What happens when austerity cuts means a lowering in the provision of services to some of the most vulnerable in society? Well something curious and uplifting as I discovered when I was kindly invited to give out certificates to this year’s crop of graduates from the Hampshire School of Social Entrepreneurs. On a wet (it was raining stair rods!) early evening last week more than a hundred turned up at the United Church in Jewry Street, Winchester. This splendid building has been doubling up as a useful community space for many years and is an exemplar of what many churches, struggling with the upkeep of their building, should be considering. Here were a range of people all of whom had spent a year developing businesses for which they all had a great passion.
It is all too easy to dismiss social enterprise as some vague, wishy-washy movement populated by well minded but essentially wholly headed do gooders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst one of two of the graduates on first encounter might to the unthinking observer be cast into the “knit your own yogurt” bracket, on greater analysis you could see that there was real work being done here and in the main it was with businesses that were sustainable. In other words they could stand on their own feet and grow.
So how does it work? Quite simply you have an idea you think will answer a need in society and then you get the help required to make it happen. That help comes through organisation. The School for Social Entrepreneurs is run under the aegis of Action Hampshire and they employ people to manage the graduates. Then there is money-grants of £4000 sponsored by Lloyds Bank, and, possibly the most important, volunteer mentors and external lecturers who come in to speak on specialist subjects. This combination breathes life into the businesses by giving knowledge and confidence to the entrepreneurs.
The businesses are often driven by personal experience. A young women who has a sibling and a child with autism now promotes a business dedicated to ending the loneliness of the autistic world. A lawyer, appalled at the on-the-ground effects of the cuts in legal aid sets up an alternative service to help those wrestling with the judicial system. A women who herself benefited from the healing powers of contact with horses sets up Healing Hoofs, with a staff of eight horses (and a few human volunteers) to help in rehabilitating those recovering from physical and mental crisis. A singer who is now using the power of song as therapy to lift those with long term chronic conditions. And so it goes on. You would have been hard pressed to find a single business that did not have a demonstrable benefit and at a relatively low cost. The SSE graduates all made powerful presentations about what their year had meant to them. For many it had involved significant personal growth.
Rising above the individual triumphs there seems to be a greater point too. Some of these graduates might have been regarded a year ago as themselves victims. Now there is no sign of victimhood. They are filling a gap left by government cuts. Are they as good as taxpayer funded “professionals”? Probably too soon to tell. Should we rely on this model to replace all the gaps left by cuts? Probably not. But while the country appears to be polarising itself into nasty cutters on one hand and “sympathetic”, soak the rich, tax hikers on the other, surely this model is worth greater examination. The Hampshire School of Social Entrepreneurs is one of only nine in the county. Arguably ours is a county of lesser need. But we do have our disadvantaged which feels even worse than when you are surrounded by affluence. Encouraging self-sufficiency should be applauded. The alternative is dependency.