusual because I normally drive to Glasgow for work, but today I’m headed to the National Archives of Scotland so we have the opportunity to talk about what we’re going to do that day. When I tell him I’m going to the archive he fakes a yawn –this makes me laugh, but reminds me that there’s a massive gap between my experience of archival work (joyous exploration) and others perceptions of it (dusty yawnsville).

As I sit down in the archive I’m struck that this is the first time I’ve been here since I did the research for my undergraduate dissertation (on Domestic Service in 18th Century Edinburgh) and the memories of that first research experience come flooding back. Then I was untying little packets of women’s correspondence, deciphering spidery handwriting and peeking into women’s diaries. The nature of the material was highly personal and opening up these parcels the lives of these women suddenly became immediate and tangible. All the background reading I’d done started to make sense.

From that first experience I’ve been hooked on archival work ever since and have worked with a huge range of materials, letters, film, newspapers, lace patterns to name but a few. For my post-doctoral research I’m working with the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). What’s especially exciting is that as it’s the first project to make use of the material, so there’s massive potential to open up the boxes and uncover a myriad of events, people and ideas that our present-centred society has too hastily forgotten.

But I digress, back the NAS I’m looking at material related to multi-purpose co-operatives in the Highlands and Islands in the 1970s and 1980s. In the newsletters there’s great optimism and enthusiasm and I’m struck by the diverse activities of the groups that were establishing themselves across the Region –some were more successful than others, but even in failure there’s energy generated from the learning experience. I think this is what is special and perhaps misunderstood about archival research, finding data in this way not only challenges you to think again about your subject (all good data collection methods should do that), but it transmits something of the energy of the past, and that energy becomes part of the historians interpretation of that time.

The archive isn’t just well-organised stacks of paper; it’s a portal to an abundance of human experiences. Follow the white rabbit this Easter people, embrace the archive!