Trendswatch: Social work

Geraldine Kendall on how museums are using the social-enterprise model to work more creatively
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
There’s no magic bullet that will reverse the current funding squeeze in UK museums, but many in the sector have been exploring alternative income streams and business models in recent years.

One in particular that is coming to prominence is the social-enterprise model, most recently highlighted in a report published by Nesta earlier this year that encouraged arts organisations to explore venture funding streams and engage with new investors.

Politicians are always urging cultural organisations to be more entrepreneurial and more commercially minded, and the social-enterprise model may represent a means of achieving financial sustainability while staying true to the socially responsible nature of museums.

In a nutshell, a social enterprise is “a business where society profits” – a company that engages in commercial activity but has a mission driven explicitly by social or environmental goals. It’s a clever approach that combines the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship needed in business with the more altruistic aims of a non-profit.

Funding routes

Like any other commercial company, social enterprises can raise capital from investors and make money through trade, but all profits are reinvested into increasing their social impact.

Social-enterprise businesses can take a wide variety of forms, including cooperatives and mutual-interest and community-interest companies. The social-enterprise tag allows access to a range of state funding and private capital, and over the past decade the government’s definition has widened to include different types of organisations in the charitable and voluntary sectors.

How to engage

There’s a strong case to be made that museums are social enterprises at heart already, but some institutions are pursuing these objectives in a more focused and strategic way, putting the language and thinking of the social-enterprise sector at the heart of their practice. Museums can engage in social enterprise either directly or indirectly through:

  • Providing training or employment to people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Running cafes or shops whose profits are used to fund other programmes.
  • Charging a fee for research services and reinvesting it in other programmes.

In 2009, the Museum of East Anglian Life (Meal) became the first museum in the UK to reinvent itself explicitly as a social enterprise. To achieve this, the museum raised investment for a variety of training and supported volunteer programmes to help people dealing with disability, poor education, criminal convictions and other employment barriers to re-enter the workforce.

Meal capitalised on its extensive outdoor gardens and allotments, offering training in horticulture and estate maintenance, and selling the flowers, fruit and vegetables grown on site.

The Happy Museum Project, which funds museum projects that benefit wellbeing and sustainability, has supported a wide range of initiatives with a social enterprise mindset at institutions such as the Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland and Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth.

The clear commitment to social benefit also chimes well with Museums Change Lives, the Museums Association’s blueprint for museums to increase their impact on society. Add financial sustainability to that, and social enterprise may be a term we’ll be hearing a lot more about.

‘A socially conscious state of mind’

When we started thinking about social enterprise at the Museum of East Anglian Life (Meal), it was based on using the site – farming, landscaping, collections. We were fortunate to have lots of land and outdoor stuff that people could do.

Initially, social enterprise was seen as an add-on but over time we began to describe the museum itself as a social enterprise. This is not so much a business model; it’s more about an entrepreneurial, socially conscious state of mind, and how creative you are in using your existing assets for social benefit.

By that definition, every independent museum is a social enterprise already. But it is more difficult for local authority museums that are consumed by state processes or worried grants will be cut if they start generating their own income. If museums can come up with interesting products and services, they’ll naturally grow into being more socially entrepreneurial.

Tony Butler is the director of Derby Museums Trust, the former director of Meal and one of the founders of the Happy Museum Project

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