Our Programme Manager, Norman Dandy, explains in more detail the different approaches being taken by people all over the UK to activity we term ‘woodland social enterprise‘.

Social enterprises can bring many new and innovative things to the forestry and woodland sector: introducing diverse approaches to active management, generating wealth and employment, and creating new, strong connections between communities and their local woods. They can contribute to the resilience of established wood markets through producing timber, wood products and woodfuel, but they can also effectively exploit the many other forms of value possessed by woodlands – such as their restorative value for health and their value as a setting for education. The over-arching goal of the Making local Woods Work project is consequently to grow the woodland social enterprise sector in terms of numbers of enterprises and their capacity and confidence.

It is important to acknowledge that social enterprise is itself a contested term and its definition is regularly rehearsed, debated and revised(1). Consequently any attempt to define woodland social enterprise is likely to generate yet further questions on top of the existing debates. Drawing on these established debates, within the Making Local Woods Work project our starting point is a relatively broad and inclusive characterisation of woodland social enterprise: an organisation that seeks to achieve primarily social, and sometimes also environmental, objectives through diverse activities including generating income from the resources and opportunities provided by trees, woods and forests. This characterisation of woodland social enterprise (and, indeed, the term itself) identifies three core elements: the physical woodland or forest, society and, critically, business (or an ‘enterprising orientation’). It also identifies social enterprises as formalised organisations or groups, rather than an ‘approach’ to delivery or a ‘state of mind’.

figure 1

One way to clarify what woodland social enterprises are is to consider what they are not by subtracting any one of the three core elements (Fig. 1). Subtracting the primacy of social impact defines a forestry business (e.g. AW Jenkinson; Tilhill Forestry). Clearly these businesses can have significant social impacts (e.g. through job creation and occasional CSR activities) but their primary purpose is the creation of profit for their owners and others in their supply chains through the exploitation of forest resources. Removing the physical resource of the woodland or forest leaves a generic social enterprise. Removing the enterprise orientation leaves activities that many would define as ‘social forestry’ (including some models of ‘community forestry’), that is engagement with woodlands and forests for social benefit structured around either voluntary approaches or dependent entirely on governmental or donor funding. This includes constituted organisations or bodies capable of trading (formed, for example, for the purposes of purchase and ownership of land) but which do not engage in any enterprise activity.

It is recognised that an organised group that has chosen to pursue social objectives through forestry may well perceive themselves to be a ‘woodland social enterprise’. However, a social enterprise should be considered akin to any other business in the requirement to be formally structured. In the same way that few would classify an unstructured entrepreneurial group with a shared innovative idea as a business or company, an informal group of like-minded social-impact oriented individuals cannot be classified as a social enterprise. Furthermore, prior to adopting a formal structure it is unlikely that the criteria required to judge something as a woodland social enterprise (e.g. explicit social mission, income from trading activities) may not be evident. Such informal, early-stage groups are not therefore social enterprises per se, although very often they may be characterised as nascent woodland social enterprises.

Woodland social enterprises appear to vary to some extent geographically across the UK. Although there is only limited data on which to assess these differences, it seems that woodland social enterprises in Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales, manage larger areas of woodland than those in England. Scottish enterprises also seem to own the land they’re working more commonly than English and Welsh enterprises. It is also suggested that active sustainable forest management is a more prominent activity in Scotland than elsewhere – although again there is only limited data supporting this conclusion. Distinct legal models appear to be favoured across the UK, with, for example, more Scottish woodland social enterprises adopting charitable status as part of their structure. Many of these reported differences are most likely a result of the specific institutional, legal and policy frameworks within each devolved forestry administration. Having said this, research suggests there are also considerable similarities across the UK. The vast majority of woodland social enterprises are small, having fewer than 5 staff, and in general it appears that only around half of them break even financially(2).

Society: the pursuit of social impact or goals as a primary mission

An explicit social mission is a critical aspect of what sets social enterprises apart from regular ‘for-profit’ businesses. This necessarily entails them being community-facing at least to some extent and the mission may relate to any aspect of social life such as job creation, poverty alleviation, or the provision of local social services, amongst much else. It is usually set out explicitly within the governing constitution of the organisation. Whilst these social aims can be considered fundamental, many social enterprises go further by reinvesting any financial surpluses in their community (or the mission more broadly) and/or through being community owned and controlled. Ownership may be achieved through purchase or philanthropy, by holding assets in trust (sometimes with a legally defined asset lock) or through social finance such as community share issues. Community control can again be achieved in various ways including through community representation on management committees and boards and / or through specific governance arrangements such as ‘one member one vote’. For some(3), social enterprises should also be transformative – that is, entrepreneurial, innovative and seeking social change. This leads social enterprises to take on challenges avoided by the private and public sectors relatively often, and to operate commonly in areas characterised by lower incomes and higher social and economic deprivation.

