“You never know what kind of impact a small act of kindness will have on somebody’s life,” says Suzanne Cannell. “Just a kind word to someone who looks as though they’re having a bad day. Once when I was young, I was walking down the street, crying, and this old lady who was gardening outside her house cut a flower and crossed the street to give it to me, which of course made me cry even more! She didn’t say anything, she just wandered off, and in the great scheme of things it wasn’t important, but such gestures have a cumulative effect. When you do some good, it ripples and people pay that kindness forward.”
Actions, adds the businesswoman, become habit-forming and we become whatever our habits are. With that in mind, 18 months ago Suzanne founded social enterprise Cook’s Night Off, a high-quality home-delivery service that makes meals using fresh, natural ingredients in recyclable and compostable packaging. For every meal bought, another is donated to organisations such as City Mission. The culinary concept came to Suzanne, who has an 11-year-old daughter (“she’s into eating more than cooking—there’s nothing to her but since she was six she had the appetite of an adult man!”) around 20 years ago during a stint in Christchurch.
“I really hated cooking every night, and I was flatting with a friend who felt the same,” recalls Suzanne, a little sheepishly. “One night we ordered pizza—again—and were told that we were entitled to a free garlic bread. I asked why and was told that it was because we had bought 50 pizzas since being at that address. I asked what we get at 100, and the guy said, ‘We have a free t-shirt for people like you!’ We actually made it to 98 before we move out. I’m still gutted about not getting the tee!”
As for the charitable notion, that was inspired by Toms Shoes, a Californian company credited with being the first social enterprise to promote the ‘buy one-give one’ concept on a global scale. Inequality—and food poverty in particular—is something Suzanne has clearly given much consideration. “When I was growing up—which was quite a while ago now—minimum wage still meant you could afford to have a house or pay rent,” she says. “There may not have been much left over, but unless you were particularly wasteful, you could still afford to feed the kids and buy their shoes. You just can’t do that anymore.”
Suzanne tells me that City Mission and several food banks say they have seen a massive uptake in people working two or three jobs who still can’t make ends meet: “City Mission have a system that means if someone makes more than a couple of visits, they take a look at their situation to see what they can do to help, such as ensuring they are getting all the tax credits they’re entitled to. And it turns out most of these people are budgeting really well, but when they get hit with an unexpected expense such as a car repair bill, they can’t cope. Most that come for food parcels do so a maximum of three times, so this idea that everyone who goes are bludgers who can’t be bothered to work, or who spend all of their money on beer and cigarettes, is just not true.”
Suzanne admits that she knows what it is to need help. She’s had plenty of failure as well as success, while her mother raised her and her three siblings on a nurse’s salary. “We never had much money for leftovers,” she continues. “It’s humiliating for people to have to stand with their hand out. Income inequality is the biggest problem we face in New Zealand. It’s not just people on the fringes any more, and it’s getting worse.”
Do you believe social enterprise is the way forward for all businesses?
“I believe so, yes—though of course, it’s not compatible with all models. But it is certainly becoming more mainstream, and much of that is down to that much-maligned group: the millennials. When I was growing up in the ‘80s, it was all about conspicuous consumption, he who dies with the most toys, wins. Millennials get a lot of stick for a lot of things, but they are the first generation to be really conscious consumers. They consider carefully how they spend, and often splash out on experiences rather than things. This is driving change. Traditionally, businesses would become involved in philanthropy once they were established, once they had experienced success. But now people are thinking, ‘Why do we have to wait? Why not build it into the DNA of the business right from the start?’”
It all comes back to the concept of kindness: “To me, that is where it starts. Social enterprises have kindness at their heart. I believe people are fundamentally nice. You read so much bad news, because that’s what sells, but what I have found is that most folk are kind and genuine and considerate of the world in which they live. They just want to make a difference.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces