Around the world there is a growing interest in the quality of working life, what constitutes ‘good work’ and how to create ‘decent jobs’. So what does this mean for those organisations that are motivated to improve the lives of others by delivering vital community services and reviving local assets?

Such organisations often provide work which is experienced as meaningful and worthwhile, but what can be done to ensure that employees also have good secure working conditions, prospects for personal development and ability to participate in decisions that affect their work?

This can be challenging when organisations are having to ensure they remain viable, often in difficult circumstances, while also seeking to maximise their beneficial social and environmental impacts. This is the question being posed by a new research project focussed on the community business sector, funded by Power to Change, and conducted by Middlesex University and Locality.

Community businesses are set up and led by local people, and any profits flow back into the business to deliver further positive local impact. They are creating innovative services that help us live well, with community centres, arts organisations, health centres, nurseries and even community owned pubs. We will be looking at how these organisations are developing practices to provide good work for employees and volunteers while also serving their communities by increasing the reach and quality of their services. This also links to our other projects with the ESRC Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity on the role of alternative organisations in providing innovative ways of living well within the ecological and resource constraints of the planetary limits.

Community businesses are particularly interesting as they are seeking to combine social value with their business objectives. They have to balance the need to generate income and control costs to remain viable, while also maximising their social and environmental impacts. Our earlier Power to Change funded work on wellbeing community businesses looked at the strategies used to navigate the challenges posed by these dual objectives.

However, community businesses are often working in difficult circumstances in communities where those most in need cannot afford to pay for all services, and often reliant on winning grants and a dwindling supply of contracts for government services. As small organisations, they face challenges that all small businesses face in terms of fluctuating income and limited resources.

Despite these constraints, our previous research at Middlesex has looked at the working conditions in smaller businesses and has shown how they can offer decent maternity protection and pay the living wage in ways that also contribute to the sustainability of the business. Our initial work has found that many community businesses are supporting the Real Living Wage and are motivated to provide good working conditions. Meaningful work does not have to be at the price of decent work.

Based on this challenging topic, we are researching the good practice found amongst community businesses and the tensions they face in providing decent working conditions for staff and volunteers. This has never been more important, as community businesses grow their roles in communities, and internationally we are celebrating the centenary of the International Labour Organization.

We are looking for interesting case studies of community businesses who are finding ways to offer good quality jobs by, for example, paying the living wage, offering longer contracts, providing extra training and developing ways to give staff and volunteers a voice.

If you are involved in a community business as staff, volunteer or user, and think you have some interesting stories, then  please get in touch with the project leader Bianca Stumbitz!