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Social enterprise in the field

Professor Paul Tracey believes that you can’t shine a spotlight on poverty and inequality from your desk.

Tilt Shift Aerial View of Urban HousingIt’s a huge challenge to run a successful social enterprise in a poor rural area. “We’re asking people to go to places where private investors don’t spend money and make enough profit to subsidise a range of social and community projects,” says Paul Tracey, Professor of Innovation & Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Tracey has completed a nine-month ethnography study of Keystone Development Trust, a social enterprise based in the east of England.

I was interested in poverty and inequality and staying at my desk inside a business school isn’t the place to get to the core of those issues,” he says. “I also felt it would be useful pedagogically to build in insights I learned from doing this research. While the driving force behind the idea was to build expertise in social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, it also deepened my knowledge about the sector, allowing me to teach more effectively.”

Keystone works in a fairly deprived area, encompassing London-overspill towns such as Thetford, Newmarket, Mildenhall and Brandon. “Our portfolio is a combination of community development – such as youth work, credit unions and migrant support – small businesses, and social and commercial property,” says chief executive Neil Stott. “The key challenge is to balance the commercial and social impact. Over 80 per cent of Keystone’s funding comes from earned income.”

Dr Paul Tracey
Professor Paul Tracey

Stott completed a master’s degree in social and community enterprise at Cambridge Judge in 2005. Professor Tracey supervised his thesis and the field study built on that relationship. “It helped that I was familiar with Keystone’s leadership,” says Tracey. “We were building a complex relationship and it needed to be one of mutual trust.”

Social enterprises are under growing pressure to increase their commercial focus and accountability. Tracey conducted a strategic review of Keystone’s business, making recommendations to increase efficiency and profitability, and helped to develop a common branding language. “That provided an intellectual basis for what they were doing and helped explain it to the public. I discovered that a lot of people thought Keystone were just part of the council.”

Tracey also helped to design a programme of support for the long-term unemployed and for young people thought to be at risk of becoming NEET (not in employment, education or training). Using these proposed initiatives, Keystone won contracts to deliver school-based work clubs in eight Suffolk schools. To date, it has mentored over 300 vulnerable people and has outperformed its targets.

With Paul’s help we developed a simple, cost-effective approach, which we’re delivering in six schools,” says Stott, who is currently entrepreneur-in-residence at CJBS and at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL). “We’re getting very challenged young people into work, apprenticeships or college.”

Keystone also works extensively with Thetford’s eastern and southern European migrant communities, and Professor Tracey spent time interacting with service users and other members of the public – giving him first-hand experience of the xenophobic views held by some local people. A resulting research paper with the working title Organisational Responses to Stigma Contagion: The Management of Legitimacy and Identity Following Association With a Stigmatised Group is currently under review.

One interviewee from Thetford said: ‘All these migrants come here because Keystone is helping them. If Keystone stopped helping, they wouldn’t come,'” he recalls. “People made racist comments, which to my mind are unacceptable – but it’s important to understand their perspective. There’s a lot of misinformation about migrants, such as the perception that they’re taking jobs and social housing away from British people.”

Keystone challenged these misconceptions by engaging in myth-busting exercises. “For example, people told us they thought migrants were taking all the social housing, so Keystone requested the relevant data from the local authority and found that less than one per cent of social accommodation was occupied by migrants.”

Thetford became a London-overspill town in 1959. “Keystone aimed to convey the message that Thetford is essentially a town of migrants,” says Professor Tracey. “The experience of the people coming here now isn’t so different from that of the 10,000 Londoners who moved here in the 1960s. They wanted to create a sense of empathy between these groups.”

Neil Stott says the research study was an example of engaged scholarship.

It was useful for me, my board and my staff in developing social products and gaining good insights,” he says. “It’s important to be open to challenge and not get complacent, so having that external academic gaze has been exceptionally valuable.”