How the SOUP movement has travelled the world

By Peter Lefort, Eden Project Communities

Each year we welcome hundreds of new community activists, leaders and volunteers to the Eden Project Communities network. Some through our Community Camps at the Eden Project itself, others through regional events across the UK, and others still through our mass participation events such as The Big Lunch and The Big Walk.

People join with projects of all shapes and sizes; from nothing more than a good idea right up to a fully-formed Community Business. What bonds them together is a shared passion for communities, for making their streets, villages, towns and cities better places to be for everyone.

Working with such a diverse network means that often practical ideas or support are relevant to some but not others. But every now and then an idea comes along which seems to be so achievably simple and so excitingly different that it appeals to everyone. An idea like SOUP.

Those of us involved in organising the first SOUP in Oxford had taken the idea from the now-famous Detroit SOUP. As with many great ideas, the premise was a simple one; cook up some soup, charge a small entry fee, invite local community projects to pitch for the proceeds, and hold a vote to select the winner.

It’s remarkably self-contained, especially if the soup can be made from surplus ingredients. All you really need is a space and a community. The first recorded SOUP events were run by an arts-based project in Chicago, but it was in Detroit where the idea really took off.

Since launching in 2010, Detroit SOUP has hosted over 150 events, with over $130,000 raised by the community for the community. Their diners have helped fund 57 projects, 48 non-profits, and 27 for-profit enterprises. At least 33 of these projects would not have moved forward with their initiatives if it wasn’t for SOUP.

As well as a truly meaningful social space, and a radically democratic funding source, Detroit SOUP is also a vitally needed alternative to the glass ceilings facing individuals in a city hit hard by poverty. As Amy Kaherl, Executive Director of Detroit SOUP, notes: “We now realise we are the first step into what is often a complex entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

It’s a great story, and who doesn’t love a great story?

​Here in the UK we certainly do. Over 70 SOUP projects are currently running across the country, and hundreds more exist across the world. The idea has travelled the globe like wildfire, striking a chord in communities from Huddersfield to Oslo to Las Vegas to Kathmandu.

Somehow, without a single central organisation to co-ordinate it, a movement has started. The events are simultaneously completely independent and yet tapping into a shared identity. Communities across the world are looking at and learning from other communities, without any prior connection.

In network theory terms, this stage of innovation is referred to as scaling out. The idea has moved from local application, in Chicago and Detroit, to wider implementation. This stage occurs after inspiration, ideas, experiments and improvements, and is the final stage before full-scale systemic change becomes possible. For an idea to get to this stage so quickly, and so independently, is remarkable.

Perhaps it is the way SOUP straddles the radically different, microfunding for local projects you might never have heard about otherwise, and the comfortingly familiar, a warm bowl of soup and a community centre. Perhaps it is the model of asset-based community development (ABCD), in which existing strengths and potential are utilised to create new opportunities. The food is already there in the community, as is the money in people’s pockets and the pitching projects themselves. SOUP brings them all together to enable a truly positive transformation.

Whatever the magic ingredient is, the SOUP movement is on a roll (pun apologetically intended). Amy Kaherl from Detroit SOUP is looking to set up a more formalised network, with a vision of a SOUP in every city in the world. That this idea is even possible is built on an informal network which no-one could have predicted.

But maybe we can learn from it. At the very least, we can draw hope from it. What the SOUP movement proves is that there is a network across the planet of people with the desire to make positive change happen, and to support those around them. It might not have a name, or its own website, or Facebook page, but if there is an idea out there which is making a difference in one community, then it has the opportunity to travel the world. And if it can travel the world, it can change the world.

Find out more about the Eden Project Communities network by visiting our website, or emailing Peter.

Peter manages the Eden Project Communities network across the UK. The network’s activities range from mass-participation events such as The Big Lunch, which saw 9.3 million people take part in 2017, to a peer-network of community activists, leaders and volunteers, including many at the start of their Community Business journey.