A woman upcycling old house materials, a startup developing brain-computer interface technology to help people with severe disabilities, disaster-mapping software developers spanning Kenya and New Zealand, a sports management company looking after the mental well-being of athletes, and budding communications gurus helping the community sector reinvent themselves and their message. Welcome to the new world of social enterprise.
I met these inspirational people and a bunch more while setting up and running a workplace home for them. Called The Kitchen, we worked from the top of Ponsonby Rd, Auckland, as a hub for small businesses and not-for-profits sized from one to four people. The red thread running through them all was, broadly speaking, social enterprise. The Kitchen aimed at being a creative, well-resourced work environment and community hub for change-makers creating social and environmental good.
As the name suggests, these people were fond of cooking up ideas for action, experimenting with recipes for practice, and finding the right ingredients to make a difference.
Over 30 organisations called it home. With like minds but diverse activities and skill sets, working in the same physical space allowed for peer-to-peer advice, democratised information, catalysed collaboration, and fostered creative collisions. We also hosted events put on by our members and opened this to other organisations promoting social good.
Based on The Hub in London, it was an attempt to weave the magic of connection. We found some of the best ideas came at the edges of work and play—from our famous Tuesday lunches that drew many visitors, to the morning when the Pop-up Dining crew popped up and started many fruitful partnerships just because of who happened to be in the room.
Common to all I sensed a gratitude for the skills we have and a desire to pay it forward, helping to build the community fabric and enhance others’ lives. And we wanted to prove that you didn’t have to sell your soul to make a living.
We felt brave. We ran with a vision. We found a home with each other. But then after 18 months, it was time to say goodbye. Set up as a social enterprise, The Kitchen broke-even halfway through its life, but in a niche market and with fluctuating membership levels we couldn’t sustain this, and I made the painful decision to close it in late 2013.
The Kitchen was an ambitious, spirited, and—I hope—important venture. It was always a risk. I was of course personally gutted—a heart’s dream turned to requiem. And yet … there is a lot we can be proud of and many people report they have been supported and emboldened to try new ventures and ideas. A number of people left their jobs and took the leap into a socially focussed enterprise because of the inspiration and community they found there. For some, it inspired them to listen to forgotten reaches of their hearts. Those people are my heroes.
Ripples have spread throughout Auckland, working partnerships formed that have endured and prospered. The flag we waved for social enterprise has been noticed and acted on by trusts, councils, and government. I think the word “closure” is overused: it is not faithful to the open-ended rhythm of experience. I know that while ending, The Kitchen has brought some people to the edge of nascent beginnings.
Reflections on the Movement
Out of this experience I have two reflections: the first on social enterprise workspaces, and the second on the wider sector.
I am often asked if I would do it again? I have always been drawn to work in organisations that attempt inspiring solutions to contemporary problems, especially those working toward a just, sustainable, holistically fulfilling human presence on this planet. Our co-creation The Kitchen was born out of that ethos.
On one hand, I would like to encourage someone to try. A city the size of Auckland deserves a workplace that can rally the sector and wave the flag for social enterprise, across a skyline that is a shrine to a sole focus on profit.
On the other hand, while there are exceptions, it is the norm that revenue streams and therefore profit margins for social businesses are tighter than for those aiming more clearly for profit. That was true of most of the enterprises I encountered and it was true of The Kitchen.
My conclusion is that a business aimed to be solely a fully-fledged social enterprise hub would struggle in New Zealand because of the relatively small size of our cities. The “hubs” that can and do work are those started by a business or businesses that need their own workspace, and add to their revenue by subleasing space to smaller groups.
Reflecting on the sector, my observation is that the reality doesn’t yet match the reputation. I’m a fan and a cheerleader for social enterprise, but I have observed that some its present success and reach has often been exaggerated. In theory, the social enterprise sector is comprised of those who have found ways to combine their passion for a better world with sustainable employment, by starting businesses and eliminating or strongly reducing grant-dependence.
- Businesses producing goods and services aimed at alleviating social or environmental problems
- Businesses offering mainstream services but specialising in offering them to community sector clients
- Businesses set up to dedicate a large slice of their profits to charity
- Some not-for-profits who find their skills are in demand commercially and use that to help fund their charitable work
When I look at the organisations or businesses that had been resident at The Kitchen and many others that came through, shared their story and picked up ideas, very few fit into the definition of social enterprise. Few, for example, were able to sustainably pay staff. Those that were financially sustainable tended to fall into the following categories:
- Those offering services to the community sector based around charging out their own time
- Those offering goods and services to clients and consumers who are funded by the government to buy them, such as disability services
- Not-for-profits with grant funding—often using the tag “social enterprise,” but effectively a rebrand of the traditional community sector
- Those that offer new ways to give money to charity—effectively redistributing the charity dollar
- Those providing a traditional service, but employing people who often struggle to find work
- Importers and innovators in the fair-trade field
Only the last two fit the standard definitions of social enterprise. If we had limited membership of The Kitchen to those types of organisations alone, we could not have started. The most successful social enterprises I have seen have tended to be businesses that entered an already profitable field—such as fair trade importing or green tech—filling niches that other businesses could equally fill without having the same wider social purpose, simply because it already makes economic sense.
