Here at LEAP we feel torn when we have to turn away a sole trader who is doing great work but who we can’t fund because they do not have a community-based governance structure. And whilst on an individual level we are often really sorry not to be able to help, there are reasons why the criteria have been set in this way. Here, I’ll explain the thinking that underlines our focus on community ownership.
Firstly, it should be stressed that we cannot support sole traders due to the charitable objectives of the trusts and foundations that have generously provided the loan financing for the programme.
However, there is another reason which is that we value social impact just as highly as we value the agricultural methods used.
It is true that pretty much all of the sole traders that contact us, are able to tell us about the impact they are having in producing and selling ethically and environmentally produced food. Whilst of course growing and producing food with high welfare and agroecological standards is critical, we give social impact equal billing in our assessment process. This is because we believe that food sovereignty and economic democracy are critical to creating a fair and sustainable food system. If we are to effect long term change then redistributing power is part of the change that needs to happen.
At LEAP, we ask our investees to show impact in three key areas – health and wellbeing, sustainable livelihoods and community engagement. Whilst a sole trader may be able to show impact on health (although cause and effect can be difficult to prove!) and sustainable livelihoods if they are creating “good” jobs, the social impact of their engagement with their community may be harder to show.
Community engagement is about more than holding some open days, important and worthwhile though these are. It’s also about the breadth, depth and reach of that engagement. It’s about interconnectedness and inclusion.
Depth is about how many different types of engagement people have with an organisation. This could cover being a customer, being a volunteer, worker or shareholder. The more different ways people engage with your organisation, the greater the depth of their engagement. This is important not just for them but also for you. When the chips are down, these people are likely to be your most loyal supporters who will see you through the tough times. We consider this depth of engagement as a key measure of the resilience of an enterprise. We think enterprises with depth of engagement are less likely to fail and as a result are a less risky prospect for us as a lender.
Reach on the other hand, is about the different tools you use to engage your community – so that may be events on your site or joining other folks’ events both locally and nationally. It may be through social media leaflets, blogs and articles in local/national publications or it may be educational work you do or volunteering opportunities you provide.
Lastly, breadth relates to the different ways that you engage people with food – so not only selling food, but also using growing for therapy, education, cooking and training.
Community engagement is also about the interconnections that your project nurtures. This might relate to your customers sharing food with their neighbours, you sharing resources with other local food producers, or your volunteers or visitors to your open days developing friendships. It also extends to the partnerships that you develop with other local organisations and the networks, both locally and nationally that you are a part of and through which you spread the word about your work and its benefits.
Finally, and most importantly, community engagement is about inclusion – both in terms of the socio-economic groups you reach, and the direct involvement of your local community in how you are run and governed. We want to see a world where everyone can access healthy, nutritious food and have a connection with where their food comes from.
We don’t expect all of our investees to meet all of these criteria, but we expect them to be meeting at least some of them at the time of application. And our aim is to help them improve and grow their social impact during the period that they are part of LEAP.
We believe that a community governance structure creates the framework to help that happen by putting social impact at the centre of an organisation’s mission. We also are happy to consider potential investees who do not have a community structure but are interested in moving towards one. We can provide mentoring support to help this happen.
Whilst a sole trader may be doing some of these things, there is nothing constitutionally to ensure that they continue to do so. As a result, what social impact they have is driven by the personal commitments of the sole trader. What then happens when that sole trader moves on or sells up and someone else takes over? There are no checks or balances to ensure that the social impact will endure in the long term.
We need the people eating the food to have more control and ownership of it. Without that, there is also the constant danger of ‘greenwash’. We all know of fantastic ethical enterprises that have been gobbled up by multinationals and their values watered down.
Community structures protect an organisation from this sort of takeover and ensure that their social impact continues to benefit their community long after their founders have moved on.