We all want to do our bit to make the world a better place. We also all need to earn a living. A growing number of people have discovered an ideal option: earning a living from a business that exists specifically to make the world a better place. Social enterprises actively tackle social and/or environmental challenges with the power of business, and, in the UK, they currently contribute over £60bn to the economy, while employing over 5% of the UK workforce.
What is social enterprise?
A social enterprise is not a charity. Charities do great work, tackling all kinds of social issues, through funding from donors, but social enterprises generate the majority of their income through trade. They may make profits, but they invest the majority of that back into the business.
On the other hand, a social enterprise is not simply a philanthropic business. Businesses often do good as a by-product of making money. For example, many large enterprises operate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), donating a portion of their time and/or money to charitable endeavours, which is great. However, social enterprises have an underpinning social mission that drives their business operations. For social enterprises, making money is a by-product of doing good.
Of course, these distinctions can often be blurred. Many charities operate businesses, such as charity shops, and the contemporary phenomenon of businesses that identify a higher purpose over just making money has spawned a variety of ‘business for good’ streams, such as conscious capitalism, values-led business, B Corporations and businesses with purpose.
Whatever their designation, all of these things are based on the same underlying idea, that business can be used for the good of society. This is foundational to social enterprises.
Create On The Square
Closer to home, you would be very welcome to drop by our social enterprise, Create on the Square, in Cheltenham. In 2016, we took one of the numerous empty units in the Coronation Square shopping centre, and turned it into Create, a hub for encouraging creative enterprise in Cheltenham West.
We have a broad vision: to see our community bursting with life and energy. We see Create as a catalyst in our community, exciting local people to use their talents to achieve these goals.
This is broken down into four key objectives:
- The local community working together without needing external help
- Local people developing skills and gaining employment
- New businesses started that benefit society
- Local businesses thriving and creating greater prosperity
A typical week at Create:
Firstly, you turn up on Monday morning and find the Tea Bar open. If you just want a pot of tea and a slice of plant-based cake, just like any other cafe, that’s fine, but the Tea Bar also provides a welcoming environment for people to engage with Create (and each other), and a number of projects have sprung out of chance encounters over tea. A little while later, you are joined by a small group of crafters who gather around one table and get out their latest projects. The crafters are here for the social time, but you might want to sign up for one of the additional crafting workshops run by some of the participants.
As you’re not joining the crafting today, you browse the Pop-up shop displays, with a sample of the wares of local small businesses, selling everything from jewellery to handmade lampshades. Or possibly fill up a plastic container with washing up liquid from the Refill station, and so reduce plastic waste.
You might as well settle in for the day now. It can be a lonely existence working from home and, here, there is free WiFi, power sockets everywhere you look and a welcoming attitude towards small business (in fact we also sell cheap web hosting and a registered office address to support businesses on a tight budget). It is also a safe place to leave your laptop plugged in while you visit the loo, (where you can get up to date with community events and other services that are advertised on our community wall).
In the afternoon, you observe an intern from the University of Gloucestershire, who is gaining valuable experience heading up the organisation of the Pitch for Possibility competition, where people pitch ideas to benefit our community and the winner gets £250 to put them into action.
Now, it’s time to buy your bamboo toothbrush and your can of jackfruit from The Green Grocer, sustainable living store, before heading home.
This gives a bit of a flavour if what goes on, but there really isn’t a typical week at Create. If we were too rigid in what we planned or supported, we could miss out on some valuable ideas coming from other people. Our aim is to keep experimenting and be willing to try new things out (and fail if necessary).
Optimising our offer
To avoid constantly running around changing things and not actually achieve anything, we run project experiments for at least a four-month period. At the end of that period, we assess the results at the Pivot or Persevere meeting. When projects go well, we persevere and build on them, and when projects don’t work so well, we pivot. That is, we adapt and try new experiments, to see what will work.
Support from Start and Grow Enterprise, who run business support courses dedicated to social enterprise, has enabled us to take time out and refine our lean business plan, benefit from peer to peer learning, and expand our skill set and knowledge to push our business to the next level.
Constant experimentation has caused some issues for us. In particular, people aren’t always sure of what we are. But we feel that is inevitable. If we want to be a catalyst for positive change in our community, we can hardly resist change ourselves.
The important thing is that, although our activities often change and even the fabric of the Create on the Square venue has changed many times, our objectives remain constant. This ensures we stick to our core mission and don’t get side-tracked. There is far more to do, but in just a few years we have seen:
- The local community working together, for example in forming the Community Activities Team and other social groups.
- Local people developing skills in a variety of long and short term work experience opportunities and now we are employing people through Escape Rooms.
- New businesses started that benefit society, such as The Green Grocer and the Pitch for Possibility finalists.
- Local businesses thriving. There are now only a handful of retail units empty on the Square, compared to the relative desolation of the shopping centre three years ago. We won’t take all the credit, but we have contributed to making Coronation Square a place where people are quite happy to visit now.
It’s a great way to make a living
Create on the Square has a specific and localised mission, but we share the same foundational idea as all other social enterprises, of harnessing the power of business to tackle social challenges, and, despite the ups and downs of running a business in a challenging environment, it is a great way to make a living, while, we believe, helping to make the world a better place.