Tag Archives: social and community enterprises

Reflections on Social Enterprise: has it lost its way?

The role of a retired person is no longer to possess one. Simone de Beauvoir

I have been thinking about retiring but with the above quote in mind, I do not want to lose my ‘role’ in society.  I recognise that my role will change and, perhaps because of this, I have been reflecting on the changes that have happened within the social and community enterprise sector – an area I have worked in since 1988.  The essence of this ‘area’ is how organisations can trade in goods and service to maximise social and community benefit.

Mulling over the progress made by the sector in the last 30 years has got me wondering whether or not the world of social enterprise has lost its way.

Since the 1980s when I first started to work with community-owned businesses in Scotland, there have been huge and undoubtedly positive developments.  The idea of enterprises and trading businesses having a central social purpose has become much more acceptable – the proverbial person on the top of the No. 33 bus is now more aware of the term ‘social enterprise’.

Furthermore, governments now see the potential of enterprises delivering a care-bound service and are trying to support them with policies, strategies and the offer of funded contracts.  The prevailing infrastructure (sometimes called ‘eco-system’) within social enterprises is more developed than ever before, and encouragingly, more and more young people want to work within, and startup, companies that create a better and fairer society.

Many of the winds of change in the sector have been positive.  So, why am I left with a nagging negative feeling that the social enterprise ‘movement’, if that is what it is, has lost its way? There are three areas that cause concern.

Firstly, there is no widely agreed definition for a social enterprise.  Instead, there are many slightly different definitions – some are loosely defined and ‘broad church’; while others are very specific.

Without a widely acceptable and recognised definition, it is difficult to say what is a social enterprise and what is not.  This means that some private businesses can self-declare themselves as social enterprises while their trading surplus finds its way eventually into the pockets of its owners.  At the same time, there is a push to encourage organisations that are patently charitable and dependent on volunteer work to make money when there is little or no money to be made.

In my view, this lack of a clear definition has hampered the expansion of the social enterprise sector.

In Scotland, there has been an awareness of this problem and many social enterprises and support organisations have signed up to the Voluntary Code which provides a helpful definition. The Code recognises five basic criteria for social enterprise, and in a short appendix, identifies some less ‘defined’ values/behaviours/influences familiar to the social enterprise movement. Although this has helped, the Code is constantly coming under attack from those that want ‘social enterprise’ to include a wider range of companies – many of which are patently privately owned.

This tug o’ war over definitions is really a political battle – with those on the ‘right’ pushing for privatisation of services, and those on the ‘left’ wanting to retain the benefits from trading entirely for the wider social good.

Secondly, there is an issue about whether or not a social enterprise exists to primarily benefit the individual or the community.

Over the last 40 years or so, there has been a switch in thinking in society in a collective way where there is a concern for the common good, to one where the individual is paramount.  This focus on the individual is so pervasive that it is often considered it to be the norm.  It manifests itself in everything from commercial marketing with a focus on the individual needs of consumers, to psychological profiling of individual persons.

Society is now increasingly more structured these days on the individual and less on the relationships between people.

Mutuality, reciprocal working and looking out for the less fortunate has not disappeared – but it has been given less importance.  We are a society more obsessed with the Self; and less with the Group.

Thirdly, there is a danger that the social enterprise sector is losing its purpose and overall essence.  I think there are three sub-areas of concern here, namely:

  • adoption of neo-liberal economics: Funding is no longer trustingly given to organisations in the third sector.  They have to compete for it causing divisions between similar organisations which due to their often, precarious financial existence should be collaborating and working together for the common good. Added to this is an expectation that growing an organisation is the only way to survive – biggest is best.  This is often not the case as smaller, locally based organisations with strong collective bonds are often more effective as they understand, and work within, the local context.

 

  • overemphasis on management: In the 1980s there was a root and branch re-organisation of the public sector with the introduction of overt marketisation. This encouraged an emphasis on management, reflected in ambitious workers doing MBAs and learning how to manage departments and, indeed, voluntary organisations. The methods of traditional business were swallowed wholesale and not sufficiently adapted to the delivery of social needs. These days it has become entirely acceptable that numbers and finance became the currency of tracking qualitative social change.

 

  • focussing too much on ‘innovative’ technology: This is a tricky one as the technology itself is not a concern – but rather it is how it is applied. Computers have had a huge influence on how we work and how we organise what we do.  There has been, in my view, too much focus on how we deliver what we do and not enough emphasis on why we are doing it.  In effect, there is a danger that the technology dictates the delivery and our sense of caring is subsumed in overly concentrating on method.

I am not sure if I have any answers to any of these concerns about the future direction of social enterprise.

