Social Enterprise

Within certain sections of the activist community, there is an adherence to ‘anti-capitalist’ ideologies that can generate an antipathy towards and a rejection of methodologies that are associated with the business community. This is perhaps understandable, as some sections of the business community exhibit value systems that prioritise financial profit at the expense of people and the environment, values that are at the root of the contemporary climate crisis.

The growing social enterprise sector, however, recognises that is a logical fallacy to assume that because certain practices, methods and concepts commonly used within the business community are used for nefarious purposes, that they must be themselves be morally dubious. On the contrary, it is the ends to which the methods are deployed which matter and which therefore have moral character, not necessarily the means by which these ends are achieved. According to the social entrepreneur, therefore, it is not necessarily immoral to generate a profit if the profit is spent to achieve a worthy purpose, such as the advancement of social benefit. This is particularly the case if the product or service being sold is of itself of high moral or social value. If, however, a business was selling a socially damaging product but was donating some or all of the profits generated, critics would be entirely justified in saying it was engaged in ‘greenwashing’.

Social enterprises, by virtue of the earned income streams they generate, also tend to be more sustainable and resilient organisations by virtue of the fact they are less dependent on the donation of public or private funds which can be cut or dry up without sufficient notice for the organisation to adapt, resulting in job losses or a reduction in the provision of social benefit. Due to their adoption of some of the concepts and methods of the private sector, albeit in the delivery of public benefit, social enterprises can be efficient in resource terms and effective in operational ones.

The Synergy social enterprise model is ideally suited to the current economic and social environment, in which central and local government is cutting back on the services it provides, looking to the voluntary sector to fill the gaps. While there is a substantial amount of funding available, such as the National Lottery and private trusts, competition is fierce. As a result, many grass-roots community organisations invest considerable energy into fundraising and bid-writing, only to receive rejections citing the immense competition for limited funds.

Rather than relying on funding, Synergy operates a social enterprise model to deliver affordable community arts and social spaces by hosting weekend ‘Synergy Gatherings’ that combine multi-media entertainment with awareness-raising of topical social, environmental, cultural and spiritual issues.

These events can generate strong incomes, particularly if they are held in in-house ‘Synergy Centres’, as all the income  – the door, bar / cafe, and cloakroom  – associated with the event is retained within the community. This differs significantly from an arrangement in which those organising the events have to hire a venue, which then retains the bar / cafe and cloakroom incomes. The profits made by the venue are then distributed to shareholders and are therefore extracted from the community.

By contrast, the surpluses from Synergy Gatherings is used to cross-subsidise charitable activities that seek to promote ecological and health living and tackle social exclusion through training and work-based learning and by creating an affordable, supportive, welcoming and creative environment for people suffering disadvantages such as homelessness, long term unemployment, poor mental health or substance misuse. In the medium term, Synergy aspires to attract investment that would enable it to purchase the freehold on properties, thereby achieving the security of tenure and long-term financial viability that either mean-while uses or commercial leases lack.

On a psychological / cultural level, a social enterprise model has additional advantages. Being in charge of your own destiny and achieving a degree of self-reliance is in some ways preferable to being beholden to external funders, who will have their own priorities, values and methodologies.