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How to run a social enterprise through a pandemic

Running a social enterprise is hard enough in the best of times let alone during a global pandemic. Ruth Rogers gives her firsthand account of what it’s been like to run one on the City fringes this year

My baby daughter Nell was 2 months old and tricky as heck when lockdown was announced in March.

Trying to get my head around furlough through the fuzziness of sleep deprivation wasn’t helped by the closure of my lively toddler’s nursery.

But I’m used to the chaos and carnage. I created from scratch, with no business skills or hospitality experience, a social enterprise called The Canvas in 2014. We unite people to solve local problems and contribute to global progress.

What that means in reality is I run a vegan café and events space just off Brick Lane; we’re on the border of the Square Mile but the area is in many ways a million miles away.

Tower Hamlets is the third most deprived borough in London, and the café at The Canvas aims to provide direct support to our local communities in need.

Our café offers free delicious home cooked food and drinks to local homeless men and women through our Pay it Forward board. We also make free nutritious meals every week for delivery to those affected by the Covid pandemic, thanks to a very famous pair of neighbours (more about that later!)

We’re on the border of the Square Mile but the area is in many ways a million miles away

The Canvas also has a Community Hub events space that we gift free of charge to groups and individuals wanting to launch new projects and ideas that will improve the lives of others, and we run a programme of events geared around positive social action, connecting changemakers and positivity pioneers, and championing the idea that no one is too small to make a difference.

Think of The Canvas as soil for good ideas to start growing. Some of these ideas are now fantastic enterprises in their own right; I’ll never forget when Meg Doherty came to me in 2016 with an idea for a supper club that hired and trained men and women experiencing homelessness. Seven shifts working at Fat Macy’s supper clubs would pay for a deposit for an independent home. All the spaces Meg had previously approached had said no. I said yes; of course I did, it’s a wonderful idea, which Meg has now turned into a thriving social business with premises in Peckham.

"Fat Macy's was born at The Canvas - having phoned and emailed a whole bunch of different venues across London, Ruth was the first person to really get the idea behind our work and believe in us. We have great memories of making our small social enterprise a reality over on Brick Lane."

Other organisations that have been grown from Canvas soil are the Museum of Happiness, providing free mental health and well being events and education; Mike’s Table, a social enterprise providing free meals from surplus produce to refugees and service users, and the Action for Happiness 8-week ‘Exploring What Matters’ course.

The Canvas

I started The Canvas because I believe humans are amazing; they just need the space to be so. The Canvas is that space.

And we’re lucky to have some pretty amazing neighbours. This time last year, I became lucky enough to meet some of the creative team at Wieden and Kennedy, on nearby Hanbury St. They hatched a plan to get our very famous neighbours, the international artists Gilbert and George, to work with us on a project to help the area’s many homeless men and women.

Gilbert and George aren’t the first people that come to mind when one thinks about helping the homeless. Infamous for their views on Brexit, and for their joint resignation from the Royal Academy, their work with London's poorest people is not well appreciated. But did you know that they allow two homeless people to sleep on their doorway each night, providing them with hot drinks and a daily spending budget?

This doorway is just a few streets away from The Canvas, and it was with a growing feeling of nausea that I approached it last October to knock on Gilbert and George’s door to ask them a very important question.

Would they provide original artwork to print onto fine china dinner plates, the sale of each plate funding The Canvas Café to provide up to 14 hot meals for homeless people in Tower Hamlets?

Ever knocked on the door of globally famous artists? It’s daunting, I’ll tell you.

Luckily - and in hindsight, obviously - Gilbert and George were interested and excited by the project.

They were unbelievably generous in their offer of artwork, promising 6 designs in total, 2 of which we launched last year for Christmas 2019. Designs 3 and 4 are due to be launched this Christmas, and you can see all of the designs available at doublehelpings.bigcartel.com

We didn’t know that Covid was around the corner, but thanks to Gilbert and George, and the plates project that we now know as Double Helpings, my social enterprise not only provides weekly home cooked meals to volunteer-led organisations in Tower Hamlets, directly delivering to individuals and families most in need, we are also able to open weekly during this second lockdown to run a food bank for our local community.

It’s a ride and a half, running a social enterprise – pandemic or no pandemic. But I wouldn’t change it. A purposeful life is a happy one.

For more information, see thecanvascafe.org