By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO
“Shouldn’t you be a charity?”
Establishing the Disability Leadership Institute has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I’m doing something that I love while contributing to my community every day.
It’s also been a weird experience every day, as I come across prejudice and assumptions that I’ve never dealt with before. There’s that big assumption that disabled people aren’t leaders and can’t do “proper” leadership – whatever that is – but more recently I’ve come across a recurring assumption that if your work is about disability then you must be a charity.
I was chatting with a group of disability entrepreneurs the other day and somehow the conversation got onto charitable status and whether we should be shaping our businesses to be a charity. Everyone in the group had rejected the idea of charitable status, which was a fascinating discovery.
Every single one of these businesses had the potential to be a charity and all were working to advance the status of disabled people, while also employing people with disabilities in their enterprises.
For some being a charity would limit their enterprise’s capacity to operate as a business, particularly into the future as growth occurred. Fair enough, this is good business sense.
A clear thread running through the group, though, was that being a charity would reduce the status of their work. There is a long history of charities and disability going back centuries. Unfortunately, a lot of that history is clouded with pain, segregation and abuse. Many people with disabilities have experienced disempowerment through being “charity cases”. Most of us still exist in a whirl of excessive bureaucracy just to get through each day as a disabled person.
When your enterprise is about advancing the status of disabled people, being a charity is almost like sleeping with the enemy.
All the enterprises belonging to the group were social enterprises, although none had formal certification as such. All of them would pass charity status expectations without fail, yet none of them wanted to be charities because it would demean their community to do so. It would also add more bureaucracy to their existing excessive levels of daily disability bureaucracy.
All of these enterprises would save money by being a charity, yet they didn’t want to go there. So, no tax concessions, no salary packaging for their staff, no capacity to receive donations.
Yet they are doing just as much “charitable” work as most of the charities I know (and I know thousands).
Being an entrepreneur isn’t always about the money. For many of us in the disability community it is about being respected as “real” business people who run credible profit-making enterprises. It is about being able to do business our way, while changing the way “doing business” is understood.
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