Social enterprise intermediary review: stakeholder views - research report

Results of research to understand the views of social enterprises and key stakeholders in the social enterprise sector regarding the role and nature of a new single social enterprise intermediary body.

3. Interview analysis: views of key stakeholders

3.1. The role of the single intermediary

Overall, the interviewees suggested that the most important roles of the single intermediary would be to:

  • influence national policy and investment on behalf of the sector
  • raise the profile of the social enterprise sector among potential buyers, consumers and service users
  • enable networking within the sector.

Acting as a funnel to communicate national and local policy ideas and changes to the sector was also cited as an important role, as well as clearly defining and unifying the sector.

Underpinning these central roles, two areas for improvement were frequently mentioned in the interviews. First, there were calls for a greater research and consultation role to ensure that the diverse voices of the entire social enterprise sector are listened to and represented; and second that stronger local links are made in geographical areas where local social enterprise networks are currently lacking.

Representation and policy influence on behalf of the sector in all its diversity

Like the survey respondents, most interviewees felt that the most important role for the single social enterprise intermediary body should be to provide strong representation for the whole social enterprise sector in Scotland to enable the sector to inform national policy and investment strategies. As one interviewee explained, the intermediary should:

"…have representative tentacles across Scotland to try to feed back into the core to support local development, national understanding and policy creation."

On the whole, interviewees felt strongly that the intermediary should develop a thorough knowledge of the diversity of the social enterprise sector, and to understand the different situations, needs, opinions and ambitions of different types and sizes of social enterprises across the entire spectrum of organisations. This, in turn, should drive the strategy and policy positions that the single intermediary body pursues.

Some interviewees felt that this is an area where improvement is needed, suggesting that currently too little research and consultation is undertaken to understand the views of grassroots social enterprises before deciding on policy positions. As such, some interviewees felt that the intermediaries are too reliant on the voices of particular groups or personalities, leaving many social enterprises feeling that they are not well represented at a national level.

Interviewees suggested that there is a need for improvement in how well the new intermediary body interacts with and represents the sector across all geographical and thematic areas. For example, some different interviewees suggested that

  • there is a need for greater focus on rural social enterprises
  • smaller social enterprises are less well-represented than larger ones
  • certain geographical areas are less well-represented than others.

While some interviewees suggested that the intermediary's role should be to develop a "representative voice" for social enterprises, several others cautioned against this approach. They suggested that the intermediary must be careful to avoid attempting to adopt a "single, definitive voice", noting that the social enterprise sector is so diverse that this would be an unrealistic and counter-productive aim. Instead, calls were made for the intermediary to take on a "multifaceted representative role" in which it enables a diverse range of voices from the sector to enter into national-level discussions. This approach would mean bringing a wide range of views across the sector to the fore in policy discussions with Scottish Government and other national bodies, rather than the intermediary body advocating for one particular view. As one interviewee explained:

"[I am] in favour of a model that works with the social enterprise sector, rather than representing their arguments. I wouldn't like the enhanced [intermediary] body to assume the role of being "experts" and representing the sector… there's absolutely a role for ensuring that there is a range of voices in the room, because we're all working in our own areas of expertise".

Finally, some interviewees felt that the intermediary should avoid competing with other social enterprises for contracts to provide services, and that it should avoid any direct involvement in funding provision, for example assessing social enterprises' funding applications. They noted that these types of activity risk damaging relationships with social enterprises, including intermediary members. In turn, this could risk the intermediary's status as being truly representative and supportive of its members and the wider social enterprise sector.

Supporting networking, mutual support, and bringing the right people together

Interviewees suggested that the intermediary body should play a central role in continuing and enhancing the current work to support networking for social enterprises. Firstly, it was suggested that it should continue and enhance the support currently given to social enterprises to network with each other, both through geographical and thematic networks. In particular, this was cited as extremely valuable for new and smaller social enterprises, which may not have the capacity to find the information and support that they need without support from their networks. As one interviewee stated:

"…having the ability to tap into networks across Scotland, and to connect sometimes can be hard on the ground, especially for the smaller social enterprises [which do not] have the time to do that. So having a body that can help with that can be immensely helpful, because suddenly you get the information that you need more quickly. So I think that that immediate network element is really important for the sector."

