Hunting snarks below the radar in the social economy

NESTA have recently funded some pilot research projects designed to improve our knowledge about small-scale, “below-radar” organisations in the social economy. The five projects were presented at a meeting in June and there are more details of the discussions here. The morning generated an animated discussion but how useful is research into this kind of activity?

My own responses to the discussion focussed on questions of definition – what’s an organisation, how do we know we have identified one, what powers do associations have, what might we expect from them? There’s also questions of method – NESTA have commissioned 5 projects, each of which is using different techniques to identify organisations. It is unlikely that the results, however interesting they are, will be comparable in any sense.

There are some wider questions to think about. Does it really matter just how many such groups there are? A figure of between 600 – 900 000 groups in the UK is regularly quoted, without evidence, but it is difficult to know where that figure came from. It was possibly an extrapolation from local listings of voluntary organisations – an estimate of the ratio of charities to unregistered organisations, grossed up for the whole country. But the listings on which such studies are based are unrepresentative and not a good base for those calculations. It’s unrealistic to suggest that we are ever going to have anything like an accurate count of them. TSRC’s own work on below-radar groups involved very detailed, street-level mapping – and generated 5 organisations for every street mapped. But without some systematic process of sampling across communities in the whole UK, we can’t easily generalise from these findings.

Instead of counting the numbers of organisations we might want to consider which ones are important. A small number of large organisations could have much more of an impact than a large number of small groups. That was pointed out by the Wolfenden Committee in 1978. Would a total absence of BTR organisations be a good thing? Instead of counting the number of entities that we can observe, what about starting from an identification of needs in the community and how well they are met – whether by statutory, voluntary or commercial providers?

And what are these figures measuring? Do they tell us about innovative places, or about innovative people? Does the presence or absence of BTR activity do anything more than describe where we will find committed young people with energy and motivation, and who engage with the kind of technologies being researched? – in other words, most probably, areas of cities where they can still afford to live? For this reason I have not been surprised to hear an argument that social enterprises are concentrated in disadvantaged areas but that could simply be a function of their offices being registered at the residential addresses of their proprietors.

If we are interested in innovation, we’d also want to know how organisations get established –not just whether they grow (being small and local could be what they are all about) but whether they survive and how they do so. That implies a longitudinal study – some kind of tracking of organisational growth and change – as well as a snapshot of where organisations are at the present time.

There’s probably plenty more questions where those came from, but those will do for a start.

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