Social and community enterprises can try and keep a grip on what they do by building into their structure time for reflection.  Social Accounting and Audit (SAA) is an integral way of keeping track on what an organisation is doing, how it is doing what it does, who it works with, and most importantly why it is doing what it does.  SAA is not complex.  It is a process which reports on the approach of an organisation, its values and procedures, as well as expecting regular reporting on the positive (and negative) change that happens as a result of the organisation’s actions.

It is about being accountable – not just to a funder or to an owner, but to all the key stakeholders.  It is about helping to hold on to the essence of what they are as a social or community enterprise – and to keep focussed and not drift from their core mission.

Returning to the original quote at the start of this blog.  I think at every age we should build in time for reflection on what has worked and what has not.  The term ‘social enterprise’ is often overused, becoming more diluted and in danger of becoming a meaningless term. The social enterprise ‘movement’, behind the term, is, I think, beginning to lose its way.

But we still have time to address this… well, you do!   I am off to retire.

Alan Kay – Social Audit Network (SAN)
www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

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Social impact: Success or failure? Nothing succeeds as much as learning the lessons from failure…

I have written several obituaries in my life.  It is not easy to describe what someone has done and what they have achieved in a few paragraphs.  It also raises the question of success – have these people succeeded in what they have done?  Have they attained their individual goals?  Can we consider their life as being a success – or a failure?

This got me thinking about what do we mean by success – what yardstick can we use; and, indeed, are the conventional yardsticks the ‘right’ ones?

In introducing this, allow me a couple of anecdotes.

A relative of mine is just graduating and his father was saying that he hopes he gets a job in the City of London and makes lots of money.  Why?  Because he will then be regarded by his peers and others as a ‘success’. 

Mmm…

About twenty years ago I met an elderly Irish priest in Central Java.  He had moved there donkey’s years previously and worked in what we used to call ‘community development’.  He worked with community groups supporting them to improve their and their children’s, livelihoods.  He did this very successfully but with little recognition.

Mmm…

These contrasting examples raise several points about what we mean by success. ‘Success’ (or indeed failure) is dependent on the definition of ‘success’ – and more particularly the parameters used to define ‘success’ which are often dictated by the society and culture that one is a part of…

Defining and measuring success is as important for enterprises as it is for people.  With enterprises, assessing success depends on the type of business as different types of enterprise use different measures for assessing their success or failure:

  1. With mainstream commercial business, recognising success is relatively easy. If a business is growing, if the turnover is increasing year on year, if the profit margins are widening; if shareholders’ dividends are increasing – then it is seen as a successful business.
  2. With a business that has a social conscience and a strong commitment to social responsibility, success can be assessed by the normal business measurements alongside how much money and resources are given for charitable or social aims.
  3. With a social or community enterprise, assessing success gets a bit more complicated. These are enterprises that use economic activity to benefit people and communities, provide value to society and are consciously not adversely affecting the environment.  Achieving these things is their core business – not just an add-on to a mainstream business activity.

However, in reporting on success/failure, a social or community enterprise has specific challenges.  One of the most immediate problems is to regularly report on how they affect people, communities, the environment, the local economy and the prevalent culture.

Social enterprises often consider that it would be good to do this – but why, as it is not a statutory requirement? And then how can it fit in with what they are already doing?  How do they know it is a good use of resources to report regularly? And how do they understand and demonstrate whether or not they are successful in achieving their main purpose? In other words, how do social and community enterprise assess their success or failure?

In the Social Audit Network (SAN), we have been grappling with some of these key questions. Social accounting and audit is the framework used by SAN.  In supporting social and community enterprises to keep track of successes and failures, we believe enterprises should be clear about what they do, how they do it and who is affected; collect qualitative and quantitative information; report on successes and failures; and get the report verified through a ‘social audit’ process.

The framework is flexible and should include evidencing data on outputs and outcomes, the different views and reported outcomes from all stakeholders, costs and reported benefits and targets.  The subsequent reporting brings together quantitative and qualitative information – including an internal report on the organisation’s approach and ethos.  It then discloses this independently audited information and invites the wider society to assess its success or failure.

Adopting the framework is not rocket science.  We think that it is a sensible approach to showing others an organisation’s progress (how it proves itself) and this then relays back into how it can improve as an effective organisation.  The verified report highlights and recommends new directions, changes, improvements; and all this can be fed into planning for the future.

By its nature, the recommended structure for a ‘social report’ encourages a range of data from different sources and goes beyond Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – and such like. Indeed, a note of caution should be attached to ‘targets’ and KPIs.  We have found that targets are really useful if they are presented alongside other information.  But if they become the ‘report’, the focus moves away from overall improvements in quality to changing the actions to fulfil the target.