Secondly, it was generally agreed that the intermediary should have a key role in enabling social enterprises to access such support from experts in their respective fields through networking opportunities. In general, interviewees wanted the intermediary to focus on helping social enterprises access the type of support that they need through networking opportunities, signposting and hosting events which would bring them into contact with professional business advisors, financial advisors and experts in other key learning and development fields.

However, interviewees broadly agreed (though this was not unanimous) that the intermediary should not itself provide financial, organisational or business support to social enterprises. They tended to argue that the quality of service provision tends to be better when provided by specialist organisations rather than the intermediaries.

Raising the profile of social enterprises

Many interviewees saw raising the profile of social enterprises as being a key aspect of the single intermediary's role.

Firstly, interviewees stressed that there is a need for the intermediary to expand its representation of the social enterprise sector beyond the Scottish Government's Third Sector Unit, its main point of contact in the public sector. Interviewees were generally keen that the single intermediary would continue and expand on previous work to build bridges between the social enterprise sector and other parts of Scottish Government, the UK Government, and other public sector bodies, including the NHS and local authorities. This was seen as being key to expanding the potential for social enterprises to win contracts to provide goods and services to public sector bodies, raising awareness of the sector and what it offers to potential buyers.

Secondly, there was a similar call from some interviewees for the intermediary body to actively seek to forge relationships with private businesses and the wider enterprise sector, again with a view to raising awareness of the social enterprise sector, and expanding trading opportunities for social enterprises.

Thirdly, some interviewees also stressed the need for the intermediary to raise the profile of social enterprises across the general public, to ensure that people across Scotland become more aware of what social enterprises are, what they do, what is unique about them, and why they should support them. This, it is felt, is needed to boost social enterprises' trading activity, and encourage more social entrepreneurs into the sector.

Communicating national and local policy to the sector

As well as the need to encourage the voice of the social enterprise sector in policy-making, interviewees suggested that a key role of the intermediary would be to communicate clearly in the opposite direction, sharing key information on policy and funding from Scottish Government, UK Government and local authorities with its membership and the wider community of social enterprises.

As some interviewees noted, the policy and funding landscape can be complex and difficult to understand, particularly for newer and smaller social enterprises lacking the time or resources to research all the available information. As such, a central focus of the intermediary should be to distil and share this information with social enterprises in a clear way, to ensure that all social enterprises have access to the most up-to-date and relevant information regarding investment, funding opportunities, policy changes and relevant legislation. As one interviewee stated, the intermediary must act as:

"a funnel, or filter, to share what comes out of quite a diverse landscape – not just from government, but from local authorities as well"

Defining and unifying the social enterprise sector

While all interviewees agreed that a main purpose of the intermediary should be to represent the wide variety of social enterprises in Scotland as well as possible, like the survey respondents, they diverged over what types of organisations should be included in this.

Some advocated for a "broad church" approach which encompasses a wide range of constitutional forms and remains open to new and emerging types of organisations, including social enterprises which may distribute profits in some circumstances. Others were keen to limit the definition of social enterprises to only those organisations with asset locks.

Overall, the interviewees generally leaned towards supporting a "broad church" approach to the definition of social enterprises (for example, not excluding social enterprises without asset locks), on the basis that it is important not to exclude potential social entrepreneurs from the sector where their business models do not perfectly match the intermediary's vision for social enterprises. However, views on this were not unanimous and this group is not a representative sample of those involved in the social enterprise sector.

What was clear, however, was a strong desire among interviewees to find a way to unite the differing "factions" in the social enterprise sector that have emerged as a result of disagreement over how social enterprises should be defined. As one interviewee noted, there is a need to "tidy up the confusion", which currently makes it difficult to send clear messages about the sector to potential buyers, consumers and would-be social entrepreneurs.

While it is beyond the remit of this research to comment on how social enterprises should be defined, it is clear that it will be important for the single intermediary to take an inclusive, bridge-building role in this debate. It will need to work – in consultation with the whole sector – to unify the disparate voices within this debate, many of whom hold strong views on the subject of definition.

