I am half-way through reading Yanis Varoufakis’ history of capitalism, entitled, ‘Talking to My Daughter About the Economy’. It starts with a question, asked of him by his daughter: ‘Why so much inequality, dad?’ and is his attempt to explain how market capitalism developed, endures, and might, one day, work better.
At the same time as reading this book, my colleagues and I, who together run a community regeneration company, are grappling with how to better explain to people where we live just what a community business is and how it works—attempting in some sense to justify our life and business choices—not unlike Varoufakis’ own effort as an economist.
So I wondered what would happen if I followed his lead? How would I explain what I do to my daughter?
For me it seems simple. Some friends and I set up and run Onion Collective in the face of an obvious need for regeneration to tackle some of the deep inequality that Varoufakis tries to explain to his daughter. Ours is the most deprived town in the district that has the lowest social mobility in the whole of England. We’re trying to change that. This seems simple enough.
Yet our choice to do this work still confounds many people. Why?
Following Varoufakis lead, I took a step back to examine the problem.
It is not the idea of helping one’s community that is confusing. The town is chock-full of community-minded people. I have never lived anywhere with so much community spirit and shared effort in my life.
I think, in the end, what the issue really boils down to is that some people don’t like the idea of making a living from community work. The community work is fine, but starting a business to do it somehow sits uncomfortably with some people.
In turn, I think this is about two things.
Firstly, entrepreneurialism. My colleagues and I conceive of ourselves as social entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial bit for me comes from a long family history of starting businesses and seeking inventive solutions to problems—my parents set up a fish and cheese (sic) shop and a zoo (no, really). My instinctive response to a problem is to get on with solving it—bring people together, think of a plan, find a way to make it work, just get on with it. It is for this reason that a group of friends and I launched our first social enterprise in our mid-20s. But in the popular conception, entrepreneurialism is mostly not thought of in these terms—of seeing a problem and finding a new way to fix it, whether that is a social problem or a customer one. No, successful entrepreneurs are thought of as the ones who start with nothing and end as millionaires.
Which leads me to the second issue—profit. Specifically, the idea of the profit motivation as king. If you’re setting up a business, people assume that your motivation is to get rich, to make as much profit as possible for yourselves. But, as Varoufakis explains so eloquently to his daughter, despite the prevailing wisdom, the profit motive is not a part of human nature, but rather a product of the capitalist system. In our culture, the wisdom goes, money rules. Therefore, if we are setting up a business, we must be ‘in it for the money’.
Only the thing is, community business doesn’t really work like that. Because people aren’t really like that. If they were, no-one would choose to be a nurse, or work for a council, or be a teacher, or myriad other jobs that people do for less than they could otherwise earn, and which they do because they want to make a living doing something they feel is worthwhile. I have just given up a job paying three times what I will earn at Onion, because I care about this much more than I care about the money.
We didn’t have to do it like this. We could have set up a profit-driven development company—like so many other developers the world over. Instead of trying to find ways to overcome some of the crushing inequality here by creating jobs, lifting aspiration, bringing in visitors etc., we could have just set ourselves up to build loads of houses and rent out commercial space and taken huge profits. But we decided to try to regenerate the town instead.
And because things like low-rent workspace, and community space, and art galleries and museums and public realm don’t generate huge amounts of money, we needed to find a way to earn a living and be able to deliver all these things. For us, in small part, that living comes from grants. For example, we have been awarded a grant from a funder called Esme Fairbairn, to help make sure the East Quay project can be managed through the build. But mostly what we do is earn a living by working as consultants. In simple terms, other organisations pay us to help them and we use the surplus from this to pay our wages and overheads and to cover the costs of the time and money we spend trying to make Watchet stronger.
‘But why don’t you just get a job and then do voluntary work as well?’ I was asked recently. That, I said, is exactly what I do. I have a job and on top of that I do masses of volunteering (from running a public art gallery to community gardening). The only difference is the job I have happens to be in a company we have set up ourselves (which you can blame on the that entrepreneurial spirit), which now employs eight people and which aims to make the town stronger. We chose community development over commercial development. What is not to understand about that?
So having got all this straight in my head, I was ready to explain it to my daughter.
‘What do you think I do for a living, Mabel?’ I asked.
Her reply: ‘community work’.
‘Why do you think I do that?,’ I said.
‘To make more people come to Watchet so there is more money here and more jobs’, she said, looking at me like I was an idiot (which is not uncommon).
(At this point I became a little distracted by the fact that my eight-year-old already understands more than I want her to about the prevailing economic system).
Still I nudged again, ‘And why would I do that?’ I asked her.
‘Because you like helping people and working with people’ she said, followed swiftly by ‘Can I go now? And ‘Can I borrow your phone?’. And off she ran.
Oh. I thought.
So…no need to explain it to her then.
She’s a child, she gets it.
She hasn’t yet learnt she is supposed to only care about money. She hasn’t been told that everyone is just after profit. She still thinks it is totally normal to want to earn a living doing something valuable. It’s not her I need to talk to.
And I hope I never do. I hope she never changes. I hope I never need to explain to Mabel about community business and what I do for a living.
It even feels like that is possible. As more and more community businesses like ours set up, as the movement deepens and grows, we will have to explain community business to fewer people. More and more people will recognise that, as humans, we can measure success not by profit but by the difference we make to people’s lives.
And maybe...since we’re talking about hope here…maybe, as a result, there will also be less of the crushing inequality in the world for us to have to explain to our daughters.
Onion Collective work with communities and organisations across the country to help make them the best versions of themselves. We offer tailored business support and speak from a position of 'on the ground' community development experience. We continue to develop our own projects and deliver a host of community services in our home town of Watchet in Somerset.
We have wide expertise and long-standing experience of the sector. Between us we have backgrounds in financial and project management, social research and impact, environmental sustainability, heritage and arts development and marketing and communications. We have worked with a whole range of organisations—from local authorities and funding trusts; to youth charities and community housing developers; and to art galleries and skate parks—always with a focus on social impact.