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Doing good and making money

06 October 2017

Huw Spanner profiles inspiring social enterprises working for the common good

Opmeer Reports

Fairer trade: a member of the Federated Commodities Limited farmers’ co-operative holds a cocoa bean pod. The co-op, an Oikocredit partner, buys from more than 100,000 smallholder cocoa farmers in Ghana

Fairer trade: a member of the Federated Commodities Limited farmers’ co-operative holds a cocoa bean pod. The co-op, an Oikocredit partner, buys...

Daily Bread Cooperative

THIS is a workers’ co-operative selling mainly fairtrade and organic wholefoods, as well as eco-friendly toiletries and cleaning products, both online and through its store in Northampton. Many of its workforce of 27 or so are members, who not only own the business, but control it.

“Our decisions are made by consensus,” John Clarke, the member they have chosen as manager, explains. “It can take longer, but we try to be transparent and explain the position so that everybody can understand. You don’t get that if you work on the shop floor at Tesco, and it really empowers people.”

The co-op was launched in 1980 by members of the congregation of St Peter’s, Weston Favell, who wanted to set up a business that reflected their faith. “We still try to live up to those original ideals,” Mr Clarke says. “It used to be that you had to be a Christian to be a member, but you can’t require that nowadays, under employment law. Our ethos hasn’t changed, though, and what we do is still very much in line with the teachings of Christ. Many of our workers are churchgoers, and we still have prayers several days a week, and a local minister comes and takes communion every fortnight.”

Daily Bread is committed to providing “good, wholesome food at a fair price, avoiding the exploitation of others, including our customers”, it states on its website. If a wholesale price goes down, Mr Clarke says, the price in the store does, too. All of the produce is suitable for vegetarians, and as much as possible is organic, fairtrade, and/or locally sourced.

“We hope we provide a better service than the supermarkets,” Mr Clarke says. “For example, we cater for special diets. . . Also, people buy from us because of our ethos, or because they want to avoid giving money to the larger supermarkets.”

In retail, staff turnover can be high, but it is not so at Daily Bread. “I’ve been here 30-plus years,” Mr Clarke says, “and generally people stay a good while. However, one of our objectives is to help people with mental-health issues into work, and so we might have some people here on a 12-week work placement from a local psychiatric hospital.

“Our pay scales are very flat: we don’t pay according to status. Even as the appointed manager, I don’t get any more than anyone else. In fact, I get less than some, because if you’ve got a child you get a ‘dependant’s allowance’ of a few pounds extra a week.”

Daily Bread now turns over about £1.5 million a year, of which it gives 0.5 per cent to good causes, both in the town and overseas. It was recently named one of three “co-ops of the year” by Co-operatives UK, which said that it had “inspired and supported a host of worker-owned wholefood retailers”.



opmeer reportsForce for good: one of Oikocredit’s partners, an agri cooperative in RwandaOikocredit

OIKOCREDIT is a social investor that provides funding to the microfinance sector, fairtrade organisations, co-operatives, and small-to-medium enterprises in low-income countries, as a vehicle for contributing to social and economic justice. It was conceived at a 1968 meeting of the World Council of Churches, and finally came to birth in the Netherlands in 1975.

As a closed co-operative, its 575 member shareholders consist only of faith-based institutions invited to join (including 20 in the UK, with the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland among its founder members), so as to ring-fence the integrity of its goals: money is invested for the social good, with the aim of achieving a moderate economic return.

Since 1995, individuals and other organisations have also been able to invest in the good that Oikocredit is doing (as social investors, but not as shareholder members), so that it currently boasts around 54,000 investors worldwide, of whom some six thousand are institutions. Last year, it invested more than €1 billion in loans and equity in its partner organisations.

Not all of Oikocredit’s almost 800 “partners” are located in the developing world — in the UK it invests in Divine Chocolate and Cafédirect, among others — but all of them make their impact there.

As a criteria for investing, Oikocredit has a “triple bottom line”: its articles of association require it to balance the financial, social, and environmental returns on its investments, and report that annually.

The national director of Oikocredit UK and Ireland, Monica Middleton, explains its three-dimensional strategy: “Anything we invest in has to tick the social and environmental boxes first and then deliver a financial return. We begin by asking: Can this enterprise demonstrate positive social outcomes, starting with environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria? We then ask: Is it already generating a small profit or likely to do so in the future?”

The second dimension is risk management. Some sectors that Oikocredit invests in, such as agriculture, are inherently riskier than others, such as solar energy and microfinance. “Of course, we deliberately take risks,” Ms Middleton explains, “because we have to if we are going to make an impact; but we ensure that these are mitigated by other less risky projects that still deliver our social aims. As a result, our average portfolio at risk (PAR) is five per cent, which is healthy compared with banking norms.”

