We always say that social enterprises are motivated by solving certain problems in the community, and that they do this by successfully selling their services and products on the market.
A friend gave me a call mid-April last year, in peak lock-down: ‘Dina, this is terrible! People are in dire need, especially now that they can’t get out. We do also work in the countryside, so it is easier for people because they can go out to their gardens, but, you know, these are rural, old households, they need help. I have people who go to the field, but I don’t sleep because I don’t know how to protect my employees, how to provide them with equipment, and on the other hand, how to provide services to people. What a difficult time!’
Mika runs a social enterprise which provides various services to the community, and also works on the integration of people who have difficulty accessing the labour market. When we talk about social entrepreneurship as a sector which directly deals with the development of local communities through market participation, we often neglect this aspect of the internal organisation of a company: working conditions, labour relations, labour rights. We ignore those who support the social enterprise, those who enable these social enterprises to reach all those who need to integrate into a society in different ways.
I remember a research on social unions in Italy that dealt with this very issue. They surveyed employees and volunteers in this type of social enterprise in order to determine the reasons and motives for people’s engagement in these companies, and to assess satisfaction within social unions. One of the main reasons why people were more willing to work in this sector is that working standards and conditions really focus on the individual. Employees and volunteers, but also everyone else around the social union, felt that they belonged to the community in which they work, because the basis of union activities (both internal and external) was matching them to the people, their sensibilities, skills and needs.
This was confirmed by the behaviour of social enterprises in Europe since the 2008 financial crisis. The only sector that was resilient and continued to grow during the crisis was in fact social entrepreneurship. This growth was measured by the increase in the number of employees, a growing number of social enterprises themselves, and consequently in the growing number of people benefiting from their services. While Italy experienced a significant reduction in the number of employees in 2009, the number of employees in social cooperatives increased by 2.7 percent. In Spain, the last quarter of 2011 recorded the worst unemployment in the 5 million people economy, yet cooperatives were the ones that increased the number of employees by 7.2 percent.
These statistics from the intriguing sector, an elusive phenomenon, draw the attention of various actors. This is why there are various definitions, criteria, and measurements to help us understand the sector within the traditional framework, above all: how to legally regulate it, how to help its development, and how to prevent abuse. These are all attempts to ensure that the money we invest has a clear impact and outcome in society. But aren’t traditional approaches to economics ones that have proven most harmful to humanity? The values that, despite all the warnings, the economies around the world are establishing are based on greed, competition, selfishness, generation of false and artificial needs, further alienating people.
We always say that social enterprises are motivated by solving certain problems in the community, and that they do this by successfully selling their services and products on the market. The focus on finding solutions is the reason why we turn to them in moments of global earthquakes – it seems like resilience is something supernatural. None of it is suprahuman. It’s simply the fact that all organisations within a social economy base their work on two values and principles: solidarity and cooperation.
Mid-March this year I spoke to Mika again, this time about the consequences of the crisis. A sentence that I will remember and keep repeating when asked about the social enterprise sector in Serbia: ‘Dina, our goal was to preserve jobs and provide support to our users. We did it. And that is the most important thing.’
Dina Rakin, director of the Coalition for the Development of Solidarity Economy