Allowing practitioners to make a living is one of the main reasons we think land-based social enterprise can deliver sustainable new models of land use for the common good. This blog discusses why sustainable livelihoods are an important part of making land work.

First of all, let’s state the obvious: most people who dedicate their lives to using land to produce social and environmental value aren’t primarily driven by money! And that’s a good thing, because it can be very tricky to generate income from land. A conventional assumption is that the risk and stress of starting up a new enterprise is incentivised by the potential to make large personal returns. This clearly isn’t the case for land-based social entrepreneurs, since the very structure of their enterprises precludes profit distribution. They are living proof that money is not the only thing that can motivate people to innovate and take risks to produce value.

However, it is also unhelpful to assume that all “community” work is voluntary, that a not-for-private-profit model means no profit at all, and that the drive to create social and environmental value precludes a need or desire to make money.  This assumption can sometimes seep into the sector as well, with practitioners reluctant to draw a salary from their organisations. Unsurprisingly, we think both of these assumptions are flawed. Money is neither a dirty word nor the only motivating factor – it’s a means to an end.

Land-based social enterprises focus on generating enough income to operate sustainably, and in most cases aim to generate  livelihoods for at least some of those involved. This means that practitioners can dedicate more time to sustaining, developing and expanding the enterprises. It means that the models can be for anyone rather than just those who have time to spare or are wealthy enough to subsidise their more charitable activities. This needn’t always be a large income. Indeed we are currently looking at models of innovative cost reduction, including at how living on the land can mean that sustainable livelihoods can be supported with smaller incomes.

In one of our Making Land Work interviews, Brian from OrganicLea discussed how providing income for those involved was a key step in the development of the organisation:

As Brian’s account suggests, many people are happy to start out by volunteering their time. Volunteers play a key role in many land-based social enterprises, however over-reliance on volunteers can be a real problem. ‘Volunteer fatigue’ is a problem for many of the organisations we work with, as they find the limits of what can be asked of people who have other jobs, not to mention family lives and other responsibilities.

The assumption inherent in concepts like the “Big Society”, that volunteers should take the lead in delivering services, is a dangerous one. A particularly unhelpful example of this is where social enterprises are expected to provide cheaper services, since a portion of their labour can come from volunteers. In reality:

  • Volunteers are not a free resource but instead require careful management, training, support and coordination.
  • The extra labour provided by volunteers is often used to create additional social and environmental value, rather than fulfilling the basic tasks of managing the land.
  • Many people volunteer because they enjoy the work, and may not wish to be deployed on some of the day to day tasks required to keep a business running.
  • Horticulture, agriculture and silviculture are skilled professions, and it is important not to lose these skills to budget cuts.

Generating income enables practitioners to contribute more time over a longer period, contributing to their personal wellbeing and to local economic development. It therefore greatly increases an organisation’s potential to produce social, environmental and economic value. It enables people to see using land for the common good as the basis of a lasting career and a sustainable livelihood, rather than just as something fun or generous.

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