What is a social enterprise and why did we go down that route? Rachel Newell from Wintercomfort writes about their social enterprise - a cleaning service offering people opportunities to gain vocational skills and work experience.
People always ask what the difference is between social enterprise and other companies. Ultimately, social enterprise is about people. At Wintercomfort, people are at the heart of what we do. We are more than an employer, we coach and mentor people to overcome their challenges and be the best that they can be.
Social enterprise is a business model that has a two-fold advantage for charities: it helps us move closer to our objective, supporting those who are homeless to reintegrate into society as productive members; and it also allows us to diversify our income steams, very important in this era of cuts to public funding.
Wintercomfort is a charity based in Cambridge that helps people who are homeless or vulnerably housed by offering vital welfare services and opportunities for learning and training. Wintercomfort has been running social enterprises for nearly 10 years. Our founding enterprise, Food4Food, is a successful catering business and pop-up café. Our newest enterprise, Overstream Clean, is a cleaning and gardening service offering employment on a living wage to those with experience of homelessness.
When we started as a day centre for those experiencing homelessness in Cambridge we were primarily a welfare service offering hot food and showers. But the charity wanted to do more than respond to immediate needs, it wanted to support people to find a way out of homelessness. A learning and development service was developed offering classes, workshops, trips out, and activities to develop people confidence and skills. Activities such as computer skills, arts classes, trips to museums, cooking workshops. Around 10 years ago, Wintercomfort decided to set up its first social enterprise, Food4Food. This grew organically from what we already did, Food is a big part of Wintercomfort. The trustees of the charity decided to invest in a full-time Social Enterprise Manager in order to develop the enterprise into a professional outfit. The first steps were developing a pricing and marketing strategy.
In my experience of setting up and managing the social enterprises at Wintercomfort it is about making balanced decisions in the board room. For example, a decision that would make the most profit might need to weighed against the decision that would create the greatest social impact. These decisions aren't always opposing but I have found in practice they sometimes are. This does sometimes present the charity with a challenge; both the cleaning and the catering marketplace are very busy and our pricing needs to be competitive.
There are more and more customers who are making decisions not solely based on price but on the ethical dimension of their purchase. Hopefully we are moving towards a world where having social objectives in the core of the business objectives is the norm. A world where we realise the business decisions we make do have knock on effects, both positive and negative, that ripple far and wide.
These are the five most important lessons I’ve learned in running a social enterprise:
- Invest in people. They are your most important resource.
- Do not reinvent the wheel, ask what is out there elsewhere that works well?
- Start lean. Is it possible to pilot a service or product first?
- Accept mistakes. It’s what you do next that matters.
- Play to people’s strengths; make sure they spend most of their time doing what they are best at.
If you're interested in social enterprise, Homeless Link are currently working to deliver Access’ new Enterprise Development Programme to the homelessness sector. Contact Sophie Price, our Enterprise Development Manager, to find out more.
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