Research and consultation

Several interviewees highlighted a need for the intermediary to have capacity to conduct research and consultations among its members and the wider sector as part of its day-to-day work. As already noted, many interviewees and survey respondents felt that the intermediaries do not currently represent the diverse voices in the social enterprise sector as well as they could, and that grassroots members are often not consulted on matters that affect them. A research focus was therefore seen as important to allow the intermediary to thoroughly engage with the sector and its members to better understand their views and needs, and in turn, to better represent their views.

Interviewees suggested that research capacity would allow the intermediary to better-understand, in a robust and systematic way, factors such as:

  • how social enterprises' needs differ depending on their location, type, size and focus
  • how different social enterprises react to proposed policy and investment changes
  • what different challenges social enterprises are facing
  • how well the networks are functioning
  • where the intermediary should focus its policy and influencing efforts.

Some interviewees noted that they did not want the intermediary to conduct commissioned research or research on niche aspects of the social enterprise sector. Rather, research efforts should be embedded in their day-to-day work, concentrating on gaining a greater understanding of the nature and needs of the sector as a whole, and helping to shape responses to national policy and investment strategies.

Development of stronger local links across Scotland

A number of interviewees noted that local networks and representation of social enterprises is patchy, with geographically-based networks not consistent across Scotland. Some suggested that it will be important for the new intermediary to engage more fully in local areas where it has historically been difficult for the national intermediary bodies to gain a foothold. For example, in areas where the local political dynamics might have made this difficult. As one interviewee stated:

"…there can be some political dynamics locally that affect the partnership that should happen between the [intermediaries] and the TSIs (third sector intermediaries). [In some places] the TSIs work really well with their local networks and therefore they're a power to be reckoned with. They're very strong and representative voice. But I think [the national intermediary body] is spread quite thin, and I think what is probably quite natural, is that they tend to focus on the areas where they have traction. They don't drive areas where they don't [have traction] and obviously the areas where they don't have traction are probably the ones that need specific representation and understanding at the minute."

Several interviewees felt that the intermediary bodies were more representative of the areas where they have good relationships with local TSIs, meaning that their national policy ideas did not necessarily accurately represent the views of social enterprises across Scotland.

There was therefore a call for the new intermediary body to be given support by Scottish Government to have a stronger presence in areas where local relationships have historically been more difficult, to ensure strong representation for social enterprises across all local authority areas. Interviewees also noted that greater resourcing may be necessary to help this happen, noting that part of the reason for the current lack of representation across all geographical areas appeared to stem at least partially from the current intermediary bodies being "spread too thin".

3.2. The structure and nature of the single intermediary

There was support among interviewees for the creation of an intermediary with a strongly democratic, bottom-up and transparent governance structure, which would give as much power as possible to its social enterprise members. This, it was widely felt, would ensure that the intermediary remains representative of its members and accountable to them.

There was also strong support for space to be created for the intermediary to have a more challenging and independent relationship with Scottish Government, and for a greater focus on effectiveness and outcomes. A small number of interviewees also suggested a need for greater resourcing.

A bottom-up, democratic and transparent organisation

In line with the call to ensure that the single intermediary is truly representative of its membership, some interviewees advocated for ensuring that the single intermediary body is given a democratic, bottom-up structure, giving greater voice and voting rights to its members. For instance, one interviewee suggested that all member organisations should be able to vote at the annual general meeting, to ensure that the intermediary is accountable to its grassroots members.

Several interviewees felt that a more bottom-up structure was necessary as it would better reflect the bottom-up, grassroots nature of the sector as a whole; a sector largely made up of organisations which have grown out of, and are rooted in, their specific local communities. Interviewees felt that the current intermediary bodies are too "top-down", and voiced concerns that this risks the intermediary coming to be dominated by particular groups or personalities which do not necessarily reflect the views and needs of the entire sector.

Interviewees also suggested that the intermediary should focus on "exhibiting best practice in good governance" in other ways, for example by introducing limited terms for board members to encourage diversity of thought, and ensuring transparency and openness in its governance and decision making.

A more challenging and independent relationship with Scottish Government

Several interviewees suggested that there is a need for a realignment of the relationship between the single intermediary body and the Scottish Government.