In essence, regular social reporting is crucially important – particularly for organisations whose social and community benefits are its raison d’etre.  Through this reporting, they can assess the degree of success (or failure) they are having in different areas of their work.

The success parameters applied by an organisation are multi-perspective and set by the organisation – but crucially these parameters are then tested by subjecting the social report to an independent audit

Subsequent systematic social reporting can then track the progress of an organisation, and in looking critically at that story people in the wider society, can assess themselves on the success or failure of that social enterprise.

So, going back to the wider anecdotes at the start of this blog… Success can be defined in different ways depending on values, the experience and the understanding of those trying to assess ‘success’.

Lastly, and perhaps as an addendum, we should not perhaps ignore the importance of failure.  I leave you with a quote from Kenneth Boulding (1910 – 1993), a British economist, educator, peace activist, poet, religious mystic, devoted Quaker, systems scientist, and interdisciplinary philosopher who wrote:

“Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it.  We only learn from failure.”

Mmm…

Postscript: In 2005 John Pearce wrote Learning from Failure which focussed on four social enterprises that had failed.  He wrote about why and how they failed and the lessons to be learnt from their experience. It was published by Co-active which I believe no longer exists.  If you would like a copy, write to alan.kay20@gmail.com.

Alan Kay – Social Audit Network (SAN)

www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

Developing Devolution with Social Accounting & Audit

I believe that Social Accounting and Audit (SAA) can be a framework for accountability and reporting, which, if used to support public procurement, will enable devolution. Despite the current move towards greater control of purchasing by central government in Westminster, SAA can be a way to make devolution work.

Devolution is commonly understood to be the transfer of functions previously exercised by ministers and the national parliament to a subordinate elected body on a geographical basis.

In Greater Manchester (GM), we have been leading the way. Budgets for health and social care, planning and housing, business support and low carbon technologies have been entrusted to sub-regional level by Government.

Furthermore, ‘social value’ is now enshrined in GM-wide Procurement Policy, and the need to maximise spending power for the benefit of local people – to achieve a social, environmental and economic impact – is recognised as a major way to ‘sweat’ public, private and third sector investment for the common good.

Over 10 years ago, at the New Local Government conference, David Milliband announced, ‘at the local level we need a stronger framework of opportunity and responsibility …. – in fact a double devolution, not just to the Town Hall but beyond, to neighbourhoods and individual citizens’.

The Office of the Third Sector (now Civil Society) was created and local authorities were encouraged to devolve the delivery of local services to local people.

But it didn’t quite happen like that…

What we have in GM isn’t a ‘double devolution’, but it is one where the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector has a strong voice. Words like ‘co-production’, ‘co-design’, ‘asset based approaches’ and ‘reform’ are used to indicate an evolving sense of, ‘we are all in it together’. The delivery isn’t yet devolved to local people.

At the heart of GM devolution is a need to make the local economy sustainable. It is recognised that if this is to work, voluntary, community, social enterprise organisations, neighbourhoods and citizens must be ready and able to take the opportunity and responsibility.  And they must convince Town Halls that they can deliver. Maybe therefore, this is why the double devolution hasn’t really happened?

SAA is not a new concept, having been implemented in various forms and by a wide range of organisations since the 1970s.  But there is a growing number of organisations in GM that have adopted this approach to help them measure their overall impact and quality by integrating the ‘proving – improving – and be accountable’ processes into their day-to-day operations.

SAA accurately describes what an organisation is achieving in economic, social and environmental terms, and allows it to demonstrate to others what its principle purposes are and what it does. It assesses social and community enterprises in a holistic way, incorporating both the views of everyone connected with the organisation and measuring indicators of its success.

The framework also includes independent verification, an audit process whereby the results can be proved to be robust and reliable, which can give confidence to both the organisation and the Town Hall looking to devolve responsibility or place a contract.

One of the main elements of SAA is the comprehensive involvement of an organisation’s stakeholders, and this can prove one of the most important reasons for procuring from the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector.  SAA can demonstrate to health and other commissioners that service users and staff are indeed involved in the planning, operation and management of services from social enterprises.

Unlimited Potential (UP) is a social enterprise providing health and happiness services, which grew up in the Charlestown and Lower Kersal area of Salford.

ultd-potential

Formed by residents participating in a local health task group, and now tackling health issues in partnership with local people, its work includes managing services at two local healthy living centres, health outreach services and work which addresses the specific health and happiness issues of local residents.

UP is very keen to prove its ‘positive impact’ as it develops a sustainable business strategy, and has used social accounting and audit to do this.

