Ice cream with a mission

Observations on social enterprise

Would you buy an ice cream from a firm that does a line in used mattresses and revamped G-Plan? Perhaps not. But this month the ice cream company Ben & Jerry's launches its first European "PartnerShop" with the Furniture Resource Centre - whose leader, Liam Black, won the social entrepreneur of the year award in the NS's latest Upstarts Awards.

Is this just ice cream with a fashionable dollop of corporate social responsibility or, as its progenitors claim, a market solution to social problems? And will it work?

PartnerShops have a successful US track record going back 16 years. The idea is that non-profit organisations can open "scoop shops" without having to pay franchise fees to Ben & Jerry's. In return, the ice cream company provides clients with advice and support to help them run a self-sustaining business.

The new PartnerShop venture, based in Chester, is owned and run by the FRC Group, which tackles inner-city poverty in the north of England through five social businesses that range from the removal, renovation and retail of old furniture to the provision of business advice - and, now, ice cream.

Members of the FRC Group came across the PartnerShop scheme last year when they visited a franchise in San Francisco owned by Juma Ventures - a charity that supplies jobs and training to youths from low-income backgrounds. As in all PartnerShops, the hope is that the employees will benefit from a leg-up to bigger and better things. Jennifer Shewmake, director of creative enterprises at the Latin American Youth Centre in Washington, DC (another charity that runs a scoop shop), explains that employees are taught not just to scoop ice cream, but also "life skills such as personal presentation, time management and customer service".

Chester, a bastion of middle-class prosperity, may seem an odd location to site a social business. But Shaun Doran, the FRC's head of commercial development, explains: "The location must be suited to the product. We need lots of people with lots of money in their pockets." Commercial success is vital to a company that prides itself on its ability to make a profit. "Any surplus will go to the FRC Group and will be used to fund new businesses," Doran adds.

So much for the ice cream selling, but what about the social mission? Ice cream buyers, it seems, will have little clue that while they indulge their sweet tooth, they will be boosting the health of one of the UK's leading social enterprises. "We don't want regeneration tourists gawping at our staff," says Doran. But is this a failure of nerve? After all, consumers happily pay top prices for organic food and for a growing range of ethical products and investments. Perhaps individual indulgence and social mission must remain tastefully separate for the time being.

For more details of Upstarts, see www.upstarts.org.uk