What is it, exactly, we’re doing with Social Firms?

I'm running a workshop at this year's Social Firms UK Conference (13th -14th July) which will try to challenge the usually very practical focus of this event and ask some fundamental questions about Social Firm models (workshop details below).

It was inspired in part by a paper Doug Foster of Surrey University wrote a couple of years ago - which contrasted UK Social Firms with Italian Type B Co-operatives, linking the UK approach with more authoritarian industrial therapy and moral management traditions in psychiatry, while seeing the Italians as closer to more democratic therapeutic communities and social psychiatry - and also partly by my own research on Co-operative Social Firms, on the miEnterpise supported self-employment model and for the RIPFA Key Issues study on Social Firms - which highlighted the fact that Social Firm models have developed and achieved profile mainly in the mental health world - but there is much less evidence for success with other groups such as people with learning disabilities.

I wonder if anyone would like to put forward ideas on this in advance - which we can explore further as part of the workshop?

Workshop 6: Social Firms – Tinkering With Frankenstein?

Monday 13th July 2009 3.45pm

When you’re engaged in the practical business of Social Firm development and management, it’s easy to forget that Social Firms occupy contested ground:

  • Has the recent strong emphasis on ‘enterprise’ gone too far, to the detriment of social aims and achievements? What’s so good about work anyway?
  • Have the Values-Based Checklist and other initiatives set up a single Social Firm model, when in fact what’s needed is a diversity of experimental forms?
  • Is this enterprise-driven Social Firm model actually useful for most learning disabled people in day or residential care now? And does it really challenge socially conservative approaches to mental health? Weren’t social co-operatives a more radical model, rooted in anti-psychiatry?
  • Isn’t the whole social inclusion agenda in fact complicit with a New Labour dream of easy consensus that’s not going to survive in the fractured, contested and credit crunched real world?

This workshop will sketch current academic debates, look at a new Social Firms study – RIPFA’s Key Issues 4: Social Firms – and open up space for discussion of these fundamental questions about what it is, exactly, we’re doing with Social Firms.

This Blog sparked an

This Blog sparked an interesting e-mail debate. One correspondent asked:
Do you have or know of an idiots' guide to the social firm models you have in mind, as distinct from all the other models, ie the social enterprise/generic not-for-profit/voluntary action/community organisation/public sector/private firm/professional parnership/worker co-operative/employment training models.
I'm assuming there is something distinctive about SF model(s), otherwise you wouldn't be asking; is it a distinctive business model, or a distinctive organisational model, or a distinctive model in a different way?
Or is it the case that some social firms overlap with some of these other models, and some don't?

To which Dr Rory Ridley-Duff replied:

The latter is closer to my understanding. Social firms focus specifically on people who are severely disadvantaged in the labour market (usually through physical or mental disability that prevents them obtaining mainstream employment). They are not so interested in those who are simply 'unemployed' or
'underemployed'. The social firm 'model' is to use employment, rather than day care, as a form of 'treatment' - i.e. it is underpinned - at least in part - by a view that the medical model of treatment is incomplete, and that people develop self-esteem from doing paid work alongside able-bodied people. Some voluntary groups I've come across operate on similar lines, in some cases
having the disabled staff 'leading' all projects and being paired with able-bodied workers. I guess these would be viewed as social firms too.

I'm involved with a group of social firms in Sheffield at the moment. They seek to provide employment opportunities (which may be as little as a few hours a week). If their disability is extreme, staff are accompanied by a carer or nurse (funded by a PCT). Funding comes both from trading (i.e. a product/service) and from PCTs / Mental Health groups. The group I'm involved with has a number of cafes with mixed able body/disabled staff groups.
Another company in the group does market research for blind people (part-funded by RNIB to establish a second office in Leeds). It turns in a profit of £20-30k each year by employing market researchers who are partially sighted, or blind, and doing research by phone for government departments under contract.

