The new Moderator’s Table and lecterns made for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by the GRoW Social Enterprise at the Grassmarket Community Project, Edinburgh out of recycled church pews.

The Greyfriars Social Enterprise Experience

The Background

“This is not just about woodwork……we teach people transferrable skills and this place allows them to participate in their own community. It is about accepting people. I have a team of volunteers who are so motivated, much more so than in some places where people are getting paid for it”.

                                                                                                                Tommy Steel  – GRoW Workshop Manager

Many community groups, including congregations, are looking for sources of additional revenue.  But they are also striving for relevance and engagement with their communities and are looking for ways in which they might contribute to the development of opportunity, providing local services, meeting needs, building well being and making a positive difference. The recent talk by David Cameron, the Prime Minister, of a Big Society is nothing new, but in a society hit by a financial crisis and a recession we are challenged to re-imagine what society might look like without the levels of service provision and financial support that have come increasingly from the State over the last generation or so.

 Social Enterprise holds out the opportunity for communities to move away from a dependency culture, provides an atmosphere that takes business models seriously without making profit the sole aim of enterprise and has the capacity to engender self reliance. Like the co-operative movement that began in Ayrshire some 250 years ago, it provides the community with a way of sidestepping the global capitalist system that people perceive as having failed to deliver the public goods that society looks for.

The system of global capitalism has had the effect of enthroning profit above all else and these benefits seem to be chiefly for nameless shareholders and senior executives. Of course, this is a limited and prejudiced understanding of the capitalist system, but social enterprise has at its forefront a diversity of clear outcomes amongst which profit is only one part.

This sense of alienation from the benefits of capitalism on the part of the wider community has been brought into stark relief over the last year or so in the debate about banker’s bonuses. The gap between the earnings of top executives and senior bank officials compared to the vast majority of the community has grown into something far wider than a chasm. As Richard Lambert –Director General of CBI said in 2010, “If leaders of big companies seem to occupy a different galaxy from the rest of the community they risk being treated as aliens”. The difference between honest profit and “pernicious gain” is there for all to see and there is a widespread feeling that those with inflated salaries indeed no longer inhabit the same planet. It may well be that such huge salaries are a form of compensation for those who get so little other reward for their labour.

More significantly, the idea that all the wealth generated by the banking system and global capitalism makes a vital contribution to the economy is increasingly being called into question. The much vaunted “trickle down” theory of economic development whereby wealth creation and economic activity creates prosperity for all is harder and harder to justify. Andrew Simms, Policy Director of the New Economics Forum argues that during the 1980s from every $100 worth of global economic growth, around $2.20 found its way to people living below the absolute poverty line. A decade later that had shrunk to just $0.60. He writes, “There was, in effect, a sort of “flood up” of wealth from poor to rich, rather than a “trickle down”. Perversely, it means that for the poor to get slightly less poor, the rich have to get very much richer. It now takes around $166 worth of global growth to generate a single dollar of poverty reduction for people living below $1 a day”.

At the local level, the global capitalist system seems to be an alien force that brings little or no perceived benefit especially to those most vulnerable and at the margins of society. Indeed, capitalism has in many situations blighted people’s lives by the loss of culture, traditional industry and know-how and left people to inhabit a wilderness of helplessness. Adam Smith coined the phrase, the “Division of Labour”. He saw it as inevitable, but he also despised the way in which craftsmanship, and the cherishing of good work, which gives people worth and a sense of their own value and purpose, would inevitably become devalued by a system that applied only a monetary value to work done and showed no respect for the creative expression of an individual or group in “free association”. As John Ruskin said, “the highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, it is what they become by it”. Such thinking can be lost by the selective reading of Adam Smith who warned that the commodification of labour would lead to the diminishing of human worth and should be guarded against.

Social enterprise is not solely about money and profit, though the business-like approach is crucial. It recognises the dangerous way in which money and the profit motive has been enthroned in our culture to the point of obsession. Money has no value in and of itself, only the value that we attach to it, which we have overinflated in our culture. Social enterprise is about the recovery of the multiplicity of positive outcomes that derive from honest work. Social enterprise seeks to capture that and give the range of positive outcomes that derive from good work the value that they deserve.

