Are we talking about a revolution? Reflections on the 2018 Community Business Symposiums

Momentum has been building for a new way of enacting economics in the 21st century, and academics have been thrashing out ways to ‘square the circle’ of sustainable development – and marry up economic growth with environmental sustainability – since it started.

Enter Kate Raworth, with her hugely influential, potentially game changing doughnut metaphor, from her 2017 book, Doughnut Economics, in which she entirely re frames the way we create and distribute wealth. The doughnut depicts the social and planetary boundaries that we have to operate within, with an inner layer that represents the ‘safe and just space for humanity’. If you haven’t read it yet, you must.

With this growing shift in context, comes a shift in action.

Community business is a re imagined way of doing business that puts power in community hands, and it’s recently been gaining traction. It’s a movement for place based, locally accountable social enterprises, and it’s slowly creating agency in places where it has long been lost, or perhaps never existed. From shops, farms and pubs to infrastructure organisations, this is a redesign journey that is helping to flip the single legged business stool on its head, and represents a real world example of doughnut living. It’s a very exciting space to occupy.

With this in mind, we at Onion Collective set about organizing a series of symposiums, to reunite and connect / reconnect community business leaders, and mobilize the sector. We called these symposiums, ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution: How Community Business Can Change The World’. The invite list included community business leaders, various members of Power To Change who also funded the event, Social Enterprise UK, social entrepreneurs, DCMS, Forum for the Future and local grant providers.

Together, we workshopped, we debated, we heard from experts, we questioned each other, we walked, we talked, and we started to plan how we could, together, be more than the sum of our parts and make a real impact on the way we do business in this country.

During the three days of events, these were some of the provocative questions debated. We agreed Chatham House rules, so no names will be mentioned.

Who sets the community business agenda?

An interesting place to start, given the nature of some of the panel discussions. At the southern symposium, controversy was set off early on, as one speaker suggested that in creating Power to Change, the Lottery had diluted the social enterprise sector, and fundamentally altered its trajectory. A point that was brought up at the northern event, where the findings of SEUK’s latest research, that cites community business as the SMEs of the social enterprise sector, were shared.

But the question remained: Are we being coerced into leading this revolution? Or is this genuine, grassroots stuff?

In honesty, the presence of so many Power To Change senior executives at these two events gave a lot of cause for celebration. And we learnt, from one event to the next, to really get them in on the debate, and to ask them hard questions, rather than just let them listen. We questioned their accountability, and we had a great horizontal debate.

It’s up to us to take control if we want to set this agenda.

Is community business inherently unjust?

Isn’t community business all about creating a just society? A more in depth conversation, under this provocative heading, unpicked this idea and came to a more ambiguous conclusion. While community facilitators can work hard to increase agency within their own communities, is enough being done to support those facilitators? What about the ones who can’t write a good funding bid? Or can’t afford to work for free while they get established? If community business really is going to provide a fairer and more empowered future for all, more work needs to be done to find ways of supporting us in a more genuinely equitable way, and we must never be complacent.

Potential solutions were discussed, with ideas around support for businesses to tell their stories, and different mechanisms for submitting bids. To make community business truly more accessible for anyone to engage in, however, the economic context still has a way to go, but our presence is making inroads all the time. As Kate Raworth argues, we need to create an economy that is distributive by design. “Rather than wait for top-down reform, they [21st century economists] will work with bottom up networks that are already driving a revolution in redistribution.” (p205)

Is community business unsustainable?

What do we mean by that? At Onion Collective, our business model sees us carrying out consultancy work throughout the country to pay for what we do at home. So we’re essentially working double, and that’s hard. So have we traded the predominantly fiscal only bottom line of traditional business, for a model that addresses the other two stool legs, but still lands us flat on our arses in the long run?

Not if we can be properly supported and our social contribution be genuinely accounted for.

Examples were shared of local authorities charging business rates for community buildings that host all manner of social groups and clubs for the benefit of the local community. The relationship community businesses have with all but the most progressive of local authorities clearly needs to change if we are to become a sustainable sector.

It’s clear that we’re only at the start of a long journey, and as one leader argued during the southern event, a lot of this is currently about resilience. Her business is still standing where no one else is. For community business, it’s dogged determination that keeps us going. These are our communities, so we work ourselves to the bone to make sure we deliver. We don’t give up, it’s not in our vocabulary. So perhaps resilience is more important than old fashioned business sustainability anyway?

Is genuine accountability incompatible with community business?

Does a membership base really constitute community agency? For many of the community business leaders at these events, membership is the only way you get genuine accountability, and for them, they work tirelessly to make sure membership delivers genuine citizen control.

However, one leader referenced a community farm that once asked its members what additional animals they would like to see at the farm, and a large proportion of the young people voted for dolphins. They clearly don’t now have dolphins; does that mean they’re undemocratic? Isn’t it the job of leaders to assess all the information – its citizens’ wishes and the context?

Whichever way you look at it, there’s a lot of power with the leaders, so if membership is the structure, a lot of work still needs to be done to make this democratic structure meaningful. And how many decisions need to be voted on? If we want community business to be swifter and more nimble than local authorities, do we not need to hand over some responsibility to community leaders anyway? The potential for corruption is the obvious threat.

What was clear at our symposiums was that the leaders assembled there were all passionate about agency and deep democracy, so however we’re all enacting it, the intent is there, and perhaps this is what we all need to be proving: intent, not dolphins. Genuinely accountability is clearly not going to be simply signposted.

What next?

Through the symposiums, we debated our visions for the future of civil society, and the role of community business in shaping that future. Throughout, actions were proposed and gathered, until we had a Giant Plan Of Action, with proposals grouped into four broad areas; those being:

  • Know ourselves

  • Connect and communicate

  • Grow the sector

  • Get a place at the table

We created policy action teams, and are now working to connect all the people in each policy team and pulling together the huge number of suggestions, in order for the various teams to move forward. If anyone else out there is reading this blog, and would like to help or get involved in any of these areas, please do get in touch.

What’s the conclusion of these events?

We – the community business leaders assembled at these events - don’t yet have a united vision, and we’re still too nascent to be game changing just yet. But we are motivated to make the world a better place, and to enfranchise our own communities.

One leader beautifully surmised that community business is “doing business but with a heart”. And surely this is what really matters? We live in a world where almost no industries would be profitable if they took into account their cost to the environment and where just 42 people hold the same wealth as 3.7billion of the world’s poorest. The need for a new way of doing business has never been more pressing.

It’s a bit corny to use a famous quote here, but I’m going to do it anyway. This one, by Buckminster Fuller, is sellotaped to our toilet door:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Could this new model be community business?

So as we – community business - feel out our way toward a unifying vision, we should be talking about a revolution. This matters. Together we can build a new, grass roots, just, accountable and sustainable business model that sits happily within the doughnut.

Together we can change the world.

Us all at the end of Minehead's 'Talkin' 'Bout A Revolution' event. Thank you to everyone who took part.

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Onion Collective work with communities and organisations across the country to help them to be 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

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