Pop up cafes and the terminal illness auction

There’s no shortage of ongoing discussion in the social enterprise world, and within wider civil society, about how we generate (or ‘deliver’) a positive social impact and how we demonstrate what we’ve done.

What we’re less likely to talk about – though, in theory, methodologies such as Social Return on Investment (SROI) do allow for it – is the positive social impact that we chose not deliver (the good things we haven’t done) or the negative social impact that occurred as by-product of our positive impact (the bad things that happened because we did the good things we did).

The problem is that while it’s comforting to think that our fellow social entrepreneurs and other people trying to deliver positive social change are all – however different their approaches may be – ultimately working towards the same common goal of making the world a better place, it’s not true.

It’s not entirely untrue: unless you’re really cynical, there’s no reason to believe that other people in the social sectors have negative intentions but it’s important to understand that people can honourably pursue their vision of positive social change while simultaneously making it harder for you to pursue to yours.

There’s been (at least) a couple of quite different examples of this in the news this week. In the London Borough of Hackney, the (really good) community newspaper, Hackney Citizen reported on: “Cries of ‘yuppie scum’ at protest against subsidised Hackney Heart cafe“.

The story is that Hackney Heart, a pop-up cafe and arts space, had been given rent-free premises by the local council. This has provoked criticism from:

  • opposition politicians who claim the council showing ‘favoritism’ to a pet project
  • anger from other local businesses who do have to pay rent
  • even more anger from another local organisation – catering for a different section of the community – who had its rent increased and went out of business as a result

Hackney Citizen reports that cafe manager’s claim that her establishment is ‘not a commercial enterprise’ and that: “People can come in here and not buy anything. People can take books away for free. Many, many people come in here and don’t buy anything. Elderly people come in just for a chat.

Whatever your views (or lack of views) on trendy pop-up cafes or the gentrification of north-east London, there’s several sets of people with conflicting views on the most socially useful way for Hackney Council to manage its rental property based on their own combination of interests and social values.

Beyond Hackney, Civil Society reports on a more pointed disagreement between some national cancer charities as ‘Breast cancer charities slam ‘divisive’ Pancreatic Cancer Action campaign‘. The provocation for this slamming is Pancreatic Cancer Action’s new campaign featuring the blunt headline ‘I WISH I HAD BREAST CANCER’.

Civil Society features the outraged responses of three different breast cancer charity chief executives, including a passionate but slightly disingenuous outburst from Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s Chris Askew, who storms: “We strongly dispute any message which suggests that one type of cancer is preferable to another. We believe Pancreatic Cancer Action’s recent campaign does just this.


As someone who lost both my mum and my granddad to cancer – though neither of them had the particular cancers under discussion – I can perfectly understand objections to Pancreatic Cancer Action’s campaign on the grounds of (lack of) compassion and taste. If this campaign is so successful in provoking debate that other charities decide that playing off one set of people going through a terrible experience against another set of people going through a terrible experience is a model to be widely replicated then we’ll ultimately end up living in a nastier place.

The fact, though, is that however crassly they’re doing so, Pancreatic Cancer Action are correct to point out that a disease that might kill you is preferable to one that probably will. In doing so, they’re also making clear that even something that’s as unequivocally a social good as fewer people dying from cancer is part of a battle for resources.

That doesn’t that there’s necessarily a direct battle for resources between those tackling different cancers (I’m not an expert in funding for cancer treatment and research). It also doesn’t mean that there’s a finite ‘social pot’ of money and other resources available to make the world a better place – part of the point of social enterprise is to do business in a way that increases the size of that social pot – but even so there are still choices and trade-offs to be made between different activities that generate positive social impact. The fact that you’re doing something (you genuinely believe to be) good doesn’t mean that other people wouldn’t prefer it (or be better off) if you were doing something else.



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2 responses to “Pop up cafes and the terminal illness auction

  1. David, There was something I caught the end of on the radio this week about how John Lewis were harming a local cafe with their free coffee promotion.

    I know from the experience of having a treatable leukeamia that I’d rather have it than another form of cancer because I’m all to aware of those less fortunate who are often younger and have children. That someone in PR who presumably doesn’t have cancer would wish some kind of cancer exchange is illustration perhaps of how far some will go.

    I came from the world of mainstream business into social enterprise. Business is competitive and sometimes dishonest but there’s alway a nich for the smaller player, because playing the zero sum game is a path of diminishing returns In contrast, I’ve never know such competition as I’ve experienced from the third sector, where no such constraint exist when it comes to undermining the perceived threat of competition.
    When you’re doing business for a social purpose, it comes with all the risks of traditional business plus a few more. One of ours was a defamation campaign stirred up in the charitable sector claiming we were a business masquerading as a charity aiming to skim development aid. Even our SEC turned away telling us that what we were doing was beyond their focus.
    What we’d argued and demonstrated was that by simulating a local economy with a fraction of what was typically spent in charitable donations and gone, we could instead create wealth where it had not existed previously. We could even collaborate with charities and their considerable experience of practical field work. In 2006 we’d put Everychild an international childcare organisation into our proposal for a ‘Marshall Plan’. in Ukraine which today would be called social impact investment.


  2. Another really engaging post David! I live round the corner from the Hackney Heart, and whilst the above criticisms are reasonable enough,
    I think they’d be better aimed at the structures that create this dynamic, rather than this particular cafe.

    It’s increasingly common practice among metropolitan local authorities to offer subsidized rents/business rates to bring empty retail spaces back to life. So communities like mine need to ask themselves which they’d prefer – rows of empty shops, or trendy cafes with live gypsy bands and heaps of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans?


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