Analysis: A Review of Evaluation Evidence on the Community Business Hypotheses

Community businesses face an unprecedented challenge with the impact of COVID-19. Being able to respond to both the needs of the community and those of the business is difficult enough in normal times, let alone in the throes of a global pandemic.

The value and function of community businesses – during pandemics or otherwise – has been articulated by Power to Change in their Register of Hypotheses. I and colleagues from Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research, at Sheffield Hallam University, were recently tasked with reviewing the evaluation reports of Power to Change’s programmes.  This review sought to identify emerging evidence on the hypotheses, and whether they are indeed being ‘played out’ by programme grantees.  The synthesised key findings can be downloaded here.

There is strong evidence that community businesses are well situated in focusing on local needs (Hypothesis 1) and mobilising volunteers (Hypothesis 2). This cements the importance of these enterprises and their continued need within communities during volatile times, offering some structure for both service users and volunteers. The Empowering Interim Evaluation Report (p.38) exemplified some of the processes associated with these hypotheses, suggesting community businesses are:

“…listening and being led by the community, collaborating with other local groups and promoting creative approaches to peak interest and encourage local people to get involved”.

 

There are, of course, some aspects which are beyond the control of community businesses. There is evidence that cash injections for the procurement of new assets leads to an increase of customer base and possible provisions (contrary to Hypothesis 7), yet under-utilised or ill-equipped assets can be a drain on cash flow and other resources. Similarly, sustainability can at times be overly reliant on local spending power and other contextual factors which can hinder growth (Hypothesis 5).

Importantly, community businesses excel at building and leveraging knowledge about their local community and its needs. Their reach allows them to understand these needs and respond accordingly. This is something to be celebrated, though there are tensions.  Maintaining local knowledge and control, whilst balancing a broadening of geographical remit to generate required revenue, may be a tricky balancing act as some of the evaluation reports attest.

As the roll-out of the vaccination begins and we start to see the longer term socio-economic impact of the virus, it is crucial that community businesses are provided with the right forms of support so that they can continue to deliver much needed services and assistance.

As for the Hypotheses – these will be retired to make way for refreshed research questions which reflect the challenges community businesses have faced in recent times and are in line with Power to Change’s new upcoming strategy.

Ben Ledger-Jessop is a PhD candidate at Centre for Regional and Economic Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University. His research focuses on the position of migrants in local labour markets and how they utilise formal support networks.

 

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