The brilliant success of our inaugural Syrian Supper Club is testament to four things; it’s the incredible quality of work and commitment of Sue O’Neill-Berest and her Food education team; it’s also, as Sue put it, the power of the “universal language of food“. It’s the way in which it expresses the Cyrenians values of innovation and compassion, and it’s a very clear example of how we provide both a social project with real positive human impact and develop a social enterprise income stream.
I need to be clear as I can be here. I do not think it is possible to create social enterprise income with everything we do. Much of what we do does not lend itself to building in income generation, nor should it be expected to. Creating social enterprise income is not in any way going to become a prerequisite of everything we do. Nor should it ever be the case that access to support for those in need should be limited by a requirement to pay for them, though the truth is that one of the dangers of things like Self Directed Support is that it embeds a transactional culture into how support is accessed. But that’s another story for another blog.
We do however need to continue to build our capacity to generate income through social enterprise activity. It has been, and will continue to be, a core part of Cyrenians achieving long term sustainability. The more money we earn, in a way which not only pays for the costs of the activity but provides a surplus which we are free to choose how to use, the stronger and more resilient an organisation we will be. In particular it will reduce the amount we need to find for core costs from income streams like grant funding and contracts with the public sector.
Playing to our strengths when looking at the things we can use to create social enterprise income seems to me to be a wise approach; hence for example the work we have done building our deep capacity for high quality mediation and conflict resolution into training products which organisations will pay for. Our strengths can also be the physical resources we have, such as the farm produce or activity in the gardens, or the potential of Arnotdale House in Falkirk, where we are looking at not only a café which will also provide work training for some of those we journey with, but an event space which, combined with the Walled Garden, is an exciting product for the events market. The depot developments at Fareshare, and the work we have been doing on developing an upcycling project, are more examples of making sure we play to our strengths; to build our portfolio of income-generating activities to support our core work.
Of course the language of “product”, ”market”, “surplus” and so on is still not generally in the mainstream of third sector language and I remain cognisant of the dangers of this kind of language becoming too influential to how we see ourselves. It is a tension we need to be aware of. And when we play to these strengths we increase the tension as it can at times seem a challenge to be in one context using what we do for social good, and at another time to generate money – as is the case with the Syrian Supper Club which through the same activity (cooking dinner) is doing both things; supporting people (the refugee chefs) whilst generating income through ticket sales.
There will always be tensions in this way of working. What matters is that we face them, talk about them, and continue to remind ourselves of our mission – which remains to support people excluded from family, home, work or community. Our capacity to do that requires us to be innovative and to, where possible, create income streams which give us stability and resilience to journey for longer, with more people from tough realities, to places of transformation. Or to work on preventing the things which take people into those situations in the first place. The relationships on which those journeys are formed and nurtured must not become described in the language of product or market. But if we can turn some of the rich and deep skills and talents in this organisation that are the result of travelling on those journeys into opportunities to generate income, so that we can travel more journeys with more people, then that seems to be to be a tension worth living in.