There are at least two distinct types of social enterprise that can readily be identified. The first is one that has been going on for generations, but is becoming much more self conscious and developed as the sector attracts more and more government support. That is when a charity creates a trading arm and ploughs its profits or surpluses back into the organisation. Church Jumble Sales and Bring and Buy sales are examples of social enterprise. So also are charity shops and some of the big name charities are able to generate as much as half their income from their trading which either allows them to take the foot off the gas a little with regard to fund raising or enables them to do more exciting things that they could if they are dependent solely on grants.

The other kind of social enterprise is when a large corporation, like the Wellcome Foundation establishes a new arm of the organisation that receives income or profit from commercial trading operations and that surplus is utilised to engage in some socially useful activity.

In the context of the voluntary sector, there is a growing recognition that many people who are often described as service users are actually quite able and willing to become service providers and that social enterprise can therefore be used not just as a tool to generate revenue but as a tool for social transformation.

The culture of dependency that has been created over many generations belies the fact that many people who may not be able to participate in the mainstream economy are not looking for a “hand out” but for a “hand up”.  Alison Elliot, the Chair of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations shared a reflection recently on her meeting with a man with disabilities whom she described as, “vociferous in his rejection of the very notion of care. What he wanted was not care but justice. He wanted to be able to make a contribution to society, not to have everything done for him”.

Social enterprise has the capacity to develop skills, to create work and training opportunities, to provide employment, to embrace deeply and authentically the principles of environmental responsibility, to provide local services delivered by local people for their own community and to reclaim a sense of control over peoples’ lives. It helps people to feel that they are needed and has expectations of participants on whom the success of the enterprise depends. Work is undertaken not just for profit and personal gain but for the wider public good. Indeed, as Tommy Steel, the manager of the GRoW social enterprise at the Grassmarket Community Project testifies, those engaged in this project appear to offer a level of commitment rarely seen in a more commercial operation. But in addition, the GRoW social enterprise will generate £25k in sales revenue this year and is on target to become fully self- financing by the middle of 2012, whilst at the same time providing a lifeline of positive engagement and work to 15 individuals facing deep social exclusion in their lives.  GRoW not only reclaims former church pews, it reclaims lives. As E.F. Schumacher wrote, “we will be counted as good and faithful servants so long as we produce a surplus and do not live and work solely for ourselves”.

The Background to GRoW

I spent a few years as a member of the Church of Scotland’s ’s Art and Architecture Committee in the 1990s. As I travelled around, about the most common aspiration of congregations was to remove the pews and replace them with softer, kinder and more flexible seating. Pews are often made from lovely wood but are hard and often quite uncomfortable, (perhaps made deliberately so to keep the poor worshipper awake during the sermon!)

I started to ask what people were going to do with the pews. To my horror, I discovered that some were being put in a skip and others just broken up. I started to suggest that if people were getting rid of pews they should give me a call. So, in about 1999, I collected my first batch of pews from Woodside Church in Aberdeen. Then I collected some from Peterculter Church. Pretty soon my garage was full, but the session clerk of my former parish, Walter Ewing, had a barn in Perthshire he said I could use. Little did he suspect that 10 years on he’d still be giving me space to store pews.

When I moved from St Machar’s  Cathedral in Aberdeen to Greyfriars, Tolbooth & Highland Kirk in 2003, it was the ideal place to fulfil a cherished dream of making something beautiful with old discarded pew wood and making something of the lives of people who had been blighted by homelessness.  Greyfriars Kirk has a long tradition of supporting the poor and vulnerable of the city. The Greyfriars Kirkhouse had at that time a traditional “soup kitchen” and some of the participants in that project were recruited to help set up GRoW.

We began, slightly illegally, in a portacabin in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, just a day a week with the gloriously named Tommy Steel, a former joiner now working with homeless and vulnerable young people for Edinburgh Cyrenians. They began to make some lovely pieces of furniture and, as skills progressed, so did the quality of what was produced. Now Tommy works for us full time in what we now call the Grassmarket Community Project.

