Looking back, setting up a painting and decorating social enterprise was something of a no-brainer. For all sorts of reasons, employment is quite low on the list of priorities for the majority of people that we work with. Some of that’s down to lack of skills, confidence and experience – and now, especially in the current economic climate, it’s also due to limited employment prospects. Learning to paint in a safe and understanding environment seemed like a good way to change all that.
The seed of the idea actually came from our own service users. I used to ask the guys in our recovery hostel about our work and how we could improve it. Time after time, I would hear the same thing: ‘There’s not enough to do, Graham.’ Filling the time once the drink or drugs are gone is one of the hardest things in those early days of recovery. They often used to ask permission to paint their own bedrooms and the communal rooms, and so it all started.
They came up with the business name YourTime, which for them captured both the fact that it was both ‘their’ time and ‘their’ opportunity. After the first two years of working on both paid and voluntary jobs, we pitched our services to our landlord, the Providence Row Housing Association. Many of their clients were single, homeless people with alcohol and drug problems – lives we were used to encountering. Providence Row was sympathetic to our work and highly supportive, and we soon started receiving regular work from them. They awarded us a contract to decorate their ‘voids’ – vacated rooms in need of decoration – which was fantastic, if a steep learning curve.
Buoyed by the impact of using enterprise as a tool for recovery, we enthusiastically embarked on our second venture, a coffee-bookshop in the heart of trendy Shoreditch. Our plan for Paper & Cup was three-fold – make it look, feel and taste like a serious business and not a charity, support our trainees to the best of our ability through great training, and when appropriate, provide a route out of benefits and into work while fostering a culture of care and fun. We followed this approach not only for business reasons, but therapeutic ones also. We wanted customers to come into our shop because they liked it, and then have them discover that we are a charity. We also wanted recovering service users to feel a sense of pride and aspiration through working in a first-rate coffee shop.
In our enterprises we want not only to raise people’s expectations, but to also exceed them. We want to ease them back into working life by engendering a culture of trust and really help people to begin the journey away from dependence, into independence.
We have just launched our third foray into the world of social enterprise. Restoration Station, an upcycling furniture project, is the offspring of our training and development centre, the New Hanbury Project. Having developed out of our furniture-making classes, we recently opened our doors onto Shoreditch High Street to greet customers with the tagline, ‘Restoring furniture, rebuilding lives’. We’ve already sold our products alongside some fantastic designers at the East London Design Show.
It has been amazing to watch our volunteers’ enthusiasm and passion for the project grow daily. One of the volunteers recently said, ‘To have strangers come into the shop and say they love something you’ve made and then buy it is a wonderful feeling. It’s been the best buzz I’ve had in recovery! I’ve really started to believe in myself. I felt well proud.’
So what have we learned? Well, a lot! It’s been such a worthwhile journey, and one that I’m glad we’ve taken. We’ve given people a taste of full-time employment, witnessed the adoption of healthy new behaviour and helped raise self-esteem.
I would offer three main tips to anyone thinking of setting up a social enterprise: go slowly, ask other entrepreneurs lots of questions and learn from their mistakes.
Don’t be perceived as a cheap or easy option. Avoid promising to do a job any cheaper than anybody else – unless there is a heavy reliance upon volunteer labour – or the needs of beneficiaries will be neglected. A successful social enterprise is one that provides its beneficiaries with great employment and training opportunities, at a cost that is sustainable.
Train, train, and then train some more. At SCT, we have pledged that our social enterprises will always be characterised by great support. We will provide comprehensive learning and work experience that will prepare people for a real work environment.
Social enterprises have now become an integral part of our ‘pathway to recovery’ to help people put their lives back together. The energetic transformations we have witnessed on our journey have been powerful. There is absolutely no doubt that the sense of achievement that our trainees and volunteers feel are good for them.
Graham Marshall is CEO of Spitalfields Crypt Trust (SCT), www.sct.org.uk