Social enterprises and charities are spending too much time fighting over funds instead of fighting for people. The House of Commons All Party Parliamentary Group invited me to share my experiences about this last week, and it struck me just how much they rely on our sector to solve the big social problems of our times.
Focusing on London, the All Party Parliamentary Group looks at a different theme or sector each month, and this time it was about how the government can help charities and social enterprises make a better London. I was one of four speakers invited to respond to a set of questions. Ironically, all the other speakers were funders who Beyond Food has applied to for funding in the past – but they’ve never supported us!
I was the last to speak and I started off a bit unsure of myself. All the other speakers were either professional speech writers or had communications directors in their offices to prepare their answers, whereas for me it was passion and personal experience of working in the sector that carried me through. This article by Civil Society gives a great account of the session.
What really struck me is that the government massively relies on charities and social enterprises to fight the extremely tough issues in our society. They invited us into the House of Commons to discuss these problems because they don’t have the answers themselves. In return, there really is a lot more that could be done to support us.
Fighting for funds instead of people
The government and funding bodies regularly put out calls for applications from charities and social enterprises, through which they can receive funding to tackle certain social issues. In these situations, the government doesn’t have the departments, people or ideas needed to create change. Charities and social thinkers are needed to come up with creative ways to solve these big social problems we’ve got. But charities and social enterprises find themselves in a situation where they’re fighting against each other for funds. We’re spending an immense amount of time and energy on applications. At Beyond Food, we apply for around 15 funding opportunities per year, but we only get one if we’re lucky. Overall, we must have spent years of our lives on these applications.
Often, those who receive the funds aren’t the best fit for the job, but they’ve been willing to alter what they usually do in order to get the funding. This is all totally bizarre to me. In the business world, you would identify the problem and then look for the organisation best equipped to solve that problem. Any company or organisation succeeds in its own right because they do what they do well. Changing what you do because of what the funding tells you to do is risky, deviating organisations away from what they’re good at, and destabilising the chance of success for a project.
For me, the way funding is awarded is a big change that is needed, but there were plenty of other important points that came up at the House of Commons too. Many small organisations are doing amazing work, but lots of them don’t have the money and people to help measure their impact properly. If the government could provide support with this, it would help foster even greater success. Since I help vulnerable adults get back into work, I’m passionate about them not being sanctioned while they’re making such an important transition in life. Simple things such as giving them Travelcards so they can get to work (many of our apprentices take three of four buses to get to work because they can’t afford the Tube) and equipping them to find sensible ways to pay off their debts, would go a long way.
Business minds + genuine help
Something a lot of people underestimate in the charity and social enterprise sector is how you have to be business-minded. I made this point at the House of Commons, but it’s something that’s always been an important part of my work.
Not all charities can run social businesses; if they do, they need to bring people in with the right experience to bridge the gap between the charity and corporate worlds. Partnerships are crucial too. We don’t pretend we can do everything and we genuinely want to work with others who are good at their area of expertise. From the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to PwC, our partnerships at Beyond Food and Brigade mean we have the right people working on different aspects of our social enterprise. This has been a key factor in our success and sustainability.
I also don’t like employing beneficiaries to demonstrate success. I don’t want to train a homeless person and then keep them employed in my organisation just so it shows we’re a successful social enterprise. I try to get them into full time employment in the hospitality sector, wherever is right for them, so they can be the best they can be in their newly stable lives.
Being business-minded is something the government needs to get up-to-date with too. When I arrived at the House of Commons, I was astounded by how dated and institutionalised it felt. It was a stark contrast to the headquarters of Amazon, where I’d spent the previous day discussing a BeyondBrigade pop-up (stay tuned!) It’s no wonder tech companies are the ones really ruling the world at the moment. They’ve got all the money, technology, inspiring offices with vibrant communities, and creative brains crafting new solutions and inventions every day.
Feed your brain
The first step to helping vulnerable people get back on track is to focus on their wellbeing, and at Beyond Food, we start this process through nutrition. When they come on our courses at Beyond Food, we give people this crackling mackerel dish, which is served with a pomegranate and Manuka honey dressing, along with poached potato and bay salad. This is a great example of using food in a very functional, progressive way. Mackerel is full of omega 3 and 6 – excellent for the brain and blood pressure, with loads of antioxidants. Manuka honey is fantastic for you, but it can be replaced with other honey, as I know how expensive it is. The rest of the dressing can be put in a jam-jar and left it in the fridge. It’s perfect for chucking over pasta if you’ve got no money at the end of the month.
Really tasty and easy to make, this dish opens the eyes of our course participants on day one and sets them up with the right energy to embrace opportunities to change their lives. But this stuff doesn’t happen by accident. We’ve put time, energy and skill into helping people in the best way we know how. Yet homelessness is up 169% in cities since 2010 (an increase of 15% in the last 12 months) and you only have to walk along the street in the city any day of the week to witness the desperate situations people are in. If the government can help us out with some of the matters we discussed last week at the House of Commons, imagine how much more we could do.
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