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Who needs competitors with friends like these

I was recently invited by the Norwich Christian Resource Centre to speak at an event they were organising. Whilst not a Christian I am a huge fan of this social enterprise. It grew from the ashes of the former SPCK bookshop and is run by my friend, Steve Foyster. I describe him often as a ‘reluctant’ social entrepreneur. This is because it was only the imminent closure of the business where he worked as manager that prompted him to take the plunge and set up a social enterprise.

My talk took the form of an interview with Steve in front of an invited audience. The theme of the evening was our respective mental health journeys. It was a joyful evening, with much laughter as we share similar views on the subject. Others I know take depression more seriously, but we know differently!

But whilst I am happy to make light of the way I have overcome many personal challenges, I am far less happy about the way local faith groups have failed to offer Steve their support. You see I’d thought it would be natural that Christian groups would spend their money on books, candles, vestments and gifts with Steve. Why would they not invite him to stock and supply the stuff they want?

I asked the leader of one of Norwich’s more evangelical groups what the problem was. His church is a vast warehouse and his congregation huge. ‘It’s in an old church,’ he said. ‘That puts people off.’ And then the penny dropped. There’s far more rivalry and strong feeling between different religious groups than amongst the population at large. I guess history teaches us that.

I’ll not comment on the seeming contradiction here. I would expect Christians to close ranks and favour their own. But this is not the case. Amazon is the favoured Christian bookstore these days and likely to wipe out the independents. Steve sells much more than books, but somehow we need to persuade people to go in and find out.

Of course it’s not a faith issue at all, but one of the double standards across the social enterprise and charity landscape. Why else would one hospice open a charity shop in a small town when another hospice already has one? This is the kind of competitive behaviour you get from Tesco and Starbucks, not organisations you’d expect to collaborate.

As funding cuts bite and pressure builds on everyone to generate their own income, many seem to want to fight dirty. This does little to benefit the sector as of course the real opportunity is to build income across the sector and not simply fight for what is already there. The need for collaboration has never been greater.

Just as people now buy Fairtrade because they recognise, respect and value the logo so too must it become easy for people to do business with socially motivated enterprises. The social enterprise mark could have been that brand. Instead it became an organisational Masonic handshake, recognisable only to the initiated who subscribed to its esoteric regime.

Passionate people like my friend Steve deserve to succeed. To do this they need to be visible and part of a nationwide movement. No organisation can expect public support to be a given but surely, those of us working in the sector can make a start.

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