Since we started back in 2008, and even before that when Bik, Ziggy and I ran not-for-profit events elsewhere, we’ve seen some big changes in how businesses are run.
When we started, we were (I’m pretty sure) the only place in Southampton you could get Fair Trade tea, coffee, sugar and choccy as standard, and only a few places were making tentative inroads into sourcing food locally.
Now, we’re delighted to say, this is fairly common (it makes going out much easier for us!) to find Fairtrade, and lots of places use local food and drinks on their menus.
Granted, there isn’t another organic place in Southampton yet and we’re one of very few places in Hampshire that caters properly for a vegan diet, but on the whole things have improved a great deal since we started, and we’re delighted.
Overall, even bigger chains are doing ‘social responsibility’ in a way that we couldn’t really have imagined when we set out.
So, as these positive changes happen in business, where do we fit in? How are we any different from a commercial cafe doing Fairtrade and local stuff and showcasing local art?
Well, for starters – other businesses, no matter how ethical, generally exist to make a profit. Whilst we don’t in any way see this as negative in itself (quite the opposite – we wholeheartedly support independent entrepreneurs making a living and creating local jobs!), it does change the way a business runs, it has to.
One of our founding principles, something we can never change, is that we are run on a not-for-profit basis.
This means, on a practical level, that although we still need to make the money it takes to run our space, no shareholders get payouts at the end of the year, and we cannot sell The Art House and retire to Barbados with the cash. We don’t have to make any extra on top of what it costs to run, and if we do, we can use it to meet our aims.
In practice, it means that ethical trading and supporting art aren’t just add-on benefits for us, they’re the whole reason we are here.
This changes everything.
It can be challenging financially, to be honest, but it is also liberating to be able to make choices with our hearts first, and the balance sheet second.
The principle behind this is that, to make a profit, you pretty much have to externalise something somewhere along the way. Whilst it’s possible to add value through your people, through being innovative, and in other ways, it’s quite hard to make much profit without skimping somewhere along the line.
Skimping on social justice. Skimping on ecological sustainability. Skimping on treating people fairly.
It’s called externalisation and it’s explained beautifully in this short film, ‘The Story of Stuff’
So, we set up as a not-for-profit so that we could balance *not* externalising our costs as much as possible with providing something ordinary people could afford.
We did it so that we could run for a purpose other than making money, and it’s a lovely way to work. We think more businesses can run this way – and judging from the increase in social enterprise or ‘The Third Sector’, we are not alone in thinking this.
We see our little place as a testing ground for a new way of doing business. This new way may not look exactly like what we’re doing, but we’re very excited about being one of the pioneering places that’s trying out a new way, a better way for people, animals and planet.