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Our Community Bus Is Our Badge

June 22, 2011

Matters budgetary are pretty tight for most social enterprises right now. So is there still a case for capital spending by individual organisations on purchases such as, say, a minibus, even when a taxi account would do?
Rationally, most of us would probably say No. But with their hearts many might even now want to say Yes, there are still good reasons for acquiring and maintaining expensive capital items. But why? What does ownership offer which functional access does not?

Buy or rent?
A simple cost analysis would probably show, for instance, that taxis and the odd hire of a peoplecarrier-(or-whatever)-with-driver is far less expensive than owning a minibus.

The difference is likely to be that ownership permits a sense of control and identity which e.g. simply hiring transport as required never can; and owning a means of ‘community transport’ also permits greater flexibility at the point of use.

Both these elements of ownership are important, but they are not in themselves compelling. How many of these plus-points really outweigh the effort and financial costs of capital item maintenance and upkeep?

Badge and standard-bearer
There is we might conclude another matter also at play here: the ‘community bus’ so beloved of some social enterprises is also the organisation’s ‘community badge’. The people who drive it have a visible role and status in the locality in which they operate; and the bus becomes a badge or standard-bearer for the organisation itself.

Even when cost-analysis is actually feasible, the urge to acquire material things is a pressing part of contemporary living and is rarely fully mediated by the counter-requirement to conserve both funds and energy.

People like to mark out their territory and their status; they like to be able to change their minds about when and how to do conduct their business; and almost all of us think ours is a special case when it comes to doing things which may not seem entirely rational.

Economy is not psychology
The current, relentless political drive towards ‘saving money’, Big Society or not, is always likely to backfire. Because the psychological, logistical / management and presentational aspects of avoiding capital and other large investments are not being addressed by the politicians who power this drive, few viable alternative strategies may be considered at the grassroots.

Cross-organisational collaborations, advice on and skills-support with changes in resource management, and positive social recognition of the roles of community and third sector activists, could go quite a way to resolving some of the capital and large-scale expenditure constraints currently in place.

But people under threat are rarely very rational. Those who feel cast aside and under-appreciated – as many in the third sector now do – may quite understandably want to hang on to as many of their ‘community badges’ as possible. And this is sometimes going to include items like their minibus, whatever the actual costs and future outcomes.

A version of this post is also located in the LinkedIn Social Enterprise and the Third Sector Group.

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