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

Lost in the supermarket? The role of big business in social enterprise

 

Reflecting on my visit to The Gathering I was reading over the notes I made and was struck by the prevalence given to the private sector in at least two of the workshops I attended. In the session run by Joseph Rowntree Foundation there was lots of discussion about how important it is to hold private companies to account as we try to tackle poverty in Scotland. This is particularly relevant with regards to banking, private rental sector and energy, the cost of which contribute to the poverty premium and contribute to the high cost of living which is partly responsible for poverty in the UK today.

The second session with a consideration of the private sector was a session called ‘From ‘Asking’ to ‘Earning’ – Opportunities for social enterprises to work in the world of retail’ which was run by Asda and Social Investment Scotland. The main thrust of the session was to highlight the new ‘Asda Social Enterprise Supplier Development Academy’ which will provide social enterprises the opportunity to ‘strengthen their understanding of supermarket retail and refine their commercial and marketing skills, with the potential to get their products on supermarket shelves in Scotland…or even beyond’. SIS and Asda were joined by Sylvia Douglas, the founder of MsMissMrs social enterprise who is applying to attend the academy.

asda

Without wanting to demonise the whole of the private sector I did have some concerns about the role they might play as they develop relationships with social enterprise and aired these with my CommonHealth colleagues which resulted in an interesting debate:

On the one side of the debate is a view that reflected the discussion in the JRF session I attended- that involvement of the private sector allows social enterprises to improve the private sector, promote a stronger social conscience and hold them to account in their less ethical practices. Social enterprises will also benefit from access to a large retail market, the importance of which was emphasised by Sylvia who wanted to be able to focus her attention on delivering her social mission rather than spending valuable time and energy at small scale retail events. Despite my concerns it would be disingenuous not to consider the view from social enterprise and recognise the benefits of having an higher income in order to pursue the social aims, however, at what are the implications of receiving income from working with Asda Walmart?

The worry is that the notion of social enterprise will be ‘watered down’ once multinational corporations begin to use them as a form of corporate social responsibility. Asda, part of the Walmart Corporation does not have a positive, socially aware image, particularly in relation to the working conditions of their employees (examples here and here). If people are making an educated decision to support social enterprise in their consumer behaviour there is a risk of reduced confidence in social enterprises as they begin to compromise to fit the mould of a large scale retail supplier. This has implications for the social enterprise sector as a whole as the balance between social and enterprise is seen to tip in favour of enterprise as compromises are made that undermine wider social concerns. SIS pointed to these potential compromises as a challenge for social enterprises who might have to reconsider price points, sources of their materials and possibly outsource their production activities. In making such compromises the concern is that the ‘social’ in social enterprise becomes meaningless as enterprises are drawn into the less ethical practices of big business.

If Asda were sincere in their interest in social enterprise would they instead be considering what compromises they could make to work with social enterprises, rather than the other way around? Or would we rather that big business stays totally clear of social enterprises in order to retain some of the community based, cooperative roots of social enterprise in Scotland and baulk at the idea of Asda partnering with social enterprise?

Among the many questions that the Commonhealth research programme is attempting to address, we are trying to explore how different social enterprises manage the balance between ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ aims, and what this means for health outcomes.

Clementine Hill OConnor

What do we value? And why?

 

Wevolution

We have talked a lot about value both on this blog and in our conversations as a research team. It has recently come up for me in the context of one of the chapters I’m working on for my PhD. I’m arguing that one of the reasons the women in self-reliant groups value their involvement is because it helps them meet the expectation set for them by the job centre and work programmes. Thus the groups become valued on these terms. My supervisor asked me whether I thought that this meant that the women had simply taken on board the values of the job centre…or is there something more going on?

I can think of many examples of ways that they want to challenge and rail against that system so my immediate answer would be ‘no’. Nevertheless I can’t ignore the fact that women are framing some of their values in these terms. The women talk about lots of other things that they value and aspire to in their lives which challenge the expectations of the job centre and other such structures. In the here and now what is important, and therefore valued by the women, is the fact that certain aspects of their involvement in the SRG will help them justify their time and experience within the terms recognised and valued by the job centre. This can, in the words of one of my respondents, ‘help get the job centre off my back’.

However, it all gets more complicated when you consider that there are times when the job centre and related institutions do not recognise the value of the SRG. Nevertheless, by framing the value of SRGs in terms of skills development and confidence building the SRG members can claim that the groups are more effective at delivering on ‘work-readiness’ than any work programme delivered by external agencies.

This means women in groups can simultaneously claim a certain amount of social worthiness (in a context where paid work is valued above any contribution they make as mothers, carers, volunteers etc.) as well as challenge some of the assumptions about what they can expect for themselves in the longer term as the recognise the potential for SRGs to create work spaces that are sociable, in which they are considered as equal and there is a sense of ownership and pride in their jobs.

If we are to measure value, whether in quantitative or qualitative terms we should be considering why certain things are valued over others and who is setting the terms. Within organisations are values set by external factors related to funding or other external pressures or do they relate to the intrinsic purpose and nature of the organisation- is it both? How do they measure it? Which values are prioritised? We should also consider the timeline or context of value- is it seen in the here and now, meeting an immediate need for money, safety, employment or might it be valued in the longer term in relation to raising aspirations, challenging a status quo or reducing inequalities.

 

 

 

The price of milk: The value of bringing your cows to the supermarket!

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. 

Image taken from mirror.co.uk
Image taken from mirror.co.uk

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?!

The social value of Social Value

company-accountants

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- www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

Social Value UK- www.socialvalueuk.org