There has been considerable debate since the Coalition came to power as to whether David Cameron’s Big Society concept would deliver any benefits for business.The most common train of thought it that businesses would have to foot the bill for community projects while just being left with an enormous sense of wellbeing from the good they have done. Now, with the recent launch of Big Society Capital (BSC), the opportunities for business to do good things have multiplied, as have the number of opportunities for entrepreneurs to grow new kinds of social enterprises. At Pimlico Plumbers, we got involved with VIY (Volunteer It Yourself), a pilot scheme that renovated the Streatham Youth Club, in South East London. The concept, which won a Hollis Sponsorship Award before Easter, provided the club’s young members with the materials and expert support to carry out urgent building work on their club at no cost. The partners with Pimlico were building merchant Wickes, back-to-work training company A4e, the Co-Sponsorship Agency and London Youth. The project involved completely re-roofing the club’s 50 year old building, and decorating the interior of this and another nearby property. Such was VIY’s success that it is now being rolled out nationally; undertaking a load more worthwhile projects that otherwise wouldn’t get done. So what’s this got to do with the Government’s Big Society Capital scheme, and how does any of this benefit business? It’s simple. We never asked for payment because we wanted (and could afford) to give something back, which had a huge monetary value to the local community. If you have any doubts, ask Clive, the club’s manager. It’s not just the hundred-odd grand worth of building work either; there’s the real work skills learned by the young trainees on the project, not to mention the fact that the club has a building that will allow it to continue working with local kids for decades. The key here is that under this new scheme, all of these social goods become bankable assets that social entrepreneurs will be able to borrow against. And if you don’t believe me, maybe venture capitalist and Big Society Capital’s new chairman, Sir Ronald Cohen’s comments to the BBC will convince you? He said that, for example, in the case of prisoners, if a scheme was shown to have reduced the reoffending rate of participants, then the government would pay the fund some of the money it had saved on locking them up, policing and healthcare. In effect, the scheme puts a monetary value on services that have in the past had none, and by doing so opened the door to a whole new breed of social business. There might only be an initial £600m skilfully lifted from the (dormant) bank accounts of the dead and the doddery, but by converting social value to pounds and pence, all sorts of groups, including social enterprises, will be able to make good work pay, and not be reliant entirely on charitable donations to do so. There has already been criticism that many groups currently struggling to do this type of work don’t have the necessary revenue streams, and so will not be able to access the BSC money. But they are missing the point; the scheme gives existing groups, including charities, the necessary revenue streams, as well as opening up the market to a new breed of social entrepreneurs. If the left have any criticisms they might be better off pointing out the potential for BSC to privatise the not-for-profit-sector by the back-door. Although if they did, they’d get little sympathy from me, as I’m a strong believer that incentives almost invariably get the job done better. Charlie Mullins is founder and CEO of Pimlico Plumbers.
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