Research group provide social Substance

An innovative Manchester-based co-op has just published its social audit report, to celebrate its fifth year of trading.

Substance has its roots in academia, but operates very much in the real world. From evaluating football clubs’ community impact to investigating the benefits of angling in North West Scotland, the co-op has carved out a niche in the fields of sport, youth and community engagement.

Its social audit report was launched at the co-operative’s third national conference held in London earlier this month. The conference, which attracted delegates from around the UK, examined how community projects can adapt to the spending review and public sector cuts. It is a subject which Substance is well placed to speak about.

Since its formation by staff from leading research institutes in the universities of Manchester and Sheffield, the co-operative has delivered a number of contracts for, among others, the Department for Education, the Football Foundation and the Home Office. 

In the current climate, with funding opportunities being squeezed, it could be argued that the co-operative’s expertise in helping organisations to demonstrate their value and differentiate themselves is more crucial than ever. 

The social audit report demonstrates the co-operative’s own worth and summarises a busy and successful first five years. During that time it has created 16 jobs, produced 65 research reports and staged around 50 events. 

It has provided monitoring and evaluation services for nearly 400 organisations from the Greater London Authority to Sunderland Football Club, which has involved half a million participants. The majority of stakeholders consider themselves to be either very satisfied or satisfied with the co-op’s work, which has been mostly carried out in the third sector (60 per cent) and public sector (31 per cent).

A good example of the co-operative’s work is the Plings project (, a search and discovery tool which helps teenagers to find things to do in their local area. 

It collects up-to-date information from local authorities, community groups and the private sector, then publishes the information in a format and in locations where young people will find it eg: social networking sites, mobile phone links, digital TV and leaflets.

An investigation of the social and community benefits of angling is another of Substance’s projects. Millions of people go fishing, but little is widely known about the activity in terms of the particular benefits individuals, young people and local communities can get from it. 

In a three-year Big Lottery Fund research programme, Substance is looking at the evidence base and disseminating the findings to policy makers, researchers and the wider angling community. Dr Adam Brown, who leads the project, will be a keynote speaker at a national ‘angling summit’ with DEFRA ministers later this month.

One of Substance’s particular specialisms is football and the co-operative carries out a wide range of projects at all levels of the game. It carried out a study for Supporters Direct to ascertain how communities benefit from supporter-owned football clubs. And iIt wrote a strategy document for the newly established Football League Trust and now undertakes the evaluation for its clubs’ community work. 

Direct links to national government include the co-op’s evaluation of the Home Office Positive Futures programme, which works with more than 50,000 10–19 year olds from disadvantaged communities who are at risk of offending. 

Substance developed a sophisticated monitoring system which enables it to provide the Home Office with a detailed oversight of the programme’s impact at both micro and macro levels. 

The co-operative’s skill in securing lucrative national government contracts has been instrumental in providing a good business base from which to build. 

While the Positive Futures programme recently celebrated a continuation of its funding, the co-operative accepts that such contract work may now be more difficult to secure. As such it has already changed its approach so that software based projects like Plings and Substance’s new evaluation software, Views, are taken to market and not reliant on government funding.

“As things start to bite we will need to make big decisions about the business,” says co-op member Steven Flower, but adds that Substance’s co-operative status may well work to its advantage. “The Government is certainly very interested in co-operatives and generally there seems to be an appetite for them which can work to our advantage.”

It’s also an interesting factor for new members to consider. The co-operative’s workforce has grown from its original four to 16 and workers can become members of the co-operative after a probationary year. 

“We work hard to ensure that people understand the benefits of being a co-operative,” explains Mr Flower.

Substance’s ability to work hard for others, enabling funders to understand the benefits of their decisions looks like being vital for the co-operative’s continued success.

• To find out more about Substance or to download the social audit report, visit: Information about Substance’s new Views monitoring and evaluation software can be found at:


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