From Thursday 16th May until Sunday 19th May, people across England will be taking part in Community Business Weekend, an initiative of the independent charitable trust Power to Change. Participating businesses will showcase their products and services and invite people to find out more about the social benefit they are bringing to the local area, as well as find out about new plans, volunteering opportunities or becoming a member or trustee.
Community Business Weekend is an opportunity for existing community business initiatives to promote and celebrate their work and provides peer learning to those who are considering setting up a new community business. Importantly, it spreads the ethos of community business; that there is an alternative to the private enterprise model, one that can provide real wealth through community shares and employment, retaining that wealth at a local level whilst simultaneously making a real difference to people’s lives.
The term ‘community business’ is an English one but it does not represent a uniquely English phenomenon. There are some 8,000 community businesses in England which include community-run sports clubs, libraries, pubs, bakeries, ferry services, cinemas and gardens. The diversity of this list should provide some clues to its definition: not businesses with an acquired sense of social responsibility, or even an inherent one. Not merely social enterprises but rather community-owned and led businesses that provide a social return as well as a commercial one.
There are community businesses on this side of the Irish Sea too, but we are far more likely to recognise them as community development organisations and do not appreciate their value as businesses. In Northern Ireland we can point to Folktown Market, Grow NI’s community gardens, Ballymacash Sports Academy and catering services provided by the NOW Project subsidiary, Loaf. Beyond that, we have an extensive network of community development trusts with a strong business focus including Open House in Bangor, Inner City Trust in Derry, Fermanagh Trust in Enniskillen, the Resurgam Trust in Lisburn or in Belfast Ashton Community Development Trust and Eastside Partnership. Community development trusts here are as business-focused as their English counterparts but this is often lost in the language of social enterprise. They are often recognised for the social side of their work, but not so much for their contributions to the local economy.
Some momentum is required in NI to connect with and celebrate the business activity of community development trusts. We need to recognise the business that exists within communities and we need to do more to persuade local authorities and their community planning partners of the potential of working with community businesses in NI. Both local and central government can and should invest in new community businesses to respond to gaps in the market for the provision of services, be that in waste management, health and social care, leisure or youth services.
A Community Business Weekend would not be out of place here. In 2018, more than 17,000 people visited 225 community businesses during CBW, and some of those visitors are now volunteers, shareholders and customers. But within the third sector in the north of Ireland, it is questionable whether there is even an awareness of the number of community businesses that currently exist, let alone their potential to spark economic regeneration in their respective localities.
We at DTNI are keen to promote asset-based community development, but assets are about much more than a building or a strip of land. Assets are also people, with skills, talents, experience and personal virtues that can, when pooled, turn a geographical place into a community.
If you are involved in a community business, we’d love to hear about it – get in touch and we’ll share what you are doing.