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Social Work and Social Enterprise: An Uneasy Alliance?

Social work has an uneasy relationship with social enterprise. Although modules on social enterprise are increasingly popping up on social work curricula, the profession has a long way to go to fully embrace it.

I think the source of funding for social enterprise can be problematic for some people. Some may be uncertain about using private money for social good. Social work should be publicly funded, the responsibility of us all, the argument goes. But let’s not forget that social work was borne out of philanthropy; although we are only familiar with this through our history books and not current experience. True, individuals or companies may have their own agendas in funding social enterprise. But we shouldn’t dismiss it lightly.

Many social enterprises providing social care receive public funding – from either the NHS or local authorities. This may also be a source of concern – “why aren’t they investing in improving their own services?” Many fund social enterprises because they are more able to flexibly meet needs than they can themselves, which perhaps raises more questions about the nature of statutory services than those in the independent sector.

Social work practice pilots have been set up to test whether social enterprises can deliver statutory social work services. The one in North East Lincolnshire, for example, is responsible for all adult social care. Others are responsible for discrete services. Some may see this as the thin edge of the wedge, a step towards privatisation of social work. In Shropshire, though, practitioners talk about increased professional freedom and discretion, and an increased ability to provide person-centred care.

My experience of social enterprise is limited, so I can’t comment with any authority on the subject. However, I have been impressed by the social enterprises I have worked with, though social workers were nowhere in sight.

The Recovery Initiative Social Enterprise (RISE) uses asset-based community development methods to build a recovery community in south west London. Starting as a peer-support group for people recovering from substance misuse services, RISE now works with commissioners to deliver recovery services in the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. It is user-led, innovative and effective at connecting people. I’ve blogged about it several times before.

Start Again Project works with young people in Birmingham in search of a better life. We worked with Start Again in the early parts of the Connecting People study as they used sport to connect with young people in a way which traditional services struggled to. Its creator was frustrated about the lack of equivalent services and wanted to provide opportunities for young people which were not available to his family when it was needed.

Finally, we are working with Trafford Community TV (TCTV) to produce short films to accompany training materials for the Connecting People Intervention. A spin-off from blueSCI, a social enterprise providing well-being services to communities in Trafford, TCTV provides opportunities for people to gain experience in film on community projects.

Each are providing a form of social care but the involvement of social work is limited to referring people to them. But this has more to do with the constraints of local authority social work than a lack of interest in novel ways of providing services. If social workers were provided with the support and flexibility to innovate, I’m sure we’ll see more social enterprises popping up – and not just those set up to provide statutory services.


Working in higher education I have more opportunity to come up with new ideas and see them through than when I worked for a local authority. One such idea, the ClearFear Game, has long been in gestation but has now come to fruition. Using fun to bring people together, we think ClearFear has the potential to help people who feel anxious about social situations to be more confident in connecting with others.

Working with playmakers industries and other partners, we’re launching a crowdfunding campaign tomorrow to raise some money to help us take the game to the next level. We’re not setting up a social enterprise and the money will not be lining our pockets. Instead we aim to develop the ClearFear website to enable individuals to play the game; develop some gaming tools and evaluate the extent to which it actually helps people.

The crowdfunding campaign is supported by the RSA, who are launching it at a special event tomorrow night. If you’re interested in seeing a social worker launching into the world of social enterprise, then please tune in online at 6pm GMT and watch my 20-second pitch.

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