Can social enterprises tackle the social care crisis?

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By Dr Kelly Hall
Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology

Social care services are reported to be facing a ‘perfect storm’ of financial and workforce pressures. Spending on social care is falling and fewer people receive publicly funded services. There is a workforce crisis and recent reports suggest that around a quarter of care workers are set to leave their jobs due to poor pay and conditions. Over the last few decades, adult social care provision has shifted from being largely public to largely private, leading to widespread concerns that profit is being prioritised over quality of care.

However, there is an alternative organisational model – the social enterprise. They are businesses with a social mission, where profit is reinvested back into the service, staff or community. There are an estimated 5,000 social enterprises delivering adult social care services in England (SEUK 2021), but very little is known about them.

Our research therefore explored how social enterprises can contribute to the adult social care sector. We ‘mapped’ social enterprises in three areas of England and spoke to more than sixty people working in or with what we call ‘care social enterprises’.

The research found that social enterprises have a number of characteristics that make them well placed to tackle some of the challenges facing the care sector.

We found that most care social enterprises are small and over half are delivering community based ‘day support services’. They often employ personalised and innovative approaches to social care, for example through arts and crafts, drama and gardening. They are reported to not only support older and disabled people to remain independent, develop new skills and social connections, but to also prevent or reduce the need for expensive homecare and residential care services. This could make them a valuable and cost-effective option that offers innovation and diversity to social care provision.

The characteristics and governance models of social enterprises may also make them well placed to tackle care workforce and quality of care challenges. We identified two key characteristics:  

  1. Social enterprise services are often co-designed and co-delivered with staff, service users and communities, which can help ensure that services meet the needs of the people who use them (also see SCIE website for more information on co-production). Our research also suggested that people working in social enterprises feel valued, are enthusiastic and care about their work, making them much less likely to leave the sector.
  2. Social enterprises are businesses that can (and should) make a profit. But unlike the private sector, they are driven by a social mission and most of their profit is reinvested into that mission. We found profits being reinvested directly into services, including through funding for staff to develop new services or in staff training, retain resources within the sector.

Social enterprises do however, operate in a volatile economic and political environment and are certainly not without their problems. They remain a largely unknown entity and face a lack of understanding about what they are amongst people who organise, fund and use social care. Social enterprises are often small and set up by people who have worked in or who have lived experience of social care, so they can lack the business skills needed to gain recognition and secure funding. Finally, we found that the pressure of delivering a dual financial and social mission could lead to staff working long and often unpaid hours. 

Despite these challenges, social enterprises may be well placed to respond to the social care crisis and deliver not only innovative social care provision, but also shift the balance of power from senior managers and external stakeholders to those who use and deliver care services. They may sometimes be a little more expensive than their private sector counterparts, but most of the profit they make is retained within the sector and reinvested into the workforce or to improve the quality of care. These benefits are often overlooked by government and those who fund care services.

Our research therefore suggests huge optimism towards social enterprise, as offering a financially sustainable alternative to the for-profit care organisations that currently dominate the market, and in turn begin to tackle some of the widespread workforce, quality and capacity challenges.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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