Many years ago I gave my sister a mirror for her birthday. She didn’t really need one of course, but she still values it more than any other (and not because it came from me) or so she says. I bought the mirror because it was a thing of beauty with a unique back-story. Removed from a pre-loved piece of furniture, it had been hand-painted (a wonderful underwater scene) by an ex-offender, and sold at a ridiculously low price to help sustain a furniture re-use and training scheme.
I knew the social enterprise doing the selling and told them that, if their mirrors had the back-story printed on a label, they could charge more for them. Adding value is important for social enterprises, as is differentiation from the competition. Here was a no-cost promotional opportunity to increase income not being taken; I advised them to do something about it.
I went home, typed up my own label with the story behind the mirror, added the website for the social enterprise, and stuck it on the back.
I actually believe the labels had been left off the mirrors by default rather than by design, but some social enterprises make a conscious decision not to tell the story behind their products, particularly when they’re made by groups of people considered to be ‘vulnerable’. They want items to be appreciated for the craftwork; to focus on the ability, not the disability, of the people who have created them. They want sales to be based on quality, not sentiment, and maybe they think there’s something mildly exploitative about shining a spotlight on the producers.
Another politically correct argument that’s sometimes used for not focusing on the people behind the products is that it protects their privacy. Personally, I think this is a cop-out; it’s possible to preserve anonymity – by using first names and carefully taken photos – while also highlighting how real people benefit from the learning and work experience with the social enterprise.
I acknowledge that people taking such a principled stand are usually well-meaning, but I think they’re wrong. It flies in the face of commercial sense to negate a unique selling point – something to distinguish your offering from the competition and to appeal to the emotional dimension in every buying decision. Sensitively telling the story behind each product – with the agreement of the producers – will not only raise more money to sustain the enterprise, it can also raise the self-esteem of people too often ‘invisible’ in the public eye.
PS The furniture re-use scheme ignored my advice and, for different reasons, went out of business at the end of 2013.
An earlier version of this blog appeared on the Social Enterprise East of England website. Check out the SEEE blog at www.seee.co.uk/blog