Geof's point - in the blog - is that Italian social cooperatives work from a more radical premise: that the environment they create provides a better form of 'treatment' that institutionalised treatment by psychiatrists in hospitals or care centres. Even more radical, perhaps, is the view that psychiatry is part of the problem that social firms (through social cooperatives) have to address. I'm not particularly well read on the achievement of the social cooperatives in Italy so I've not got a view beyond the general wellbeing that /some /people experience in a cooperative setting, and the philosophical perspectives that Foucault might put forward regarding the impact of psychiatry in constructing people in particular ways.

Rory is absolutely right -

Rory is absolutely right - though increasingly people 'severely disadvantaged in the labour market' is extending to groups like ex-offenders, so we have to understand the 'Social Firm model' less as an alternative to medical approaches to disability, mental ill-health, etc, and more in terms of achieving social inclusion and well-being through supportive employment for marginalised people more generally.
There is incidentally a big contingent of staff from the Ministry of Justice at this year's SFUK Conference.
I always use the word 'model' with trepidation now as people have started talking about 'the social enterprise model'.
Social Firms have many BUSINESS models - though all constrained by the central business problem of having higher staff costs (more supportive work environment) than competitors - I love the ingenious solutions Social Firms have to this problem, such as running two synergistic trades (eg, hospitality training and guest house) in the shell of a larger enterprise.
They also have many ORGANISATIONAL models - from charities to co-ops - and legal/financial structures including partnerships and sole traders.
Of course it might so happen that I get a call from a Social Firm setting up to battery farm chickens. It could still be a Social Firm by all the SFUK criteria - a typical anomaly in the balkanised social enterprise world - and needless to say (as a keeper of free-range hens myself) I would refer the job to someone less scrupulous!

try to be too much to too many?

my 'concern' is that with the 'tinkering' in recent years of the social firms basic model (extending the prinicple purpose to encompass those beyond disability), is that we're actually in danger of seeing greater confusion and therefore lack of engagement with the model at all.

given that there are national apex bodies supporting social enterprises created to tackle homelessness, criminal offenders, BAME, women returners to work, etc, etc, we are at key risk of loosing our 'distictive ethos' in the eyes of all stakeholder groups.
And we should also be aware of the 'rationalisation' that's going on in the charity sector (where many social firms are also located), which is seeing the biggest charities partnering/merging with others with comparable purposes and so they loose their inviduality and self-control.

discussions then about the finer philosophical points above could therefore quickly become very redundant...

Is loss of identity a problem?

Internationally, Social Firms have always had the broader 'disadvantage' focus rather than just 'disability' - the early decision of Social Firms UK to focus on disabled people was tactical - for precisely the reasons you put forward Adrian - to give the early movement and Social Firms UK itself a clear identity and coherent constiuency.
There is also a bigger issue in your comments of course: if you believe, as I do, that social enterprise represents the way all business should be done, then loss of a distictive identity might be a good thing...

Social Firms and Anti-Psychiatry


You ask some hard questions - ones that need asking. What's so good about work? It depends very much on the quality of the workplace. While there is a hotly contested debate about the economic performance of co-operatives, their social performance is easier to comment on. Rothschild and Allen-Whitt presented a compelling picture of the social well-being that involvement in co-operative working can engender, as well as some of the stresses and strains that come from owning/managing your own enterprise.

Even so, the more egalitarian - less-authoritarian work environment would surely suit the long-term objectives of social firms (i.e. full reintegration into society, not just preparation for another workplace). Moreover, they can become viable communities in their own right, not just stepping stone back into the society that excluded them in the first place. This seems a much better approach than the task and target driven style beloved of funders in search of 'outputs'.

As for psychiatry, with its 'diagnostic' approach to investigating social problems, and 'expert' approach to treatment, this is surely the type of thinking that triggers many of the problems that social firms are set up to address. The philosophy that underpins co-operativism - that a person's social environment penetrates their consciousness and strongly influences their well-being (mental or otherwise) - is an alternative to, not a compliment for, existing medical models of treatment.

I hope you have an interesting workshop.

Best wishes