UP’s ability to demonstrate the benefits of its work through social accounting and audit, adds ‘value’ to public service commissioners who are provided with evidence of partnership working, involvement of local people in the design and management of services, innovation, responsiveness to local need and local ownership. This has contributed to UP becoming a nationally recognised and respected social enterprise.

SAA can be used to demonstrate individual and collective strengths, prove the sector’s competence as providers of public services, and meeting the challenge of taking local responsibility and citizen led action.

It can help devolution to happen.

Anne Lythgoe, Vice Chair & Treasurer/Finance Director  www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

Social impact: should we be talking process or product?

I was reminded recently of the story about Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece.  It is the well-known story of a young man with a goal in mind but in order to achieve that end, he has a long, challenging and arduous journey.   It was an adventure, and throughout the journey Jason grew as a person, became wiser, tackled problems and overcame obstacles.  Although the final product was obtaining a prize, the process involved in trying to attain the prize was equally important.

The lesson learned from this story being…the journey is as important as the destination.  In today’s media parlance – we were on a journey and it was a bit of a rollercoaster but we got through it!

With a bit of a stretch of the imagination it is similar with social impact reporting.  The activities that are done to understand the degree that one’s organisation is making a difference can be as important – if not more important – than the resultant social report.

I have been involved with social accounting and audit for many years.  Working with others, we developed a PROCESS to help organisations collect relevant quantitative and qualitative information relating to their central purpose.  This happens each year in the same way that financial accounts and ‘books’ are kept.

Organisations then bring this information together and report on their performance and on their impact on their stakeholders.   The process is internal to the organisation, owned and controlled by the organisation – thereby empowering it to self-monitor and self-evaluate.

At the end of a year the organisation will produce its own social impact report – this is the PRODUCT.  Thus. the process can be regarded as the ‘journey’ and the social report is the ‘destination’.

With social accounting and audit there is a wee sting in the tail in that the product is externally verified with an audit – again similar to financial annual accounts.  The audit ensures that the final product of the report is valid and a true interpretation of what the organisation has, and has not, achieved during the year.  On passing the audit, a statement is issued – not golden fleece I am afraid – just a signed certificate.

Organisations who regularly keep a set of social accounts and subject them to audit report a number of significant benefits.

The PROCESS helps them understand more clearly what they do to achieve an overall purpose; it forces them to listen to a wide range of different stakeholders; it can keep them on track; it can help them in explaining more clearly what they do; it can be used in organisational record-keeping and learning; it can get people to work together more effectively; and so on.

There are benefits too from producing a report – the PRODUCT.  It can be summarised and distributed widely to stakeholders and the wider public; it can be used to report back to funders; it can be the basis for future planning; it can track change that an organisation has had to deal with; it can be used, in part, to brief outsiders; and so on.

So in social accounting and audit both the PROCESS and the PRODUCT have value.

The Social Audit Network (SAN) was set up to help third sector and community organisation to introduce social accounting and audit into their organisations – and to help them with the process of social accounting as well as producing a social report.

Within SAN we often have the debate – is process more important than the product or vice versa.

I fall more into the process ‘camp’.  For me the final report does have value and I can see the advantages of having the statement endorsing the social accounts.  But it is going through the process that can have a more influential effect on the organisation.  It can help all parts of an organisation not only to take stock on a regular basis but also to reflect on what the organisation is trying to do and how it is doing that.

So many social and community enterprises see a need, respond to it, try and address it, and then get caught up in delivering whatever it is that they do.  Building into the annual organisational cycle a process of data collection and stakeholder engagement to quantify outputs and to understand and to be able to report on outcomes, can be hugely beneficial.  Is the organisation doing the best it can?  Could it be doing something better or more effective? How can it change? How can it plan to improve?

The folk in the product camp stress the value of a report in that it can be used as the central document in an organisation.  It can be used to prove or evidence the work that has been done by the organisation in achieving its ends.

Now if you are a process-type person, you have to be able to accept that processes can be messy.  Through trial and error…and trial again, one learns – and through that learning a deeper understanding begins to emerge.

In researching this blog I came across a website – Prek and K Sharing which deals with working with children to create art.  They argue that in encouraging art the PROCESS of doing is more important than the final PRODUCT.

In the picture below the process is messy and undefined but reflects the learning, while the well-structured neat product is more presentable and more accepted.

process-product

It is the same with social impact reporting.  The process of collecting, collating and making sense of information and opinions can be messy – while the learning from it can be immense.

So which would you choose?  The process (read Jason’s adventurous journey) or the product (read ‘golden fleece’) or both…

Alan Kay – Social Audit Network (SAN) – www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk