Building sustainable enterprises to support social change in the sharing age.
The challenge of our moment is to reconnect, to ourselves, others and the Earth through all our endeavours. We have to consider all aspects of sustainability: the environment, economics and social equity and we have to include as many people and voices as we can so that the decisions we make as we move forward are really able to lever systemic change.
“The prevailing wisdom is that talk is cheap and that it’s a poor, timid substitute for action…conversation is action, because it is the wellspring from which relationships and trust are generated and informed decisions grow.” Thomas F Beech
Earlier in August I had the good fortune to happen upon a great online conversation with social entrepreneur, Pete Lawrence. Pete is founder of Campfire Convention, ‘a co-operative network based on the empowerment of collaboration and shaping the future for the better.’ Building a new social network and a co-produced news platform are the key aims. Yet there’s something different. The thing that interests me is the business model, it is funded by membership subscriptions, and self-supporting, using crowd-funding for larger investments.
For a long time now I have been pondering the question ‘how can we create sustainable enterprises that are built on values that are good for people and the Earth?’ I have been watching and noticing.
Of the many socially minded enterprises we explored over the course of delivering the British Council’s Active Citizens programme here in Cardiff last year, the ones that thrive are the ones that have capital, a physical object or service which people pay for — a building with space to rent (Indycube, Little Man Coffee Co.), bikes to hire and a cafe (Pedal Power), a product to sell, and the skills to sell it (Science Made Simple).
Other social enterprises offer services that are free at the point of delivery. They can do this because they are grant funded, or raise funds through sponsorship or charitable giving and the like. Surviving as a financially stable organisation underpinned by this model is becoming more difficult and treacherous as pots shrink and competition rises.
Our pernicious favour for growth is leading us up a blind alley. The pattern of growth followed by collapse demonstrated by the systems models Dana Meadows and other systems thinkers espouse indicates that we are in a precarious place.
There is another effect that interests me. In the context of Cardiff, where we have benefited from years of grant funding, offering products and services where there is an expectation that people will pay provides a challenge.
People have become so used to accessing free things, particularly in the arena of events, training and community development, that getting them to pay, whether they are an individual or an organisation or institution, is hard. It requires skills in relationship building and negotiation and good marketing.
If grant funding is diminishing as an option, and we want to provide products and services that are free at the point of delivery, how do we fund that? There will always be a monetary cost involved in production of the things we offer (whilst our current monetary system persists at any rate). And there will always be value generated from the gift of people’s time through volunteering and sharing.
The work I enjoy most, making art (Sensory Labyrinth Theatre) with The Republic of the Imagination, is work I do for free, it is my gift to the world and the well-being it creates far surpasses that which I would get from any paid work. I don’t even know what the words are for beginning to understand this. Perhaps the word is love.
And, much as we try, money just cannot buy love. Although it can pay for us to make more art, which leads to more love. It can also enable us to buy our way into communities where we can find love.
There is no doubt we have a thriving gift economy, sharing is on the rise here in the city and the benefits of volunteering in regard to well-being are clear. But we can all run out of the capacity to give eventually (take burnout as an example) and reciprocal exchange is vital for maintaining motivation.
It is therefore important, where appropriate, that the people involved in enterprises which have social change as their aim are paid at least a living wage for the contributions that they make (I am referring to business structures here, rather than voluntary community groups, and I’m just not sure about art..).
This is hard to say, because anyone who has set up a business or programme or applied for a grant to make art, knows that the first stages require a massive amount of energy and input that is given for free. Many of us even fund our start-ups with our own savings or loans we take out, forcing us into precarious debt (no doubt, micro-lending has been a force for good in the world).
But, just how many taster sessions can we offer to draw in our crowd? How many evenings can we spend away from our families to attend networking events to build our networks before we get tired? There is no doubt that in our present reality, money offers a form of energy that helps us continue.
Alongside this, anyone who has ever filled in a grant application will know that the time and energy to do all the research to demonstrate community need and to actually fill in the form itself, is never included in the pot that you may, or may not, win.
This is draining for new enterprises. It also means that often the larger entities, like big charities, because they are resourced with Funding Officers, gain a competitive advantage. The success to the successful archetype is at work here. The time for collaboration is upon us if the small fish are to survive, let alone thrive.
One option is to work with corporates as part of CSR and social impact programmes, redistributing their profits for social benefit. I feel confused around the morality of this, but I know it is a successful strategy for some.
We can also gain financial support from building relationships with sponsors, who we then endorse as part of our marketing. This seems like a good option as you can choose businesses that have values similar to your own. And in many ways it puts you in the heart of a community where businesses support each other. GovCamp Cymru do this well.
Crowdfunding is making an impact, HiSbe foods in Brighton did it and it was successful for them. Amanda Palmer successfully changed the landscape of the music industry with her kickstarter and is now utilising the Patreonplatform to support her artistic endeavors, she’s written a great book about her experiences. In Cardiff, we have Spacehive for crowdfunding projects in community spaces.
Another option is to charge people to access the services we offer. The difficulty with that for me is that it can exclude people who can’t pay, and if we want to create social value and cultural change with our offerings, they have to be available to everyone. We are seeing a rise in the fashion for people to pay what they can, which is great. However, it doesn’t always work to cover costs and sometimes organisers can be out of pocket personally as a result. It is a careful balancing act.
I find it hard to be a realist about this. I prefer to imagine an alternative future in which money is not our key driver. A future where money, value and worth become disentangled. A future where all people have their needs met and have space to flourish, to self-actualize and to come to know their own potential and to feel part of a community, with a collective mindset. A future where people embrace sustainable living because it is affordable, and because they recognise the true cost and true impact of their actions on the Earth.
We are so far away from this in Cardiff, even more so in Penarth where I live, to think of it is nothing more than a work of fiction. There are some people in our city who have the power to decide how things will be, and charge ahead with little consultation, which makes it hard for grassroots voices to be heard. But I believe it is possible for us to build this better future, together. There are signs that it is possible.
There are places around the world where people are putting the principles of sharing into practice in a city-wide integrated way. Places exist where people are re-building their democracies, taking back ownership of the commons, and redefining economics with local currency, like in Bristol. The Transition Movement has made waves here in the UK, and our local group, Cardiff Transition run projects in the city to move us closer to our sustainability goals, all run by a group of committed volunteers who offer the gift of their time. I have to believe this is possible for us here in Wales, or all hope is lost.
We are seeing a number of movements emerging that are seeking to rebalance how we live on this planet. I feel that the sharing transformation movement is part of that trend. I see sharing as a tool, a whole gamut of principles that can move us from where we are to where we want to be. Many of the principles that underpin this movement can help us to build sustainable enterprises, worker cooperatives, for example.
The problem is convincing people who are driven by profit and individualism that there are alternatives. After all, for equality to flourish, some people are going to have to give things up, and there will be a struggle. What’s at risk is our planet and the future of humanity. But that’s not headline news, so not many people know they should care. And if they do care, they are constricted by the choices available to them, only some people can afford the financial cost of choosing sustainably produced products and services.
To come back to Campfire Convention then. Membership to this new community cost £20 a year at the moment. Pete convincingly makes his justification for this here. The ability to purchase passage into a thriving and wonderful community of like-minded folk who all want to make the world a better place offers me a conundrum.
Money, value and worth have become so inextricably tied up together, it’s all got very sticky. As The Minimalists would say ‘if I pay for this thing will it bring value to my life?’. I think it would. But it’s more complicated than that.
I feel the success to the successful archetype is at work here as well. If things have gone well for me to this point and I have enough money left over at the end of the month to afford the £1.66 a month membership fee, then fine. However, this affordance puts me in a better position than someone who doesn’t have that means to pay, because I can purchase my way into this thriving community where I can learn and grow and benefit from the networks and connections I make.
In fact, this ability to grow connections to grow businesses and collaborate is a key feature of the Convention product, from Pete’s point of view. He goes as far as describing it in similar terms to a private members club. He also discusses the issues of exclusivity.
Of course this scenario is commonplace, and Campfire Convention is my point of reference here only because it has come into my field of experience this week. There are plenty of other examples I could use. To an extent, even the ability to pay for a yoga class or to go swimming offers some people an advantage for their health. And there are of course many ways in which ‘public services’ are made accessible for all (as long as you can demonstrate with ‘official’ paperwork that you are indeed as poor as you say you are).
The problem for me is, our endeavors to create social change with our enterprises depend on us engaging now with all people. Views and voices from the whole system need to be heard if we are even to begin building a better future, especially the voices of people at the margins.
“We need many eyes and ears and hearts engaged in sharing perspectives. How can we create an accurate picture of the whole if we don’t honor the fact that we each see something different because of who we are and where we sit in the system? Only when we have many different perspectives do we have enough information to make good decisions. And exploring our differing perspectives always brings us closer together.” Juanita Brown & David Isaacs, The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations that Matter
Not all people have the means to pay to take part in these conversations, so, for me, they have to be free at the point of delivery if they are to be inclusive.
It is true for us today that money buys access to ideas. This excludes people who don’t have money from participating. There are good people with great ideas who make a valuable contribution to the dialogue around building alternative futures who don’t have money.
To counter this, there is a perception that ideas, courses, opportunities that are ‘free’ don’t have the same value as those we pay for. How can we create business models that include all, but still offer the opportunity for the necessary financial stability and hold their value if offered for free? It seems simple really, have a tiered structure, so those who can pay do, and those who can’t don’t have to. Easy to say, hard to get it to work in practice.
What then does this mean for our endeavours to create sustainable enterprises? We need small-scale experiments. We need to work together to define our goals, then tentatively and intuitively take steps towards them. We need to learn to co-operate. And we need a bold vision.
The challenge of our moment is to reconnect, to ourselves, others and the Earth through all our endeavors. To create truly sustainable enterprises we have to consider all aspects of sustainability: the environment, economics and social equity and we have to include as many people and voices as we can so that the decisions we make as we move forward are really able to lever systemic change.
To begin we need to be building trust and understanding with the communities we serve through conversation and dialogue. That is how we will begin to build Share Cardiff. We can really only learn how to build a sustainable enterprise by doing it.