How to communicate value when everything is free

When it comes to working in a Community Interest Company as we do, the concept of free can be a tricky one. On the one hand, we are a mission-driven organisation that focuses on providing a social benefit rather than maximizing profits. This often means offering services or resources at little or no cost to the end user. On the other, we still need to be sustainable and find ways to make money in order to continue operating. So, how do CICs balance the desire to do good with the need to generate income?

There are a few reasons why CICs might choose to offer services or resources for free. One reason is to remove barriers to access. For example, a CIC focused on increasing access to education might offer free classes or materials to make it easier for people to learn. Another reason is to build trust and credibility. By demonstrating a commitment to the mission, CICs can build relationships that lead to long-term support.

When we began back in 2018, we had a vision to create a community art space in an inner city area of Leeds that had little or no community arts provision, so that everyone would have access to this regardless of income. Now, thanks to support from Leeds 2023, Leeds Inspired, 100% Digital Leeds and Leeds Community Foundation, we regularly host free workshops and creative mentoring sessions underneath Armley Community Hub and Library, and this year we hope to grow that model even further. 

However, free doesn’t always mean no cost at all, free services also require an investment of time, resources, or energy from both organisations and participants. And free doesn’t mean there is no value being exchanged. There are different types of value that CICs can create, beyond financial. For example, we create value for people by offering services that improve their lives, by helping them to grow their confidence or develop their creative career. We also create value for councils and other organisations by offering services or creating products that meet their needs, such as community consultations, publications, or wellbeing activities. In this way, we aim to create value for society by addressing issues to benefit the whole community.

But we also need to create value for our organisation in order to be sustainable. This can come from grants, donations, or commissions, such as our recent work with the University of Leeds which helped them to connect with refugees as part of their Universty of Sanctuary strategy. 

So, what does value really mean in the context of a CIC? It can mean different things depending on the company. But for us, value means something that benefits everyone involved: end users, organisations, society, and ourselves. By striking this balance, we are able to do good and be sustainable at the same time.

What does value mean to you?