THE first large-scale census of social enterprises in Scotland has shown just how important the fast-growing sector is for the country’s economy.

Published yesterday, the census shows that Scotland is leading the world in nurturing social enterprise and in recognising the sector as a fairer and more inclusive way of doing business.

Social enterprises have a long history in Scotland with Robert Owen and other 19th-century reformers involved in the Cooperative movement cited as founders of this different approach to business – Owen’s mill development at New Lanark is cited as one of the social enterprise prototypes.

Often defined as businesses that trade for the common good rather than the unlimited private gain of a few, the focus of social enterprises is usually to tackle social problems and strengthen communities.

The census shows that there are now more than 5,000 social enterprises in Scotland, and more than 200 new social enterprises are being formed each year.

Due mostly to the long history of support for such businesses in the area, – the 1970s saw the acceleration of the social enterprise movement in the area -Highlands and Islands has 22 per cent of all social enterprises, while Edinburgh and Glasgow account for 26 per cent of all social enterprises.

Some 60% of social enterprises have a woman as their most senior employee, according to the census.

Social enterprises provide more than 112,400 jobs across Scotland, while 68 per cent of social enterprises pay at least the recognised Living Wage.

Scotland’s social enterprises have net collective assets totalling £3.86bn and earn £1.15bn in combined traded income annually, with their Gross Value Added (GVA) figure worth approximately £1.7bn.

The research was commissioned by a range of public and social enterprise organisations and was carried out by Social Value Lab.

Speaking on behalf of the project steering group, Rachael McCormack of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said: “This excellent report confirms the scale and vital contribution of social enterprise to society and to the economy in the Highlands and Islands and to Scotland as a whole.

“Social enterprise is a business model that helps tackle social issues, promote equality and achieve sustainable economic growth. These are the reasons that we attach so much importance to social enterprise and are working with social entrepreneurs to strengthen leadership, innovation and the business dimension of their enterprises.

“Working together in this way will help achieve our shared ambition to grow the social enterprise community year on year.”

Jonathan Coburn, director of Social Value Lab, said: “This has been an enormously challenging and significant piece of work, one that at last provides a definitive picture of the scale, reach and economic significance of social enterprise activity in Scotland.

“It tells the story of an important and diverse group of ethical, community-led and democratic enterprises that have grown up largely beneath the radar, but which now touch on the lives of people in almost every urban and rural community in the country. The research shows that it is possible to operate in a way that is both good for business and good for Scottish society.”

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ rights, Alex Neil MSP, said: “Social enterprises are making a real difference to the lives of people in our communities and have a major role to play in our drive for social justice.

“This census shows they are embracing the principles of fairness and equality with more than two-thirds of social enterprises paying at least the living wage and with women taking on senior positions in 60 per cent of these organisations. We look forward to working with the sector in the period ahead.”