Think of social enterprise and you might be surprised to learn that the Eden Project, The Big Issue and Jamie Oliver's Fifteen all sprang from the ethos that businesses can have a social purpose. Whether it be tackling social problems, improving communities or people's life chances, or the environment, social enterprise has attracted worldwide policy interest.
But how do you measure what impact such enterprises are having on society? Can they be helped to gauge their own success and use it as a model for improvement in the future?
Middlesex University has been leading ground-breaking research which examines the social enterprise phenomenon and how to assess its value. As part of a £2-million project spanning five years, it has produced work that has not just had a large impact on policy but on practice in the real world. Most recently, the university's Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research (CEEDR) led the Social Enterprise stream of the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) and directed the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Social Enterprise Research Capacity Building Cluster (a £1.2m programme). It has also led research for various government departments looking at the efficacy of social enterprise including the Cabinet Office.
Professor Fergus Lyon, who leads the CEEDR team, explains: "Charities in the current climate are having to show to funders what their impact is. We help them by trying to find ways of measuring that. Some things are relatively easy to measure – like getting people back into work – but others are very hard, like general wellbeing. Various approaches as to how to measure that wellbeing are becoming available now.
"Some people try and put a financial benefit on what they are doing, a sort of social return on investment approach and we've done reviews on that that show it is a very powerful tool but it is also open to a lot of discretion. Often they are not comparing like with like but we're doing work to see how they might do that and compare on a level playing field."
Lyon's team work with charities to enable them to see what they're doing well, what they're not and to help them to learn from it and grow. They are currently working with Holy Cross Community Trust to explore the needs and expectations of mental health service users and the different opportunities coming from commissioners and other funders. The Middlesex evaluation research will help identify where and how social enterprise can enable alternative forms of provision.
Lyon explains: "Research insights into how social impact can best be measured have led to changes in the practices of charities such as Citizens Advice and the use of a measurement tool by over 200 smaller organizations." It's research with social purpose, benefitting organizations with social purpose.