Social Setback—How Social Impact Businesses Are Adapting To The Realities Of The Pandemic

“Social businesses are not charities,” says Cemal Ezel. “Charities take donations. Social businesses require people to change where they buy their products and they depend on trade.” 

Ezel’s mission-led business, Change Please, was founded on a commitment to help homeless people in the U.K. by training them to work as baristas and giving them real jobs paid at “living wage” levels. To do that, the company has to sell coffee and, just like any other business, make a profit. Prior to the Covid-19 virus spreading around the world, it was doing pretty well.  

Since 2018, the company has been expanding its U.K. operations – not only increasing its cafe and coffee cart locations but also winning contracts to supply Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Trains and David Lloyd Gyms. In addition, it has taken its business model overseas, to the U.S., France, Ireland and Australia. 

Social Consequences

But Covid-19 threatened to stop the business in its tracks. “It has been horrific,” says Ezel. “From being in a situation where we just about able to source all the coffee we needed to serve our growing customer base, we went to zero.”   

And as Ezel explains, the constraints on the company’s ability to trade has had real social consequences. Coffee is quite a high margin business and the profits from Change Please were not only enough to pay the wages of baristas who had previously been jobless and homeless, but also to help them with housing and counseling. Perhaps more importantly, working for Change Please provided vulnerable people with a way back into the mainstream world, furnishing them with dignity in the process. Thanks to government support, Change Please has been able to put its baristas on paid furlough. Nevertheless, they were often finding themselves isolated again and facing an uncertain future. “We saw an increase in depression and other mental health issues,” says Ezel. 

“Social businesses are not charities,” says Cemal Ezel. “Charities take donations. Social businesses require people to change where they buy their products and they depend on trade.” 

Ezel’s mission-led business, Change Please, was founded on a commitment to help homeless people in the U.K. by training them to work as baristas and giving them real jobs paid at “living wage” levels. To do that, the company has to sell coffee and, just like any other business, make a profit. Prior to the Covid-19 virus spreading around the world, it was doing pretty well.  

Since 2018, the company has been expanding its U.K. operations – not only increasing its cafe and coffee cart locations but also winning contracts to supply Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Trains and David Lloyd Gyms. In addition, it has taken its business model overseas, to the U.S., France, Ireland and Australia. 

Social Consequences

But Covid-19 threatened to stop the business in its tracks. “It has been horrific,” says Ezel. “From being in a situation where we just about able to source all the coffee we needed to serve our growing customer base, we went to zero.”   

And as Ezel explains, the constraints on the company’s ability to trade has had real social consequences. Coffee is quite a high margin business and the profits from Change Please were not only enough to pay the wages of baristas who had previously been jobless and homeless, but also to help them with housing and counseling. Perhaps more importantly, working for Change Please provided vulnerable people with a way back into the mainstream world, furnishing them with dignity in the process. Thanks to government support, Change Please has been able to put its baristas on paid furlough. Nevertheless, they were often finding themselves isolated again and facing an uncertain future. “We saw an increase in depression and other mental health issues,” says Ezel. 

OLIO is an app-driven, food-sharing venture. Founded by Tessa Clarke and  Saasha Celestial-One, the company aims to reduce food waste by enabling its users to post details of excess food on the app and arrange for it to be picked up by those who want or need it. To date, more than two million people have downloaded the app and upwards of five million food portions have been exchanged. As Tessa Clarke explains, around four-fifths of the activity is in the U.K., but the app is also used overseas in Singapore, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden, and the Channel Islands. 

According to Clarke, the Covid crisis has increased activity. “OLIO has become more needed than ever,” she says. “And there is greater social awareness. During the lockdown, people have been asking themselves: how can we help?”    

However, the company has had to make changes to maintain social distancing. Users have been encouraged – during the lockdown – to use part of their daily exercise allowance to exchange items. “And all pickups are contact-free,” adds Clarke.

An Army Of Cooks  

The company has extended its mission by creating an army of volunteer cooks to prepare meals for school children who, because of the lockdown, have been missing out on food that would normally be supplied by schools. “We recognized that 1.3 million children are not getting access to free school meals,” says Clarke.  Latterly, OLIO has introduced a parallel  Cook for Carers initiative.   

So what about the post-Covid world? Clarke believes the urge to share will grow. “I think we’ve seen a sea change,” she says. “People have realized that sharing is a natural instinct.”  

More broadly, she believes the response to Covid-19 may trigger a more effective response to other problems – most notably climate change, with mission-led ventures playing a part.  

Ezel is also broadly optimistic about the future, both for Change Please and social enterprises in general. “I see so much interest in social businesses. And people are becoming very focused on provenance and supply chains. And they are taking the time to do the research,” he says.   

Short term challenges and problems, then – some of them very major – but it’s just possible that Covid-19 will raise the profile of social businesses and accelerate societal change.

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