It’s an exciting time for me and those like me who know that social enterprise is an essential part of the rebuilding of our economy.
There is no doubt it’s a hot topic. I am less interested in the ongoing debate about the definition of social enterprise and more interested in how we – within NOW Group and the wider sector – trade and make an impact.
Over the past three years I have been working with an amazing team and a strategically focused board to change the focus of the Now Group away from a reliance on funding and develop ways of making our own money. It’s been a challenge and I’m often conflicted, but it’s very clear to me that now is the time to build sustainable social enterprises.
Loaf Catering is a case in point. A previous output from our training we’ve turned that business from being 100% reliant on funding to one that now runs the contract for the Bobbin Cafe at City Hall, as well as our own cafe and bakery and a busy outside catering business. We have built a business with a quality product, a good pricing structure and a strong brand. It just happens that it’s a social enterprise.
‘The future I envisage is not a plethora of social enterprise cafes
struggling to make money…new opportunities can be found in supply chains’
Everything we do focuses on the impact we can have on the lives of people with learning difficulties and the communities in which we work, and in order to be able to do that we need to be entrepreneurial and solution focused. We’ve had enough of waiting on others to fix the things that are broken.
Anyone working in the hospitality industry will know that it’s not the easiest or the quickest way to make money and when you add in the fact that you are training and employing people often furthest removed from the labour market it does add an additional challenge. But that (and what we do with our profits) is what makes us a social enterprise. We have come far, but the next challenge is to grow the business, create more jobs, more training opportunities and increase our impact.
The future I envisage is not one with a plethora of social enterprise cafes all struggling to make money, although lots of people are working towards that goal. My frustration is that most organisations are focused on how to convert their service level agreements with government into contracts. As the economy kicks back into motion, the new opportunities can be found in supply chains.
There is no doubt our government has an obligation to do business with our sector as we are the best placed to make an impact but surely that’s not enough? Why can’t we do business together rather than in competition? If we are to tackle our greatest social challenges and regenerate our most deprived communities surely we can create vibrant social enterprises producing a range of goods and services to be sold into all sectors?
The burning question is; if these opportunities arise are we ready and able to do business? I ask this question because as recently as 12 months ago we weren’t. Can we as a social enterprise sector cost our products, scale our enterprises and meet demand without losing impact?
We are all part of a social economy and there is something special about social enterprise but to be really successful we need to make things that people want and sell them. We need to open our supply chains to social enterprises, co-operatives and artisan suppliers and get our products and services into others supply chains creating jobs, generating profits and using that to make a difference. It sounds easy but in my opinion and from my recent experience we’ve a bit to go.
Maeve Monaghan is chief executive of the Now Group