July 15, 2020

Feet in street

“It’s where your feet are”, the words of John Vincent,  who founded the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield during the late sixties, to offer Alternative Theological Education, without profit!  I attended their study year in 1981 – 2, as I moved from research science to community development. We lived in the inner city, studied for three days and did community work the rest of the time. 

UTU was based in a few large houses in Pitsmoor, Sheffield. For many years it boasted of being “the only theological seminary in Europe with two outside lavatories”.  They were heated and more comfortable than many church lavatories but still freaked out the universities when UTU applied for validation.

John is a great theologian, and although he retired as director over 25 years ago, he still lives in the area.  I’ve yet to meet a more accomplished marketer and salesperson.  I remember him telling wealthy parents in the West End of Sheffield he didn’t want their money, just commitment to the inner city from their children!

Back in the day, John’s marketed with a pot of cow gum and a Gestetner.  Cow gum is not very sticky and so you move cut-outs about to arrange them for a leaflet.  I suspect John still has pots of cow gum stashed away somewhere! The other thing makes copies! 

Specific Places

John’s words, in the title of this story are decisive for me.  For business it’s essential to understand the importance of commitment to a specific place.  Think of it as providing something for local people they can’t  otherwise access.  It’s about bringing finance into the area, supporting suppliers and other businesses through purchases, investment, mentoring and building relationships with customers.  These are the building blocks of community.  Get the businesses right in a neighbourhood and everything else falls into place.

This is a valuable insight but UTU’s approach misled me for many years.  John was adamant UTU is not a business.  This was based on a critical stance towards capitalism that I still share.  But we tarred all businesses with the same brush.  It took me a long time to see businesses that make a long-term commitment to a specific place are completely different from businesses that extract money from many places.

These days I don’t quote John quite so much.  I quote another John more frequently, someone I’ve never met.  John McKay, a contemporary economist, wrote: “Profit is no more the purpose of business than breathing is the purpose of life”.

I love the double edged nature of this.  It applies to individual businesses and to neighbourhoods.  We need to see money circulate in any neighbourhood to enable community.  It creates unstructured places where public life takes place. 

More About Feet!

Feet are the most spiritual organs of our bodies.  Wherever your feet walk, there goes your head and your heart.  How many of us love our neighbourhood so much that we commit all we have to making it work as community?  Spirituality for me is not walking with eyes fixed on another world but engaging thoroughly with this one. 

It’s about seeing beyond the money to the human relationships underlying financial transactions. 


UTU’s rejection of capitalism is contradicted by John’s skills as a marketer.  UTU has always been a business, even though rhetorically, it rejects the idea! 

The quote from John McKay in the story makes the point elegantly.  We cannot live without breathing but we are creatures with a vision of possible futures.  We need purpose!

All businesses have purpose because without one there is no business.  But equally they need profit.  Why do they need profit?  Here are some reasons:

Some Reasons We Need Profit

  • The business owner needs to live and if they are to be effective they need to live comfortably.  Not only that they may have dependents, a household and they need support those members who cannot support themselves.
  • They need to make provision for the future.  There are various ways to do this and I’m not going to go into detail here.  Many people do this through building up various pension pots during their career.  The disadvantage is you have to wait until you retire to draw your pension.  There are other ways to draw passive income at a younger age.  One problem with seeing profit as the purpose of business is that your focus becomes solely on investing in your personal future and taken to extremes this is detrimental to wider society.
  • Making investments in the business to enhance the quality and quantity of whatever the business produces.
  • Investments in other businesses which might be accompanied by mentoring new business owners.
  • Investment in diversification so that you have several businesses on the go at once. 
  • Investment in charities and voluntary bodies.
  • Donations to charities.

There may be others but you see, profit is not necessarily solely for personal gain.  The problem is not with local businesses, it is with the greater corporate chains that although they may employ locals, extract money from circulation.  Such funds are invested in remote shareholders or offshore banks.  They lack accountability and act through political interests to consolidate their interests at everyone else’s expense.

We should take a positive view of profit but we must understand its down side and challenge those who manipulate government out of sight for their own ends.

Why I do this

Stories rarely remain unchanged, the context in which they’re told matters just as much as the context referred to by the story.  I wrote this sequence of 21 stories about 17 months ago.  You may have read some or all of them in their earlier form.  Reading them now, we perhaps see something different, especially as we consider the impact of the use and misuse of profit in the local economy. 

As I republish these stories, I revise and polish them.  Some need little change, for others the changes are extensive.  At the end of each story, I add reflections based on where my thinking has moved onto, especially in the context of the Lockdown. 

This is story 14/21.  Last Story:  Local Economy: Millstone Grit.  Next Story: Adult Education: Makeshift: Not Impolite!

About the author 

Chris Sissons

I'm a local business owner, based in Sheffield UK. My business is Market Together and I help business owners, anywhere in the world, use stories to understand their business, develop new products, services and markets as well as to market their business. During the lockdown, stories can help you move your business online and plan for the post-lockdown future.

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