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Meet the editor of... the Social Enterprise Journal

An interview with: Bob Doherty
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Dr Asta Pundziene.Bob Doherty teaches international business ethics, corporate social responsibility, relationship marketing and the social economy at Liverpool Business School, Liverpool John Moores University. Prior to entering academia in 2004, he was for five years the first head of sales and marketing at the innovative Fairtrade Social Enterprise, Divine Chocolate Ltd.

He has also worked in the global animal health industry. He has researched extensively on Fairtrade business models and their impact on the UK food industry, and has just completed a three-year study – commissioned by the Department for International Development – on the impact of Divine Chocolate on the UK confectionery industry. He has also co-edited a special edition of the International Journal of Social Economics on social enterprise management (Volume 33, Issue 5/6, 2006). He is a member of the new Co-operative Retail Group External Ethical Advisory Panel, as well as being chair of the Liverpool Fairtrade City Steering Group.

About the journal

The Social Enterprise Journal (SEJ) is a recently acquired journal in Emerald’s expanding enterprise portfolio. The term "social enterprise" describes businesses or charities whose objectives are primarily social; surpluses are re-invested into their business or the community, and the aim is to be self-supporting rather than rely on grant funding. SEJ is the first journal to focus on this area of activity, which has not hitherto been extensively researched. It seeks to address this void by inviting scholars and practitioners to present their theories and frameworks for understanding this developing sector of the economy, recently given a boost by the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) call for proposals for both a multidisciplinary research centre for the third sector and a capacity building cluster in social enterprise.

General background

The third sector suffers from: first, not being very joined up (the flow of support from the Government is rather ad hoc, Chambers of Commerce are more aimed at small businesses); and second, not speaking with one voice (a small charity which has just become a social enterprise is very different from, say, the Office of the Third Sector or the Big Issue, and may have a different concept of social enterprise). Do you see research as helping this situation, and how can research keep up with the fast pace and opportunistic nature of the sector?

I think that this lack of being joined up has been recognized, and policies are being put into place to rectify things. The Government now has the Office of the Third Sector within the Cabinet, and there’s the new Third Sector Research Centre funded by the ESRC which will be based at Birmingham University. The social enterprise Capacity Building Cluster will be based at the University of Middlesex, but is a collaborative partnership with London South Bank and the University of Durham. I have accepted the position of visiting honorary research fellow to Middlesex as part of the cluster initiative.

But there’s another important point, which is that the third sector is very diverse anyway. Just think of the private sector by comparison – a corner shop selling vegetables run by a small family business is very different from Hewlett-Packard, again there is rich diversity here. That diversity is going to increase because social enterprises develop to solve new problems and there are a number of unique new business models.

Divine Chocolate, for example, is unique in that 45 per cent of the shareholders are cocoa farmers in Ghana. That is really groundbreaking and would have taken a leap of imagination ten years ago. Increasingly, academics are developing models to demonstrate the overlap between the voluntary and charity sector and the private sector. Here at Liverpool Business School all our students on our master’s in social enterprise management are part-time students, working in voluntary community sector organizations in transition, moving towards a more enterprising model. So boundaries between the voluntary and private sectors are blurred.

Why has the area been so little researched, given the fact that many social enterprises, for example Fairtrade, were emerging as key players at the end of the last millennium?

That’s an excellent question, and I think that academia is beginning to catch up and there are an increasing number of academics researching social enterprise. But I think that part of the problem is that within both business schools and social sciences departments people have an eye on the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and therefore tend to target the most highly ranked journals, which are very much focused on mainstream business and entrepreneurship, social enterprises are not their reviewers’ area.

A portfolio of journals on social enterprise is beginning to emerge but it will take some years before those journals are ranked, so the challenge will still be there. For example, I myself, despite being the editor of the first social enterprise journal, still have to weigh up when I’ve done research where to submit it. When the RAE changes from its focus on performance metrics, academic research into social enterprise may stand a better chance.

Will the RAE really change from a focus on metrics, though?

The very fact that research councils like ESRC are now starting to fund social enterprise is a good sign and I'm hoping there will be more of a diversity of metrics. For example, one metric might be "what impact are you having in society?". There’s no doubt that social enterprise is about change, reconfigured markets and changed perceptions, and all this has a positive impact on the private sector. We see this for example with the private sector motivating its staff by offering them volunteer days, and the way that Fairtrade has made some big organizations look at the way they manage their supply chain.