The third dimension, she says, is time. “A lot of investors, driven by the financial imperative, think in the short term, but we necessarily think in the longer term: there’s no way you could require a social enterprise to break even in three years, say, particularly in a sector such as agriculture. So, we’re looking at risks over long, as well as short, periods of time.”

Social-impact investing is still a niche sector, representing, she says, perhaps only one per cent of total investing worldwide; but it is growing rapidly and is “reportedly at the tipping-point of becoming mainstream” as large financial institutions move into it.

“There is a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours, from people who want to maximise their financial return, but think it would be nice to have a bit of social or environmental impact as well, to investors who are purely philanthropic and don’t really mind if they don’t get any financial return.

“Oikocredit appeals to investors in the middle of that spectrum, in that we can quantify our ESG returns while consistently delivering a financial return.” Since 1995, Oikocredit has delivered a gross return of one to two per cent every year.



Good exchange: villagers enjoy tea and company and the Merston Community Hub, run in conjunction with the community bankMurston Community Bank and Hub

THE bank was set up in 2014 by the Revd Lesley Jones after she arrived from Sunderland for her second curacy, at Milton Regis with Murston, Bapchild and Tonge, in Kent.

“There’s a lot of disadvantage and deprivation in Murston, and people were facing real hardship. I said, ‘What can we do to help?’ and they said: ‘Help us get out of debt.’ We wanted to give them access to lower-cost loans . . . but also to help them to save.

“We set up the first-ever branch of the credit union Kent Savers, in the vestry of All Saints’; so people could come in and speak to someone, face to face. We called it a ‘community bank’, because people didn’t know what credit unions were. We’ve got a counter, which is open Monday to Wednesday 10 a.m to 12 noon, and there’s a team of trained volunteers. We set up a Community Hub; so we could make people a cup of tea, and the pastoral side really developed.” The hub also offers free WiFi, sells second-hand books, and provides access to Citizens Advice.

In the first six months, savings deposits with Kent Savers doubled to more than £1 million, attributed largely to the publicity generated by its partnership with All Saints’, Merston. Later in the year, the church helped the primary school near by to open its own branch, run by Year 6 students. Every pupil now has an account and a Murston Community Bank passbook.

In 2015, another two branches of Kent Savers opened: one, community-based, in a converted shipping container in Newington, Ramsgate; the other in a church hall in Tenterden. In 2016, two more branches opened in churches in Canterbury. A development worker for Together Canterbury, Keith Berry, says, “Even in a city like this, a big tourist destination which gives the impression of being affluent, there is so much pain and struggle just under the surface.”

The city’s two branches are located alongside foodbanks — since that is where people in need go already.

Over the past three months, Mr Berry says, the number of people in financial difficulty seems to have risen very sharply. The Murston volunteers have now been trained to give debt advice, while other church branches focus on “signposting and a bit of active listening, too, just trying to give people some sort of comfort”.

The initiative has “really brought some of the local churches to life”, Mr Berry says. “It brings home that there is more to the Church than 15 people meeting on a Sunday morning.”



Rushey Green Time Bank

THIS bank in Lewisham, south London, is the second oldest time bank in the UK. Started in 1998, it has 520 people on its register, though not all are active at present.

The “currency” that the time bank trades in is person-hours. “An hour is an hour,” its CEO, Philippe Granger, explains. “I can bake a cake for you in two hours, and I may never see you again, but, with two hours’ credit, I can ask Mary to give me a lift to the airport.”

The “bank” is based in a GP practice, and is regarded as part of the local health and social care system. “A good proportion of our members are vulnerable older people, and adults with mental-health issues who have been referred to us, or they’ve come through a friend,” Mr Granger says.

“We believe that everybody has got something they can share, whether it’s chopping wood, or fixing a laptop, or doing some shopping for someone. The basic aim is to get people involved in the wider community in whatever ways they want to be. It’s all about neighbourliness and making relationships.” He emphasises that people are, in effect, “actively co-producing” their own health and well-being.

The beauty of time banking, he says, is that “we value the person. You may be a cleaner whose work is paid £7 an hour; in the time bank, you’re just as valuable as a lawyer.” In fact, the bank does have a lawyer on its books, a solicitor who specialises in wills. “She is very popular. She shocks people by saying: ‘You’ve got to have a will.’ And then she helps them to write one.”

RGTB runs various other projects, including a “community green space”, the Wild Cat Wilderness. Last year, it also started FoodCycle Lewisham, which collects surplus food from supermarkets and cooks a free three-course meal for isolated people every Saturday. This now involves another 50-odd volunteers, and a similar number of people come for the meals.

Mr Grainger reckons that there are about 300 time banks in the country, “but it’s difficult to keep track, because some of them have short-term funding and they just collapse.”

RGTB is entirely secular, but Mr Grainger is a Christian. “My faith underwrites everything I think and do about people. I see what we do as an extension of what God wants to do in people’s lives. But I don’t sing and dance about it, because it’s not what I’m paid for.”