The interviews highlighted a perception among many stakeholders that because the intermediaries are funded directly by the Scottish Government (and sometimes conduct project delivery work on its behalf), they are not able to be the strong, representative voice – willing to challenge government policy and decisions – that the social enterprise sector needs.

Concerns were raised that because the new intermediary body will be government-funded, it may be "too eager to please" to ensure the continuation of its funding, rather than challenging government policy on behalf of the sector. As one interviewee explained, the intermediary:

"…needs to be more than just the government's go-to delivery [organisation]… they to be able to have difficult discussions with government, to be able to say: 'I know this is what you're trying to do. But here's a much better way of doing it' or 'here's what's working', rather than just going, 'well, we'll just go and get on with it because if we don't get on with it, they might take our money away.'"

Similarly, another interviewee commented that:

"I do think there needs to be some breathing space for an intermediary, even though they're government funded, to feel free to go back [to Scottish Government] and say "the sector is not happy with what you've put into this strategy". [They need] to feel free to be positive contributors and [give] constructive criticism."

As such, several interviewees strongly supported a model whereby the new single intermediary is:

"Encouraged or obliged to be that very effective mouthpiece between the sector and the decision makers and the policymakers… It needs to be a central voice [of the sector] that actually challenges up or down and from side to side, and is given teeth, to be able to affect some change…[and] that means [having] hard discussions with the people who are funding it."

Complementing this desire for the intermediary to be a strong, independent voice, interviewees also highlighted the need for the intermediary to be seen by Scottish Government as a respected and equal partner.

Focus on effectiveness and outcomes, rather than functions

A small number of interviewees questioned the need for the existence of an intermediary body, with the underlying suggestion being that it was not clear how effective or necessary a government-funded intermediary body would be to support the work of social enterprises.

One such interviewee suggested that their effectiveness may be clearer if a more outcomes-focused approach to funding of the intermediary body was taken. This would help ensure value for money and a clearly defined, effective service. They suggested that there should be:

"… a process whereby the government – as the contractor – and the intermediary – as the potential recipients of funding – don't just agree the functions [of the intermediary], but agree the outcomes [of the intermediary's work]… That can be a consultative process that could involve more than the intermediary and can involve other stakeholders as well."

And, they suggested, the continuation of funding should be linked to evaluation of these outcomes. As this interviewee suggested:

"I would encourage a long term view [that asks] 'where should this intermediary be at the end of the 10 year strategy?' So, I think dialogue to decide on the outcomes and then to ensure that if the outcomes have been delivered, then [SG] continue the funding. But if the outcomes aren't delivered, maybe [we ask if] there's a better way of delivering them."

Speaking along similar lines, another interviewee suggested that a clear focus must be defined for the intermediary body which should be "brutally upheld, for 3-5 years".

Related to this, interviewees also stressed that in developing the remit of the intermediary body, the focus must be on working towards specific outcomes for the sector. As one interviewee suggested:

"Let's go back to the basics: what do we actually want the Scottish social enterprise sector to achieve? What is our ambition for social enterprises? We want to be world-leading, and international, and rooted in local communities. The intermediary remit needs to be developed around that, rather than asking 'how do we slightly tweak what we've already got?'"


Some interviewees suggested that there was a need for better resourcing of the intermediary body, to ensure that it could achieve its aims. Interviewees suggested that the Scottish Government should ensure that the intermediary has greater capacity to:

  • embed networks across all geographical areas
  • undertake research and consultation work
  • have a greater media and marketing presence to better represent and promote the sector to potential buyers, consumers and social entrepreneurs.

Interviewees were not asked whether the intermediary should charge membership fees. However, as noted in the survey findings, there was a widespread willingness among respondent social enterprises themselves to pay a membership fee. Interviewees were also not asked about whether the new intermediary should seek to generate its own funding to match or supplement funding from Scottish Government. Some interviewees did raise this however, with views ranging from those who felt that the intermediary should seek to match its funding from Scottish Government with its own income-generation, to those who felt that the intermediary should focus solely on its core aims, and not income generation. It is not clear to what extent either of these opposing viewpoints are supported more generally, either among other key stakeholders or among social enterprises more widely.



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