Achieving sustainable social enterprises for older people: evidence from a European project

Sandy Whitelaw (School of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Glasgow, Dumfries, UK)
Carol Hill (School of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Glasgow, Dumfries, UK)

Social Enterprise Journal

ISSN: 1750-8614

Publication date: 11 November 2013



In light of the contemporary UK policy framework elevating neo-mutualism and communitarian ethics within social policy, the purpose of this paper is to report on the delivery of an EU project Older People for Older People that tested the proposition that older people in remote and rural communities can contribute to providing services for others in their age group through the creation of sustainable social enterprises – either in “co-production” with statutory public service providers or as new, stand-alone services.


In the context of a literature based theoretical exploration of the nature of “sustainability”, the paper reports on a series of rural community “case study” social enterprises (e.g. community transport schemes, care hubs, cafés and a radio station; “drop in” and outreach services (including alternative therapies and counselling); ITC training, helping, and friendship schemes; volunteering support and history and culture projects).


From this, the authors highlight both conducive and problematic circumstances that are intrinsic to community led social enterprise and suggest that sustainability is unlikely to be “spontaneous”. Rather, it will require a complex mix of supportive inputs that is at odds with the innate liberalism of entrepreneurship. The authors also offer a more nuanced conceptualisation of sustainability that moves beyond a simple economic or temporal notion and suggest that the “success” of social enterprises, their worth and sustainability, must be assessed in more multifaceted terms. The authors conclude by reflecting on the nature of this ground in the wider context of the “Big Society” movement in the UK and highlight the inherent tension between “Big Society” rhetoric, the support needed to establish and sustain localised social enterprises, and the expected agency of communities.


The paper is original in three respects: it develops an in-depth empirical consideration of social enterprise sustainability; it does this within a broad policy and theoretical context; and it specifically looks at social enterprise development and delivery in relation to older people and rural contexts.



The authors are grateful to their partners in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Greenland who contributed to the research in numerous ways. Full details of the O4O project and of the various O4O community social enterprises can be found in: Hill and Whitelaw with Stokes (2010); Farmer et al. (2012b); and, at: and


Whitelaw, S. and Hill, C. (2013), "Achieving sustainable social enterprises for older people: evidence from a European project", Social Enterprise Journal, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 269-292.

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