Among the actors working to reduce poverty and casualisation, one remains poorly known and underestimated: the social enterprise. A Belgian one, Les Petits Riens, partnered with UCL by funding a chair currently held by Marthe Nyssens, a professor of social economics, and supported by Anais Perilleux, a researcher at the UCL Interdisciplinary Research Center on Work, State and Society (CIRTES).
The chair’s full title, ‘Les Petits Riens Chair: Using the social economy to fight poverty’, reflects how the social economy is crucial to, yet too often poorly known by, Belgian society, especially actions that aim to reduce casualisation. ‘The terms “economy” and “social” might seem to contradict each other, but they can be combined’, Prof. Marthe Nyssens says. ‘Several principles motivate this modus operandi: management autonomy, economic democracy, but above all the goal of service over the bottom line. That doesn’t mean these companies don’t need to be financially stable or profitable; it means the main engine driving them is social rather than financial return on investment’. Their social purpose penetrates a wide variety of sectors: culture, housing, professional reintegration assistance, health, local distribution channels, recycling, renewable energy, fair trade. There’s no lack of projects, especially in a time of crisis.
Les Petits Riens in demand
The chair’s purpose is to understand the complexities unique to the social economy and develop solutions that promote the ecological, economic and social sustainability of social enterprises. Its origin is unique. ‘Usually it’s the university’s researchers who reach out to potential collaborators,’ Prof Nyssens says, ‘but this time les Petits Riens came to us. They proposed a partnership so they could better understand their operating methods and see more clearly relative to the challenges they face. Given our expertise, we were tempted, especially because we could see how this kind of transdisciplinary thinking could on one hand advance the state of knowledge and on the other benefit actors in the sector.’
Generally, this type of chair is supported by private corporations, such as banks. That a social enterprise supports this one is also unique.
Research, teaching, serving society
Established for an initial five-year period, the chair will aim to conduct research on a different theme each year. ‘We decided to begin with social performance’, Prof Nyssens says. ‘Because to make its importance plain, especially to public authorities, les Petits Riens has to demonstrate a positive impact on society. Indicators are currently lacking. We’ll analyse its activity and operations in order to define them and see how to put numbers on them.’ This approach could be extrapolated to help other social enterprises develop. Moreover, since this is university research, it will also have an impact on courses. ‘Our teaching mission will benefit. We’ll be able to address issues dealt with by the chair in our social economics courses.’
The chair will also conduct seminars on its research themes for researchers and social economy actors. ‘That’s how we’ll combine our expertise. That’s the goal of transdisciplinary research’.
Social enterprise goals
Social enterprises can have many goals. Les Petits Riens aims not only to collect clothes, furniture and other useful objects to resell at bargain prices to disadvantaged persons. Less well known is that it aims to be a springboard for those excluded from the labour market: it employs no fewer than 750 persons. Les Petits Riens also offers community services: homeless shelters, soup kitchens, job training. Prof. Nyssens insists, ‘It has to know the impact of its actions on the lives of its beneficiaries: how many people found a job after having worked at les Petits Riens? What did they gain in terms of self-esteem? Were they able to rebuild a social network, to reintegrate into the life of the community? The conclusions we draw will help us see how to perform even better, by identifying the effective practices of other social enterprises and showing how useful they are as economic actors, even if they’re rarely talked about in that way.’
The need for reliable indicators based on rigorous research is new, even if the need to know one’s impact is not. Indeed, owing to the crisis, stakeholders (public authorities, donors, customers) need proof that such actors make a difference.
The chair is under the purview of the UCL Interdisciplinary Research Center on Work, State and Society (CIRTES), which Prof. Nyssens directs, and financed by les Petits Riens, which was able to benefit from an interesting provision for social enterprises: having erected a new building on land belonging to the Brussels Capital Region Development Corporation, part of the rent can be waived if the company develops research in partnership with the university. Rent thus ‘saved’ funded the chair, which is therefore supported indirectly by the Brussels Capital Region.