Social impact and our peculiar understanding of ‘community’…

Many social enterprises, and perhaps more accurately, community enterprises, say that they are having an impact on The Community.  But do we really understand what we mean when we talk about ‘community’?

I have been involved with a number of EU funded projects over the years and conversations with European partners turns to semantics and discussion on whether or not there is a shared understanding of some of the major concepts that we in the UK bandy about with abandon.

One of those, and one that often forms a bit of a stumbling block, is the word ‘community’.  The Germans say it is untranslatable; the French use it in other ways; the British say it all the time in the hope that the others get their meaning.

Turning to definitions, the Oxford Living Dictionaries states that it is, ‘a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common’, which implies a ‘geographical community’.  But it also goes on to say that community can be, ‘the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common’.  This suggests more of a ‘community of interest’.

These discussions remind me of when I worked with community businesses in Scotland in the late 1980s.  Talking about a geographical community made sense as local people in hard pressed areas got together, formed an enterprise that created benefits for the locality by providing employment for long term unemployed and much needed services to benefit residents in the area.

But then ‘community of interest’ emerged.   This broadened the definition and at one meeting we realised that a golf club could be a community business serving the ‘community of golfers’.  Was this right?  And so the argument continued within, in those days, a smoke-filled room of activists…

Added to this are two critical dilemmas worthy of consideration.

The first is that ‘community’ is not a homogenous unit.  Within a geographical area there are a range of different people with differing values, outlooks, social and economic status, faiths and ethnic groupings.  How do we, as community-based organisations, whose central purpose is to work for community benefit, serve the whole community?

What are the priorities; how are they decided; and so on?   Local people on a Board of a community enterprise would be expected to understand the local community better than an outsider – but they may have their own interests and views that may not address the problem of all people living and working in the community.

The second is how the geographical community is defined.  Where are the boundaries outlining the community?   For some communities this is relatively straightforward as they may be islands, or particularly remote and self-defining, or they may be a housing estate squeezed into an area bounded by a major road or railway line.  But for many community based organisations this is an issue and one that has to be tackled and re-addressed.

Many community enterprises over the years have tried to report on the impact that they have on their community.  If they keep social accounts they are expected to draw out a local stakeholder map that charts the nature of the relationship they have with different stakeholder groups.

This is an exercise that many find particularly useful as it exposes many in their organisation to the dilemmas mentioned above.  Often there is not total agreement, but the discussion over stakeholder relationships can create a better understanding of differing positions within and around the organisation.

Also, as part of social accounting, there would be a need to consult or engage with the ‘community’ – some refer it to as the ‘wider community’.  This presents a problem as the community may be made up of thousands of households.  Through my involvement with social accounting and audit, I have tried to do and suggest a number of things.

One time we worked with a community enterprise in carrying out a survey that involved a questionnaire going to each household distributed in a community newsletter.  The returns were few.

Another time we worked on visiting a random selection of households in an area and conducted interviews.  This was more successful but fraught with difficulties over people being out, not wanting callers, not to mention fatigue and a wearing down of shoe leather…

However, something that did seem to work well, was the creation of a kind of ‘community jury’.  The community enterprise identified a local councillor for the area; a head of school, a local social worker, a prominent business person, a faith leader, a local MP.  These were people who were not close stakeholders but who would know about the community enterprise and a little about its work and impact.

Ideally this group would be brought together and issues about the performance and impact of the community enterprise would be discussed.  In practice this was very hard to achieve and the fall-back position was to interview these people with the same questions.

The consultation and engagement with a ‘community of interest’ may be clearer in some ways, as the community enterprise may only be consulting those people that have expressed an interest in what the enterprise is trying to do.  But that leaves out all the people that could be in the community of interest but do not know about or have never used the services provided.  Difficult or what?

I think defining and understanding ‘community’ is crucially important.  At a meeting several years ago a prominent member of the social enterprise sector in Scotland was asked what he thought was the future of social enterprise.  He said he thought it would be ‘community based enterprise’.  This harks back to the burgeoning community business movement in Scotland in the 1980s – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I also think that community enterprises are going to be more and more important.They tend to be tenacious organisations due to their close connections within communities.  This is evidenced by the number of community co-operatives in the Highlands and Islands that are still around in one form or another.

Community enterprises are also like ‘anchor organisations’ – a conduit for local development.  They usually have a clearer purpose compared to the plethora of recent social enterprises that are currently emerging – which are not community-based and struggle to show their distinction from being traditional businesses with a philanthropic arm.

Finally, we all live in ‘communities’ in one form or another.  We are not only individuals but part of something that underlines the connections and relationships between us that make life worthwhile.  I leave you with a quote from Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993), an American labour leader and civil rights activist…

We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.

Alan Kay, Social Audit Network (SANwww.socialauditnetwork.org.uk