Learning about social value from co-operatives and social enterprises

Helen Fitzhugh Across the worlds of policy, business and philanthropy, there has been growing interest in ‘social value’. The recent global financial crisis highlighted the dangers of behaving...

Helen Fitzhugh
Helen Fitzhugh

Across the worlds of policy, business and philanthropy, there has been growing interest in ‘social value’.

The recent global financial crisis highlighted the dangers of behaving as if the short-term accrual of financial value was the only important touchstone for business. What had seemed obvious to those in values-based businesses such as co-ops – namely considering the non-financial impacts of how they chose to work – was suddenly being discussed in the mainstream press and in academia with new interest.

Even parts of the US mainstream business media started to exhort corporations to change the way they approached the idea of value, leaving behind the idea of short-term profit-maximisation and instead adopting ‘higher ambition’. Now that the eye of the storm looks to have passed, it seems an appropriate time to consider, in the enthusiasm for alternatives, what messages got through?

While there was ample mention of mutuals, the ‘John Lewis model’ and co-ops as being inspiring alternatives within a capitalist economy, there was one surprising absence in a number of these articles and reports.

It often seemed to be left unsaid that different people liked these models for different reasons – and from quite different value positions. Some may have lauded greater employee participation because it was seen as a more efficient use of human capital in the process of production.

Others focused on the improvement in outcomes for people outside the business. For some, the intrinsic benefits of solidarity were key.

For still others the most important role of mutualising public services was in distancing the service from direct state control. The key missing question seemed to be: if organisations are encouraged to be guided by their ideals to create more than financial value, what are those ideals, what can be considered ‘good’ social value and how could or should people decide?

In my PhD at the University of East Anglia, I am examining the role of values and power relationships in the social value debate. The organisational values of businesses that are guided by principles other than just trying to maximise profit for conventional shareholders is an interesting part of our business landscape.

I want to find out how these values genuinely impact on the type and extent of ‘good’ organisations can create. How do people decide what is and is not important? It seems a vital time to be looking into this. Another aspect is, what if mainstream businesses start to attempt to create added social value? What are the consequences of taking different approaches inspired by co-ops and social enterprises?

  • To help answer these questions, a study has been launched to seek the views of those involved in co-operatives. The study is looking into the implications of different value orientations for the type of social value different organisations create. Click here to take part in the online questionnaire before 8 February.

In this article


Join the Conversation