Well-Being – A Better Way to Define Social Enterprise and Social Impact?

‘Social enterprise and well-being’.  That’s our tagline.  In fact, it’s more than that, it describes something of a guiding principle for us, perhaps even Intentionality’s ‘worldview’.  But what’s it all about?

First, a little bit of background.  My particular interest in both social enterprise and well-being was solidified during my MBA studies at Imperial College Business School.  The MBA programme there has a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship and, at the time I studied there, Professors Paul Dolan and Robert MacCulloch, both leading experts on happiness, well-being and behavioural economics, were based at Imperial.  I had the privilege of being taught by them and having them as dissertation supervisors.

The focus of that dissertation was to explore the links between social entrepreneurship and well-being. More specifically, it was to explore and raise questions about the direction of causality in the relationship between entrepreneurship and hope and optimism (as proxies for well-being and often paired together in the literature).  Optimism is often presented as a precursor to entrepreneurship – a causal factor almost – or at least as a distinct characteristic of entrepreneurs.  I wanted to ask whether exposure to an entrepreneurial environment could increase optimism (and/or hope) and therefore well-being. (If you’re interested in reading more on this topic here is a summary of my dissertation.)

I was keen then, and am even more so now, to explore whether enterprises could be created to intentionally increase the well-being of people and communities.  Without wishing to reopen the tedious ‘what’s the definition of social enterprise debate’, that’s how Intentionality and I might define social enterprises: organisations that intentionally seek to, and invest resources to, increase well-being.

 So, that’s where our tagline came from – we’re about social enterprises and we’re about well-being, but the reality is that that is expressed in and through what is largely known as ‘social impact measurement’.  For us, that’s the meeting point of the two, where enterprises, intent on creating a positive social difference, improve aspects of the well-being of individuals or communities in coherent, measurable, demonstrable, transparent ways.

Let’s clarify, what do we mean when we say ‘well-being’?

“Wellbeing is a positive physical, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity. It arises not only from the action of individuals, but from a host of collective goods and relationships with other people. It requires that basic needs are met, that individuals have a sense of purpose, and that they feel able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society. It is enhanced by conditions that include supportive personal relationships, involvement in empowered communities, good health, financial security, rewarding employment, and a healthy and attractive environment…”

UK Government’s Whitehall Wellbeing Working Group, 2006

That’s the definition we use – it’s been around a while and it’s widely cited.  It also succinctly encapsulates many of the things we see social enterprises (and charities and others) doing that make a big difference to well-being: empowering communities, providing meaningful employment, provided supportive relationships, giving people a sense of purpose, and much more.

It should go without saying that all enterprises (and people, families, homes, charities, schools, factories etc) have an impact.  ‘Impact’ isn’t the sole domain of social enterprises.  All organisations make a difference to people’s lives, to their surrounding communities and to the environment.  The big question is: is it a positive difference?  And also perhaps: is it intentional?

It is for those reasons therefore that the lens through which we view ‘social impact’ is the lens of well-being. We think that it is in putting the factors that make the biggest positive difference to well-being (which, by implication are the opposite of the factors that make the biggest negative difference) at the heart of, and as the guiding intent of, social enterprises that will make the most positive social impact.

We’ll be exploring this topic a great deal more in the coming year, via this blog and in other formats and forums.  Please post comments or get in touch by Twitter @intentionality_ or email info@intentionality.co.uk to help us in our thinking.