Journal mission, history and editorial focus

I believe that SEJ is itself a social enterprise, having been started off by Social Enterprise London with the help of three-year funding from the London Development Agency (LDA). Can you tell us a bit about the history of the journal, and its transition to sustainability?

It was originally published by Social Enterprise London, a network membership organization covering Greater London. They had funding from the LDA for three years and published three volumes, which you can see on The editor was Sabina Khan, director of research at Social Enterprise London, I was doing some work with them and I knew that their funding was coming to an end. They wanted a home that was an academic publisher to give SEJ legitimacy and develop it on an international basis; up to now it has been very UK focused.

What is SEJ’s mission?

To be international and multidisciplinary, and to help increase understanding of the contribution that social enterprise makes to society. If you look at the names on the editorial board you will see that they represent different perspectives – North American, European, African, Asian, South American.

Does the fact that you have five board members from outside Europe and North America indicate your intention to solicit articles on the contribution of social enterprise to the less developed world?

It does. Social enterprises are making an enormous difference in the developing as well as the developed world. They offer new solutions to big challenges. Take for example the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, set up by Muhammad Yunus, which offers micro credit for poor communities: that’s a real innovation in finance. Fairtrade is another example – it has cooperatives in West Africa, East Africa, Latin America.

You say that you will accept "both rigorous research papers [5,000 words] and shorter case study submissions [3,000 words]". What qualities will you look for in both these types, and do the latter need to be research based, or can they be reflective accounts of particular initiatives by practitioners?

I think one of the challenges for social enterprise research is the need to raise the level of theorization, so I’m looking for conceptual papers. In Issue 2 there will be a paper that looks at the terms "social enterprise", "social entrepreneurs" and "social entrepreneurship", often used interchangeably, and which will propose a conceptual foundation for each term.

The North American perspective is distinct from the European – more about enterprise, whereas the European stresses the social. That’s why I want the journal to be international, to cover these different perspectives.

But it’s also important to get practitioner contributions and case studies, in order to tie the theory to practice. I’m also looking for academics to collaborate with practitioners, as I do in my own research.

How will you try and foster these sorts of collaborations?

For example, we launched the journal at the Social Enterprise Research Conference in June at London South Bank University, where there were a mixture of academics, practitioners and policy makers. We had an exhibition stand and a presentation, and we also invited people to submit papers to a special conference edition.

There will also be a profile of the journal in the main trade magazine, New Start, along with a link from their website so that we signpost practitioners to an opportunity to publish work. We are also contacting all the practitioner networks and making them aware of the journal, for example, the big social enterprise conference, Voice.

We also encourage academics to partner with students – they are in effect practitioners because they are only students part time, they also run social enterprises. And we also encourage policy makers to collaborate with academics on certain aspects that need more depth and rigour.

Certainly, looking at some of the earlier issues of SEJ, there was a strong input from practitioners which gave a real coalface feel.

I think it’s a question of getting the mixture right, those kind of coalface articles with an increased level of theoretical papers – that’s where we would like to take the journal, as well as ensuring that coverage is international.

So how will you achieve this aim?

The first task was to get an international editorial board; these individuals have their own networks and attend conferences at which they distribute literature about the journal, as well as inviting people to submit their research. And one of the reasons why we chose Emerald is because of its international reach.

What were the other reasons for choosing Emerald?

They were very proactive and professional in their discussions. They’d also previously done a special edition on social enterprise management in the International Journal of Social Economics, so there was some history and I think that the strong response to this special edition was what persuaded them that this was a good acquisition. Other journals from other publishers are trying out special editions to gauge response, but Emerald has been one step ahead of the game.

From what disciplines do you expect to draw your academic authors?

It’s a totally multidisciplinary field, so right across the spectrum from business to geography and history. There is good potential in human geography because social enterprise changes space and place. And very little work has been done on the historical foundations of social enterprise, as it’s a new term, but you see evidence of social enterprise in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I know people who are researching in this area and I have made contact with them. Regeneration is another important area. Politics as well, in fact the whole spectrum of social science.

You are particularly interested in the teaching and learning aspect of social enterprise. Can you enlarge on your own work in this area?

