What do Social Enterprises do?

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For our next snapshot of the recently published social enterprise survey report, Mapping the Social Shift, we’ll be taking a look at what structures social enterprises in Nova Scotia actually take–how they function and where, which issues they hope to address, and, perhaps most importantly, the different ways that they track their progress.

How long have social enterprises in Nova Scotia been around? According to the survey data, the vast majority, 70%, answered that they had been in operation for 20 years or more, and almost as many said that they had been providing goods or services to the communities they serve for just as long. The small difference means simply that organizations often start up and begin their initial operations before they are actually able to provide a product or service, but that many were able to start providing services within the first couple years of launching.

The survey also shows us that once such organizations were able to begin providing services, they have stayed in business for a considerable time–the median age of operations, for all respondents, was 30 years! In the last post, we mentioned that the roots of social enterprise in Nova Scotia run deep, and the longevity reported by our survey respondents demonstrates this fact.

But there are plenty of young up-and-comers in the province too. About 7% of respondents said that they had only started up within the last two years. Though many social enterprises in the province are well-established, especially among those with non-profit structures, we need to take care to support many fledgling enterprises as well.

The definition of social enterprise occupies a sometimes troubling contradiction: the term sometimes seems specific enough to exclude many types of business organizations, and at other times is broad enough to include a wide array of organizations under its umbrella. Part of the work of analyzing the survey data involves determining which structures organizations have been operating under and how this may qualify them as being a social enterprise.

The three largest respondent groups reported operating as non-profit societies (34%), non-profit charities (28%), and non-profit co-operatives (10%), totalling 72% of all who responded. A corresponding percentage, a whopping 75%, reported reinvesting profits and surplus revenues into their mission, which is a key identifier in determining social enterprise activity. And 63% deliver services directly to the public, meaning that many people across NS communities may benefit from the work of social enterprises, whether or not they are aware of it.

So, what do these diverse social enterprises across the province do? Of a list of predetermined areas that respondents felt best described their organization, the top five included improving particular communities, supporting the arts, creating employment opportunities, and improving mental and physical health.

Checking a box is one thing, but that only allowed participants to answer based on the criteria that we had provided. Knowing the importance of individual stories, we also asked respondents to provide their mission statement–the reason for their very existence–in their own words. The researchers then grouped these in the four main areas, based on our provincial definition of social enterprise. The largest group, those operating for a Social mission, comprised 41% of respondents. That certainly puts the social in social enterprise!

When asked about geographic information, most respondents indicated that they provided products and services within their own local neighbourhood or community (76%), demonstrating that social enterprises operating in Nova Scotia are doing so primarily for the benefit of Nova Scotians.

But how do organizations measure the success of their operations? Measuring social success and progress is one of the most important parts of demonstrating the value of social enterprise, which is one of the six pillars. In the survey, respondents reported 2.5 million “interactions” in 2016, a term which could describe regular clients, people for whom services are provided, or those who may benefit from their activities in some way.

It gives us a vague idea of the scale of outreach in NS, and how many people various organizations may work with. But more importantly, it underscores the fact that progress in this field is measured in many different ways, and that it’s hard to come up with overall measurement criteria that may apply to everyone. The data displayed another trend, which was that most respondents do track progress towards their goals–but those goals can be as individual as the stories we heard from each participant detailing their mission statement.

Generally, it was the social enterprises that had a higher number of interactions with clients that were more likely to track their progress, and the lack of data from others suggests that smaller organizations often don’t have the resources to collect their own data and evaluate their efforts.

We know that social organizations help people. But it’s hard to measure qualitative data like outpourings of kindness, or gratitude. There’s no silver bullet to discovering the “social return on investment,” which would hope to provide measurement that could include such human concepts. But different partners in the social enterprise sector continue to work at designing methods that can demonstrably model social change. For now, there is more work to be done.