The street and social enterprise

buskersI’m in Lisbon. I mention this not to boast about my summer holiday, but because what I’ve just seen doesn’t happen in the UK. Well, not as starkly. You see we’re more politically correct than Portugal. We also (for now anyway) have a more sophisticated social support system.

I’m sitting at a pavement cafe in the middle of the city. It’s busy, the weather’s hot and people are happily paying a premium price to sit on the street, rather than inside. As an aside, I like the idea of flexible pricing. To drink at the bar costs least, at a table a little more and outside at a table on the street, most of all. Lesson One: charge the most for the most popular experience.

But I’m distracted by a beggar hobbling along the street. He has what might politely be described a withered leg. He shuffles along in a crouched manner, using his right hand to lift and step along his right foot. The leg is painfully thin; a feature accentuated by his baggy, striped shorts. He proffers a plastic beaker and asks for coins. Most are dismissive; he shuffles away.

Behind him buskers perform. They’re not particularly talented, but they do add something to the ambience of the moment. If nothing else, they make the higher priced pavement table experience more enjoyable. They pause a while and one walks from table to table. He holds out his hat into which everyone drops a few coins.

Lesson Two: the more effort you make, the more money you will make. That is, providing you are offering something people want. You see the beggar was relying on me feeling guilty. I have strong legs compared to him. He was selling guilt and the buskers music. If he’d played an instrument, sung a song, told a joke or shined a few shoes, he’d have fared better. But he didn’t.

And so we come to the point. Anyone today who relies on making you feel guilty for a living will fail. Anyone who expects people to give unconditionally will also fail. That’s not to say that philanthropy is dead; more that you need to add value to the giving experience.

Deliver a service, add value and people will do business with you. It’s why people buy second hand books from Oxfam, read them and then re-donate so the book can be purchased and read again. For all the hype of the social enterprise revolution, it really is often as simple as that.


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Dave Hollings
Dave Hollings
11 years ago

The big problem is that too many ‘social enterprises’ became fixated on winning contracts from the state, rather than providing affordable services people need and want. Too often these ‘contracts’ were really only the old grants but with a bit of make up and a clean top.

Looking for gaps in the market – or worse still whole markets where ordinary people are ripped off by the private sector – and filling them with more suitable products was seen as more difficult that a cosy relationship with the public sector.

Of course, now the relationship with the public sector is less cosy – but many ‘social enterprises’ do not have the skills to produce goods and services which people are willing to buy.

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