We run a specific programme at Liverpool Business School – a master's in social enterprise management – which is part time and so one of the criteria for joining the programme is that you’re either at a management level within a social enterprise, or working in the public sector with social enterprises, or a consultant to social enterprise. Part of the reason why we developed this programme –- and other universities are developing similar programmes – is that we found a number of our master of business administration (MBA) students who were working for social businesses were getting frustrated by learning about operations management in Walmart and General Motors. It was not sufficiently contextualized for them.

So the teaching and learning of social enterprise is a new field which requires a different approach, you do need to take models and develop and adapt them. So that’s why I want to include some teaching and learning papers – teaching social entrepreneurs is different from teaching a group of corporate sector managers.

What other universities are developing similar programmes to yours?

There’s a social entrepreneurship master of science (MSc) at Huddersfield Business School, an MBA at the Oxford Saïd Business School where you can do social enterprise options, various post-graduate qualifications in charity management at London South Bank, and (from September 2008) an undergraduate degree in social enterprise at Northampton University. Some business degrees are introducing social enterprise modules in their business management degrees, for example Manchester Metropolitan as well as our own. So there will be 300-400 business students who will have the option to study a module in social enterprise.

All this creates opportunities not only for teaching and learning papers in journals, but also for textbooks – I know of two being written at the moment.

In the first issue of SEJ (2005), Helen Haugh proposed eight research themes – defining the scope of social entrepreneurship; the environmental context; opportunity recognition and innovation; modes of organization; resource acquisition; opportunity exploitation; performance measurement; and training education and learning about social entrepreneurship. Is this still a good framework for research?

For the ESRC bidding round for the third sector research sector, Ken Peattie and Adrian Morley at the BRASS Institute in Cardiff were commissioned to do a monograph discussion paper on all the research that had been done so far in the area in order to project forward key research themes. In the second 2008 issue of SEJ one of the papers is a summary of that monograph. They say that Helen’s themes are still very relevant but they’d like to add some others, they call them eight paradoxes.

The publishing process

Starting a new journal is hard work. You are obviously extensively networked but how else have you gone about soliciting articles?

When I was selecting journal board members I did so not only from an international, but also from a knowledge perspective. I looked for people who were experts in strategic management, others who have been involved in measurement and evaluation, and so on.

When an article is submitted I read it and think, who are the two reviewers who are best placed to read it, does it need a European or an American perspective, is it about entrepreneurship, performance management etc.?, then I put it through the double blind review process.

At the moment all our reviewers are editorial advisory board members. They are given a deadline of four to six weeks, and a template pro forma to complete. They are asked whether to accept the article with no revisions, accept with minor revisions, accept with major revisions, or reject, and to comment on such issues as command of literature, methodology, originality, etc. Reviewers comments are then returned, anonymized, to the author. Authors then have a choice as to whether they can rewrite within the time frame (again about six weeks), then the revised paper goes to reviewers and is hopefully accepted.

To date, there has only been one (hefty) issue per year. How many issues/articles do you intend to publish a year?

We are currently publishing 3 issues with 5 articles per issue. We may increase the number of issues in due course. Increasing the number of articles we publish in this way is quite a challenge but we are all working hard to promote the journal and are well networked – and even the RAE may help!

And finally

What advice would you give to someone who was looking for a career in the social enterprise sector?

I suppose I’m a good example, I started working in the private sector and then moved to the social sector as I wanted a career change. There are a number of different routes: you can study while you are working, or you can look at the website of the social enterprise you want to work for and see what vacancies there are, or send a speculative letter to the managing director. They are looking for good people who share their passion, who have a skill set which complements their own.

The other way is to set up your own social enterprise. People may be working in a large corporate organization and have their own dream which they decide to follow. There are structures like the Social Entrepreneurs’ Network and the Social Enterprise Coalition which can help get people along the right path.

If you are an undergraduate student, then you should be looking at modules in social enterprise, business ethics, or corporate social responsibility, and do a dissertation or final project in that area. You could also get relevant work experience. I was one of the people that worked on Divine’s original business plan and we used to have volunteers who would come for several months in the summer and often ended up working for us, they were in a good position to apply for any vacancies.

For more information on the Third Sector Research Centre see

Publisher's note

Bob Doherty was interviewed in July 2008.

Visit the information page for: Social Enterprise Journal