The birth of Ākina Foundation and Social Enterprise Auckland is encouraging evidence that the sector is gaining publicity and legitimacy. Yet both are currently funded by central or local government, so the impression remains that the sector still has financial challenges to overcome before it can truly stand on its own.
Broadening the Nature of Business
While I’m a fan of the social enterprise sector, it is a niche within an expansive market. This means that “regular” businesses must answer the same larger question: how can the spirit of social enterprise play out across the board, at a time when organisations across the world are waking up to the importance of their social impact?
Every human endeavour rests on a set of values, and this is no less true of business.
There is an outward facing side to this. The very public notions of “social responsibility” and “sustainable business” practice have been well documented. I will not add to that here, except to say that corporate responsibility and social enterprise movements are a return to the original essence of corporations when they first appeared in 17th-century Europe. At that time, they were chartered to work in an area of specific public mission in exchange for the formal right to exist. This corporate obligation to serve the public interest was slowly replaced through the 19th and 20th centuries by the view that they exist solely for the benefit of financial investors. So both social enterprise and “socially responsible,” “sustainable” businesses can be seen as a return to aligning business to the social reasons they exist for; to the principle that business operates on behalf of society.
However, there is an inward-focussed side to it as well: at the Kitchen, we were seeking work that made our hearts sing! Employment that answered our desire for creativity and innovation, belonging and identity. Work is central to our lives, so it is important how it is done—and what the doing of it does to us.
When at a party, after the host introduces you, what is the first question you are asked? “What do you do?” What is telling is that we know what they want to hear. They are not asking about your eating and sleeping habits, or about your hobbies. What I “do” is my work.
Thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Marx, Heidegger, Schmacher, and Pope John Paul II claim that our world is continually created and re-created by human work—and in fact, we are created in that process. Subjective experience is too diffuse for self-identity. “I feel” is no substitute for “I did.” Work is our calling card to the rest of the world. Labour is the axis of self-making.
Even with Marx, the critique of business was not mostly material inequality or poverty. It was what capitalist worker relations did to alienate and distort human souls.
In graphic language not even Tracy Chapman can match, he says “they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine.” It is ironic then that the movement in his name redefined and degraded citizens as mere workers. I found the irony deeper still when, listening to the leaders’ debates and political advertising at the recent election, I was struck by the emphasis on the importance of producing good, productive workers. An observer from outer space might conclude that we had lost the Cold War.
The nature of work arrangements must be part of the story of the ethics of business. We couldn’t justify an enterprise if it distorted our nature or produced a stunted human.
More broadly than social enterprise, this contract of societal healing, creativity, and engagement between business and the people working in them is more and more crucial, and more and more common. People are choosing workplaces more by the ethics of the company, the worth of what it produces, and how it expands their identity. We see work as a pilgrimage of belonging, creativity, and identity.
These are our deepest yearnings for our work—and hence, they bear the weight of something beyond ourselves. If what we do and how we do it does not beat a vivid pulse within us, we lose the reason for doing it.
From the other side, businesses need to engage people at an increasingly deep level if they are to retain them. Companies need the vitality of all hands in order to stay afloat in the sea of change increasingly engulfing them. Organisations cannot survive as outer hollow forms but must breathe with the life of those who make them up. Any organisation taking its place in an increasingly fluid global market is asking staff for more adaptability, vitality, imagination, and enthusiastic willingness to go the extra mile.
To put these two halves together: if organisations are asking for people’s commitment, they are asking for their hearts and minds, their hidden loves and personal investment, at the same time. We have to feel affection for something if we are to apply our creativity and enthusiasm to it.
Hence, if the goal of a company is simply profit, without thought to social good and creativity, then it will engage only those people motivated by financial gain. But if organisations and workplaces have more expansive goals and qualities across a range of values, and a sense of creative engagement is found within their doors, they may get something more soulful and creative from their staff.
There is no formula to act as a lever inside a person to release that creativity. We look for work and culture that allow us to bring more of ourselves to the job. These qualities—creativity, belonging, engagement, ethics, and even love—are what human beings have always wanted for their work. None of them can be coerced, manipulated, legislated, or dragged out by a catchy company slogan, or by outlining a three-year plan. They have their own logic and call for conversation. Many members of The Kitchen were passionate and skilled people who left the regular business sphere because they weren’t satisfied by the purely corporate model. So my call to the corporate world is to take seriously the kind of talent and creative thinking they lose by not capturing these thinkers and doers. If the corporate world would harness talent by appreciating the social aspect of business and engaging passions, more of us would be proud to answer “what do you do?” because our work better matches the type of person we long to be.