Restaurateur and charity patron Iqbal Wahhab writes for MCA about the relationship between businesses and charity. He argues that in an environment where charities and aid programmes have often been disastrously run or proven to be corrupt, savvy entrepreneurs in the hospitality sector can offer an alternative – one that can have a huge impact on communities but also makes good business sense.

Do you remember the episode from Friends, the one when they discussed whether there was such a thing as a truly selfless act? One of the least selfless acts in the hospitality world is the way many of us seek a moment or more of glory by supporting a charity. The way it’s usually done is like this: a restaurant critic whom we all seek to curry favour from or a celebrity we would like to have spotted in one of our establishments is deployed usually by a hunger project to approach restaurant owners to ask if they would like to be seen to be doing good things. It’s a great sales pitch – who would say no to that, especially when the mechanism they peddle involves adding £1 to a customer’s bill which the charity gets, so the restaurant doesn’t actually have to pay for the posture?

I’ve just launched a book called “Charity Sucks”, based on having spent much of the last decade sitting on the boards of charities, chairing quite a few and donating a significant six figure sum from our earnings at Roast to support projects locally and internationally that empower disadvantaged people into employment and enterprise. So I’m not a cynical skinflint who’s averse to helping others though it always amuses and disappoints me in equal measures when I ask restaurateur friends who jump at the PR opportunity to look good by doing good to quietly help mentor a start up entrepreneur in our space whom they hold them in high regard and suddenly they’re too busy.

This observation will undoubtedly hit a raw nerve with many MCA readers and if you’re one of them, please don’t be offended; I’m not doing a holier than thou sermon. I’m just holding up a mirror to a practice which when writ large over virtually all charitable engagements with donors serves to embed in our minds the provocation of the book’s title. Let me give you two alternatives in the food and catering world to the donations and hope model of charities and why businesses acting as businesses are better placed to fix the world’s problems because we are not driven by hope, but by success. One is from Africa, the other from Croydon.

I’m standing in what must be one of the grimmest places on earth and soon realise that there is something fatally, terminally wrong with the reason I am here. Katanga is a sprawling mass of decay and decrepitude; a vast coastal slum dwelling in the west African state of Togo with open sewers blending with bellows of smoke from fish being cured on a scorching hot and humid day, where for once I am relieved that I lost my sense of smell a few years back.

While the others with me get to grips with the stench, I turn my attention to the squalor. A French charity had been there and given the residents what they called a Community Plan. It was little more than an extensive list of all the problems the people of Katanga faced. It was not the stuff of rocket science – it said they needed sewage, clean water, drainage, a hospital and a school. The beleaguered residents naturally clutched to it in the hope that one day the money would come to pay for it. And it hadn’t.

The slum dwellers had been mugged by the charity – with false, mistaken and absurd hope and now they wanted to mug me to keep their ill-thought out mission going.

The plan itself didn’t make any sense; it had costed out a fence they said the hospital needed – not just daft but disgraceful because if you had gone there and written out a cheque for £8000, that’s what it would have been used for.

The people running the fish smoking businesses told me they never made money and after a bit of probing, it turned out they had not learned how to manage their cash flows, how to negotiate with suppliers or how more efficiently to take their product to market. I walked around Katanga for the rest of that day looking for alternative paths to the Community Plan and finally I came across one. A group of smart girls were in a classroom feverishly absorbing books and shared with me their ambitions for a better life.

Fish smoking was about the only option for them to do this but I worried they too would be trapped from lack of knowledge so I offered to put them through a business studies course. I imposed conditions on funding the programme, which were that on completing their courses they would come back to the slum to put into practice what they had learned and that as soon as they turned to profit they would repay the costs of their education.

That was three years ago. The girls have all returned, set up businesses, repaid their loans and employed other Katanga dwellers. We have matched what they repaid to amplify what was now a proven model. Y Care International, the umbrella body of all the YMCA’s around the world whom I am doing this through, is now championing entrepreneurship and is gaining traction with other business owners who previously saw them as “just another charity” and now view them as a social investment partner.

Closer to home, in Croydon a savvy social entrepreneur saw a commercial prospect in what charities would have considered to be victims of state callousness. The government’s curb on benefits for families with three or more children where no one in the family had a job would lose their claim entitlements and councils like Newham in east London had broken families homes and thereby families themselves to different parts of the country, a shameful and awful process which hasn’t been challenged enough, such is the weakness of our political leadership.

Sahara Quli scented a deal in the offing; she got the mothers who had never worked (for a wage, that is) enrolled at the local catering college, where they secured qualifications to first get zero hours contracts and then more permanent ones through catering jobs she secured and they managed to keep their families together. A social enterprise called Mums The Chef was created with some help from a few friends to build the programme.

In its first year 30 women have found work for the first time and not only have they become empowered to take control of their lives, the project has also saved the state over £3 million in benefits. No talk of building a women’s centre - no need with the right lenses to see anything other than a commercial prospect underpinned by a massive social impact.

In both Katanga and Croydon we are coming to the same conclusion. Charities and aid programmes haven’t delivered on their promise to make the world a better place. Businesses can and when we do, like Roast’s employment of ex-offenders, our customers like us and use us more. So while we start with the provocation against charity, we conclude that business is better placed to take on the mantle because it’s now proven that doing so is good for business.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast. His book “Charity Sucks” is available from Biteback Publishing

Contact Iqbal via Twitter @iqbalwahhab