Real Economy

THIS is the latest venture of the Revd Dr Chris Sunderland, an Anglican priest now in secular employment, who has spent the past decade and more “reimagining society and our relationship with the earth and each other”.

Launched in 2014, Real Economy is a community-benefit society that buys fresh meat, fruit and vegetables from local producers, paying them in Bristol pounds, and delivers them to collection points around that city, especially in disadvantaged areas. This is a challenge, he says, because food is very cheap in the supermarkets: “It’s not a popular thing to say, but it is too cheap.

“It’s hard to match their prices if you’re paying producers a proper price. We treat every element of the food chain with respect. We look for farms where people are properly paid, and food is grown naturally without masses of artificial fertilisers and pesticides.”

Margins are kept low, however, because they minimise waste: the producer delivers exactly what people order. And as people order online, there are no shops and no food sitting around going off. They sell wholefoods as well, sourced from an ethical supplier in the area, but things like rice have a long shelf life.

“People also save money because they have to think about what they want and they don’t end up, as many would in a supermarket, with a trolley full of stuff they hadn’t intended to buy.

“It’s difficult to get fresh food to people in really challenging circumstances, and so we are about to launch in Bristol the first network of community food centres in the UK. Some people will pay for their food there, but others — who have been referred by agencies or even, in some cases, referred themselves — will get it free or heavily subsidised, but you won’t be able to tell which is which. We’re aiming for a really high level of dignity.

“A community food centre is not like a foodbank, where people pitch up and are simply given a handout. People will be welcomed into a supportive community that has a whole programme of activities to do with growing food, cooking food, making things, and repairing things. We want to try to meet people as whole people. We will also be sending teams of volunteers out to offer fresh food and company to isolated people who are no longer eating well.

“The free and subsidised food will be paid for by a fund we are going to instigate shortly. We have grants from a couple of national charities to develop this work, and, if we can demonstrate its effectiveness, we hope that public health will pick it up. Given the burden on the NHS, this sort of initiative should be seen as a proper outlet for public funding for primary health care.”

Community-benefit societies run on a democratic one-member-one-vote basis. But, in contrast with a co-operative, any profit made cannot be distributed to members, but must be used for the benefit of the community. Real Economy has a small paid staff, all part-time, and not all its users are members, but anyone can be who subscribes to its values.



Yarpole Community Shop

IN 2004, Yarpole’s only shop closed. As the nearest supermarket to the Herefordshire village of about 700 souls five miles away in Leominster, a parish plan had recognised that a shop was essential to the villagers’ social and economic wellbeing.

The following year, a makeshift community shop opened in a Portakabin in the pub car park. At the same time, a survey declared the parish church unfit for modern use. By a happy coincidence, the rules regarding shared use of churches were about to be relaxed, and the idea arose of giving the shop a permanent home in St Leonard’s west end.

“We were fortunate to have an architect in the village who had worked for English Heritage and the Church of England, and he knew what could be done,” Dr Julian Stokes, who was later to chair the shop’s management board, says. The Bishop of Hereford at the time was very supportive, and objections, the present sub-postmaster, Chris Smith, says, came from only the Victorian Society and “a few dissenters in the village — and they weren’t actually churchgoers”.

To renovate the building, £250,000 was raised. Much of it was provided by the local council, on the condition that St Leonard’s became multi-use. The villagers themselves raised nearly £38,000, and the Plunkett Foundation made a grant of £20,000 (plus a loan of £20,000 for the shop, which has since been repaid).

The shop in the church opened in 2009. “It sells all the things you would expect from a shop,” Dr Stokes says. “We stock as much local produce as possible: artisan breads, meats, beers, wines.” Some 40 volunteers staff it in two-hour shifts, and it is estimated that about half the village use it regularly.

The congregation of St Leonard’s is still “in the low double figures, apart from high days and holidays”, Mr Smith says, but today the building is full of light and life. “It’s even busier in winter,” Dr Stokes says, “because the new underfloor heating makes it warmer than most people’s houses.”

A café in the gallery above the shop is run by the church as a separate venture, but there is a definite symbiosis between the two. The café makes the church financially secure, and allows it to employ a part-time maintenance man.

“I’ve lived in Yarpole for 30 years,” Dr Stokes, a retired GP, says, “but I know a lot more people here now than I did before.”

Mr Smith adds: “We try to catch newcomers to the village early, and a lot of them say, ‘Give me a couple of weeks to settle down, and then I’ll come and work in the shop.’ You get to know who’s who and what’s what, really.”

In 2010, the shop became the first community shop in the country to win the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, and was also voted Best Village Shop and Post Office by members of the Countryside Alliance. Dr Stokes is sure that its success can be replicated. “Several villages have come to visit us who want to do something similar.”


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