 Our vision is to be a bit like a 21st Century Monastery, a place where the work is undertaken as a kind of sacrament, recovering an appreciation for the multiplicity of benefits that good work can achieve in addition to profit. We want to recover and cherish craftsmanship and enable people whose lives have been blighted to discover skills and create something beautiful.

Steps towards a social enterprise approach

Social entrepreneurs are everywhere and are certainly not confined to any particular social group. Some of the most resilient and creative people are also those who for a variety of reasons remain outside the mainstream economy. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the inability of people to enjoy success in the mainstream does not mean that people have nothing to offer. Anyone who has spent time watching the resourcefulness of the poorest people on the streets of Delhi or who has spent time amongst some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the UK will bear witness to this truth. What is important in the social enterprise approach is to ensure that the creativity and resourcefulness of people is not stifled or written off. In the experience of GRoW, we have sought to encourage individuals to exercise leadership and develop their own entrepreneurial flair. As a result, three of our volunteers have recently established their own business with a small workshop of their own. Prior to their participation in GRoW, they lived fairly chaotic lives struggling to maintain focus and commitment to any kind of structured activity. The workshop gave focus, confidence, practical and business skills to these individuals who are now trying to focus energy on being productively self employed in their own shared enterprise.

It is important to be “smarter” and more business-like in relationships with outside bodies and especially with those that might be able to offer support and investment. Our experience has been that moving away from being “amateurish” and developing robust and ambitious business plans has persuaded people to invest in our approach and support our work. There has been a tendency in the church and other voluntary bodies to shy away from that commercial approach, as Alison Elliot puts it, “as if ….needs are being turned into a commercial commodity. Enterprise and caring seem to be incompatible”. The experience of GCP is that in all of our work, a very large number of the helped wish to become the helpers. We cannot nor should not underestimate the capacity of people to become meaningful contributors to their community and we should also recognise the degree to which the dependency culture that we see all around our society is something that those with commercial and political power have created.

The experience of the churches is that they frequently find themselves as one of the few organisations with usable public space in their communities. They then bend over backwards to accommodate other community groups often subsidising groups that are well able to generate their own sources of funding. In such situations, somewhere down the line someone is being let off the hook for paying the real cost of providing services. The church is in effect subsidising other charities. It is important to maintain an eye to the commercial cost of operating a voluntary organisation and ask if, whilst it may be appropriate for one charity to support another, it may not be right for one charity to subsidise another.

The NHS has recognised that social enterprise has a potential role to play in community mental health. Many of the psychological problems that people struggle with require many years of support, counselling and sometimes that is associated with long term, expensive and destructive drug therapies. For many people, the real need behind these mental health issues is a lack of genuine participation in creative and meaningful activity as a part of a community. The ancient craft guilds of the Middle Ages demonstrate the power of craftsmanship to provide people with a strong sense of identity, meaning and purpose. It has been demonstrated that meaningful employment in some of the social enterprise activity at GCP has had a demonstrable positive effect on the behaviour and condition of some individuals who have been supported by NHS Lothian. The potential for churches and other community groups to engage in social enterprise as a means of overcoming isolation, loneliness and chaotic living is huge.

Social enterprise is not a panacea. There are some people who simply need help and they will not respond to the challenge of the business model. It can even set them back. In addition, there are always challenges around the tension between having a commercial eye and a nurturing instinct.

The other conundrum that it is difficult to resolve is that in order to be commercially successful, one needs to be able to hold on to a reliable, motivated and well trained work force. Some of the funding for social enterprise activity, especially that which does not generate enough income to be able to employ its workforce, will look for positive pathways for people into training or full time work. One is then under pressure to move people on to other things. For these reasons, we have adopted an approach at Grassmarket Community Project that provides the opportunity for those who are ready to engage in social enterprise activity, but we maintain our support and mentoring activity, walking with people for as long as it may take them to begin to take those positive steps towards transformation and supporting those who might never move on.