Churches as Business Incubators
I believe that we have amazing resources in our buildings; our physical space could be the catalyst for new start-ups in the realm of social enterprise. Perhaps we only see church buildings as places of worship. After all that is how most directories would see us. The church can love and support our neighbours by providing a place where a seedling new business can grow, without the threat of bullish and unrealistic landlords. An incubator is a safe and protected place, surely that is exactly what we as church communities should strive to be?
How churches can empower our communities to become self-reliant
Definition of an incubator:
used to provide controlled environmental conditions especially for the cultivation of microorganisms. An organisation or place that aids the development of new business ventures especially by providing low-cost commercial space, management assistance, or shared services
In the definition of an incubator we begin to see the potential for developing community-based businesses within a church context. Once upon a time I created The Greenhouse, a community shop and social project providing community space and information. I then created The Village, a shop unit accommodating up to 11 small, specialist businesses. Both enterprises arose out of a need and desire to support community. In both projects the vibrancy and sense of community exceeded my experience of church community. The sense of gathering around a common purpose was tangible, and the future of both projects seemed to be bold and bright. Both were highly profitable regarding sales, with the Greenhouse turning over £150,000 in Year 3.
When starting a location-reliant business, the initial cost of setting up can be daunting. There is invariably a lease for a year, a deposit and the burden of commitment to the utility companies. The Village was different in that it could offer weekly leases with one week’s rent including utilities. There is an opportunity to use the physical space of our churches to support new business.
Within the church body, we also have (if you look closely) a wealth of experience and business know-how. There are people who have gained life long experience in various sectors of industry and business that could support new start-ups. We should rejoice for the people who have gained so much in life, and immerse ourselves in sharing that knowledge and experience. A business mentor could be someone who has worked in finance, or a young person who is a thriving YouTuber, or a person with amazing admin skills. So often new start ups have to pay for all this. We have the privilege to be able to share it for free if we so choose.
The church can provide resources in both knowledge and physical space to new businesses and our communities. The church is often primarily concerned with the spiritual affairs of our neighbours, possibly overlooking the immense creativity that resides within our communities. The church could instead also be a hub where our young entrepreneurs and community builders gain experience to develop our local economy and run ethical businesses that support one another.
Yet how do we begin to market ourselves in this role, and how do we launch this initiative?
In my experience it helps to begin with one existing business. For the Greenhouse, that was a charity style shop selling donated goods to the public. For the Village it was a Vintage Clothing and Vinyl Record store. Firstly a church could invite or create at least one regular established social business operating from its premises. Once in place, there is the potential to create little breakout spaces for community entrepreneurs to test their ideas.
What kind of businesses can we envisage happening in our communities?
Here is a small and not exhaustive list of possible businesses that already exist or could be created. All the ideas here are outline sketches based in an urban priority area, and may or may not work elsewhere. It is vital to remember when we consider business development, that we must first understand our communities.
Café: Churches are good at cafes, simple as that, we even have the term ‘café church’. Often, we have food services, meals for homeless people or pensioners and etc. We rarely take it past the mercy-service stage though. Very few would see a small café as a transition to a full-blown vegan restaurant, or a coffee shop to rival Starbucks or Costa. Yet why not? We can surely imagine a café that would encourage the use of its services by more of a mass market. Perhaps it could be open 7 days a week till late, providing employment and training for paid staff and volunteers and equipping our neighbours with skills for life.
Children’s Parties: Many people engage outside contractors to organise their child’s party. Be it caterers, cake makers or entertainment. Often, they bring all these outside contractors into a church building to set up and carry out the party. Can we not do this? I just ran a party where we played traditional games and supplied healthy food and drinks. It was a huge success, with follow-up enquiries from other parents.
Weddings: With a café/restaurant already established, this would be a simple transition to achieve. We already do the religious service, but then we wave goodbye to the couple as they go off and spend £15,000 in a local hotel!!
Both the children’s parties and the weddings enterprises would have social benefit, but they also exhibit a strong commercial practice. They could both be quite large money-spinners, yet could still offer a far more reasonable sense of ‘fair trade’. This way we can release our faith communities of some of the burden to give, as well as provide much needed profit for future investment.
Appliance Repair Centre: A workshop for people to come and learn how to repair the household equipment they so readily throw away. I had an example recently where a young mum needed a new vacuum cleaner as her own had died a death. She is now paying weekly at 99.9% APR for her shiny new vacuum cleaner. A total of £260 for something that is £85 on Ebay. Yet the real crunch is that her old one just had a hair bobble jammed in the tube, a 5-minute fix. There are church members who already have the knowledge and skills to fix these issues, here is an opportunity to use church resources to support those on low incomes.
The church has never been better placed to offer itself to the world in this way. What we need are examples and entrepreneurs, both of which require nurturing in the church. We invest our time and money in producing people who can deliver an ancient and needed message, but we also need to invest in some innovation and entrepreneurship. I am unaware of any ministry or council that exists to support this activity. Not just in the Church of Scotland, but within any denomination. Why would it though? We have never assumed that this is an area of mission we should be engaged in.
If examples are what is needed, then I hope the work that we are engaged with in Inverness will be an early prototype. I believe the church can be a restorer of communities, and economic self-creation is high on the list of key components to a healthy community.
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