As a young graduate Maeve Monaghan wanted to help people, but didn’t know it could become her full-time career. Today she leads NOW Group, a social enterprise that transforms the lives of those with autism or learning difficulties by supporting them into jobs with a future. Social enterprises are profit making businesses, which exist to drive positive environmental, community or social change. To mark this month’s Buy Social for a Better World campaign, Maeve, founder and CEO of NOW Group, makes the case for buying from a social enterprise.
NOW Group’s social enterprise arm, Loaf Catering, runs four successful cafés and offers an outside catering service used by a wide range of businesses. Within our business, we offer training, education and supported employment places to people with learning difficulties and autism. However, our reach and impact is much wider than that. We work with a range of other employers to encourage and support them to offer voluntary and paid employment to our participants. In the last year we have helped 557 people to gain 322 qualifications and supported 60 people into paid jobs.
This is why social buying makes so much sense – you are buying a product and giving someone a purpose and a chance of meaningful work.
However, this is not about charity. We have to compete on quality, price and service just like any other business. Our sausage rolls are, in fact, award-winning – that’s how good they are.
Take our outside catering business as an example. We use only the best ingredients, all freshly prepared. In addition, sustainability is very important to our business – we do not use single use plastics and the containers that our food arrives in are recyclable. In the past three years our turnover has risen by 70%. This is something few businesses can say they have achieved, so we must be doing something right!
Thanks to partners such as Deloitte’s Belfast office, NOW Group is a profitable and sustainable business. Deloitte not only uses our outside catering, but have supported us with our strategic planning and growth strategy through their One Million Futures programme.
Often when you are a founder of an organisation, as I am, you can be one of the biggest blockers to growth. Having this outside support and a team willing to share their expertise and act as a critical friend is vital. We have been helped to think about brand and storytelling, crafting a new website to make it easy for businesses to navigate, as well as developing more collaborations and partnerships.
We are also encouraging other social enterprise businesses to be part of our supply chain. We are working with a community garden to grow things we can sell or use in our cafés. We also work with a charity that helps female refugees who make vegan hot chocolate. We sell their hot chocolate as part of a gift set with a mug that is handmade in our pottery studio. The mugs can also be purchased online – a great idea for Christmas gifts! So rather than competing with other social enterprises we are working together, enabling us to grow and supporting their growth too.
We have also had 500 businesses sign up to be JAM Card friendly. JAM stands for Just A Minute and was an idea that came from our participants. JAM Card friendly businesses have trained their staff to be more aware of those customers with communication difficulties who may need just a moment’s more time – whether that is in a retail situation, on public transport or in a bar or restaurant. There are now more than 24,000 people using either a physical JAM card or the app on their smartphone.
NOW Group are reaching more and more people each year. As a result we now have a turnover of £1 million with a plan, developed with the help of Deloitte, to grow the NOW Group into a £2 million business.
It is easy to support organisations like NOW Group to do even more good – just buy from a social enterprise. And if you are in Belfast, pop in for one of our amazing sausage rolls!