Woodland social enterprises typically, therefore, have a mission to benefit their local communities, non-local stakeholder groups in need, and / or wider society through the use of and interaction with trees, woods and forests. Their activities seek to remedy social problems through the use of woodlands, and sometimes challenge established social practices. This often includes utilising the physical resource available in relatively traditional ways such (e.g. timber and woodfuel production) to develop skills and generate income. However, it also often entails taking advantage of the social and cultural values of woodlands (such as their aesthetic, historical, restorative, and educational values) through numerous diverse activities such as forest school, art projects, ecotherapy and health walks. Each of these activities can be delivered on a voluntary basis, but has the potential to generate income. Often, woodland social enterprises make judgements regarding whether and how much to charge on a case-by-case basis in relation to who the ‘client’ group is. Those groups more able to pay for the service are asked to contribute a substantive fee, whereas when the ‘client’ has less capacity to pay the service is delivered free of charge (and therefore often ‘funded’ by grant aid or voluntary ‘in-kind’ support).

An enterprise orientation

A social enterprise embraces and harnesses the power of business through trading activities: that is, its sale of goods and services to at least some of its ‘clients’. This generates income (often set alongside other forms of finance) to be used to sustain the organisation and thus achieve its mission, and is sometimes referred to as an ‘enterprise orientation’. This income is usually considered to exclude voluntary membership fees and contributions along with governmental grants and subsidies. This leads some to insist on a minimum proportion of overall finance to be from trading activities in order to qualify as a social enterprise. For others the ‘enterprise orientation’ is reducible to simple ‘financial viability’(4) , that is that a social enterprise needs to at least ‘break even’ financially and be able to service its debts.

Within this there is a wider demand for social enterprises to be autonomous – specifically independent of the state(5). This can extend not only to an organisation’s finances but can also include institutional, legal and decision-making independence. This threshold can, however, be blurred in some cases. In particular, organisations that have emerged directly from government delivery organisations (for example, a social enterprise ‘spin-out’ formed by previous local authority staff) may reduce their financial links to government over time, but continue to manage publicly-owned assets (libraries, parks, woodlands) for social good. Thus they must continue to engage with, take direction from and report to public authorities. Trees, woods and forests hold potential for multiple dimensions of enterprise from timber production through to yoga retreats! In many cases these values can be exploited simultaneously, thus ‘stacking’ benefits and accruing multiple incomes for the enterprise.

Trees, woods and forests

As noted above, woodland social enterprises exploit the resources and opportunities provided by trees, woods and forests to deliver their social impact. These are numerous and varied, and can relate to individual trees through to large woodland landscapes. Often the interaction of people with these resources can be simultaneously multi-level, with, for example, individuals working directly with wood material at a micro-scale whilst gaining benefits of being within the wider woodland and landscape. Trees, woods and forests are widely, and heterogeneously, distributed resulting in woodland social enterprises occurring in rural and urban areas – but not always where their social impact is necessarily most needed(6).

At the most basic level, woodland social enterprises deliver their services in wooded areas: using the ‘setting’ as the location, backdrop or environment for any activities. This can include using woodland as, for example, a place of healing, a ‘classroom’, meeting place, or outdoor ‘gym’. Many woodland social enterprises have a more direct and necessarily practical relationship with woodlands through undertaking silvicultural or arboricultural works, and / or producing wood products (such as woodfuel, timber, carvings, or furniture). Finally, some woodland social enterprises may be seeking to undertake activities beneficial to the woodland (or certain biological species within it). Arguably any social enterprise engaging with trees and woods can be beneficial for woodlands more broadly simply through their capacity for learning and awareness-raising amongst those it works with. However, for a proportion of woodland social enterprises there is a requirement to act with the perceived interests of the woodland at the core of its decision-making.


References:

1)  e.g. Moreton, R., Mallhomme, E., South, L., & Taylor, P. (2005) Rural Lifelines: Older people and rural social enterprises, their role as providers and beneficiaries of service provision in rural England. Plunkett Foundation; Social Enterprise UK (2012) What makes a social enterprise a social enterprise? http://www.socialenterprise.org,uk; ; Rogerson, A., Green, M., & Rabinowitz, G. (2013) Mixing business and social: what is a social enterprise and how can we recognise one? Overseas Development Institute.

2)  Swade, K., Simmonds, M., Barker, K.  & Walton, M. (2013) Woodland Social Enterprise in England: Data Baseline. Shared Assets, London; Swade, K., Simmonds, M., & Walton, M. (2014) Woodland Social Enterprise in Wales: Data Baseline. Shared Assets, London; Swade, K., Simmonds, M., & Walton, M. (2014) Woodland Social Enterprise in Scotland: Data Baseline. Shared Assets, London.

3) Dees, G. (2001) The Meaning of “Social Entrepreneurship”. Durham, N.C.: Centre for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship; Bornstein, D. (2007) How to change the world – social entrepreneurs and the power of new ideas. Oxford: OUP.

4) Rogerson et al 2013, Ibid.

5) Social Enterprise UK 2012, Ibid.

6) Increasing tree cover in economically and socially ‘deprived’ areas has long been an objective of forest policy.