Social Enterprise, Social Impact, Social value?

By Matt Leach - on 13/07/2012

HACT's CEO Matt Leach highlights the important role of housing associations as community-focused social enterprises and what that might mean for the changing ways in which they do business

A great report out earlier this week by Mark Richardson, a multiple social entrepreneur, currently working at the NHF, highlights the potential of housing associations to support the growth of social enterprises, particularly around green services.  “Green Light” showcases some fantastic case studies of housing providers investing in and supporting social enterprise, and the potential that exists for more.  For those thinking about going down this route, it is well worth a read.

One question is doesn’t address – to be fair to the report, it rules it out of scope at the outset - is the extent to which housing associations are social enterprises in themselves, and what that might mean for the changing ways in which they do business.

Because whilst there are undoubtedly opportunities to be seized around bringing social enterprise closer to the housing associations (something the Housing Leadership Foundation is already looking to pilot in a practical way out in the sector), a broader challenge is how housing providers rethink their businesses to ensure that they deliver the maximum positive social and economic value to their communities through every aspect of their work.

As social enterprises, delivering critical services across the country on a scale matched only by the NHS, housing providers already have huge experience of balancing the needs and demands of the 3 Cs - customer, commercial and community.  But with the state withdrawing from areas it previously dominated (this chart from the Financial Times is truly scary), and sources of external funding available to both housing providers and communities decrease, the tensions inherent in maintaining that balance will become more important, and more challenging to resolve.

Striking the right balance will not just be about funding individual projects, or setting up individual enterprises.  It will be about being ever more aware of both the impact and potential of housing providers as social investors and change agents within communities, and about seeking to lever every part of their businesses to generate multiple returns, making a tangible difference to the places in which they work, the lives of the people living there, and the potential of the organisation to both increase its impact and continue to deliver into the long term.

It will also be about building an ever closer understanding communities of the communities housing providers work within, and understanding where engagement – whether through supporting or establishing social enterprise or local business; nurturing individual community entrepreneurs; changing services or ways of delivering them; or entering new areas of activity.  Some of this will be as much about transforming internal culture and mindsets, as systems or processes. 

Last week HACT held events in Manchester and London with nef – the New Economics Foundation on approaches to maximising the local economic impact of housing providers.  Both events generated huge discussion and engagement, highlighting both the challenges and potential in this space – for those unable to make it, the presentations are available here.  Its important stuff – not just because of the likelihood that some of these issues are likely to increasingly dominate housing providers’ engagement with partners at a local level, but – fundamentally – because it addresses issues that are at the heart of what mobilised, and continues to inspire, the housing sector as a movement.  HACT is aiming this autumn to bring together a group of housing providers interested in working together with HACT, nef and each other to explore in more detail how providers can maximise their positive impact on local economies, and robustly evidence the impact they achieve.  If you are interested in taking part, please contact john.coburn@hact.org.uk, and we will be in touch in early autumn.

New tools will also be important.  Inspired by some of the great work done by organisations like Aster Group in mapping and understanding their communities, HACT is working with leading social data analysts OCSI to develop cost effective, accessible ways in which housing providers can access and overlay the huge range of publically available big data onto their stock.  Next week we have our first product development workshop with a group of interested housing associations, and I am massively excited about what it looks like we may be in a position to beta test with a wider group in the autumn.  Watch this space!

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