Back to busyness: 9 interesting reads on innovation, Brexit and social enterprise

12 Feb

2c5888300bc91e05b7053ce1d8bc53adIt’s been an extremely busy start to the year. I know that saying “I’m busy” is often code for saying “I’m important” but I’m using it in the literal rather than the self-puffery sense. We just had one of our flagship events, the Social Value Summit, with 340 people from across sectors, and have our health conference coming up in early March. Both gone/going well, but logistically stretching. Along with some interesting work with members like HCT and SASC and with councils like Staffordshire and Cheshire & Warrington, a new chair, business planning, Buy Social training with companies, the next State of Social Enterprise (& international versions), advocacy with a (new-ish) government, and the core work of membership recruitment and retention. It definitely feels like we are doing more for less (or more with less people, certainly – I’m thinking of including ‘how many people do you think work at Social Enterprise UK?‘ in our membership survey as a proxy indicator for ‘punching above our weight’). And it’s enjoyable as well as hard work.

It’s also been a very non-London January and February, which is great. So far this year, I’ve been to Birmingham (x2), Bolton, Leatherhead, Liverpool (x2), Oxford, Stafford, and Wolverhampton. Cardiff, Leeds, Middlewich, Plymouth and Totnes all follow before the end of the month. As ever, the benefit of racking up the rail miles is a chance to listen and read interesting material, as well as try and catch up on the emails. So here’s a few things I’ve read recently that I found interesting – well worth making time / train trips for.

  1. Dominic Cummings: How the Brexit referendum was won – Amongst the infuriation you may feel if you voted Remain, there is much of interest in this (long) article from one of the architects of the successful Vote Leave campaign – on the use of digital, on the bubble of Westminster / media, and much more besides
  2. A new paradigm – towards a user-centred social sector – interesting provocation from Tris Lumley at NPC on increasing ownership, engagement and accountability with those normally called ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘service users’ in the social sector. I think it goes a bit far towards the end on the potential of investment to scale specific solutions (language we have heard for years without any evidence any of the approaches has worked), but the point about the disruptive nature and potential of tech is well-made and important.
  3. The Year In Social Enterprise – a 2016 Legislative Review – just as scanning the recruitment pages is often the best way to find out what an organisation is doing / planning, so looking at the realities of what is being brought in in different countries can help document progress of social enterprise. For example, ‘renewed interest in L3C’ isn’t something you hear over here from the US. Likewise, a look at the European Social Enterprise Law Association‘s updates reveals new legislation in Greece, with Bulgaria, Slovakia, Malta, Netherlands, Czech Republic and Estonia also in the process of enacting laws to support social enterprise.
  4. Making Technology Work for the Most Vulnerable – the headline says it all really, and although the article outlines the beginning of thinking rather than any concrete conclusions, this will be one of the key debates of our time. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we define productivity particularly ‘labour productivity’ – it strikes me that we need to invert our thinking on this in the same way that Greyston Bakery does in its famous social enterprise strapline: We don’t hire people to bake cookies; we bake cookies to hire people. Might outputs:outcomes be a more sensible way forward, rather than inputs:outputs?
  5. Why Collaboration Does Not Equal Innovation – a nice piece from Paul Taylor who works at Bromford, a Midlands-based housing association. Although the headline should probably be ‘why short-term collaboration does not equal innovation’ as that is the primary thrust of what he’s saying here. I agree with everything else here. [On which note, you could check out the 2012 SSIR article on how Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail in the social sector]
  6. Why Being Results-Oriented is Actually Bad – I’m not sure about using poker as a benchmark for business, but I like the contrarian view here, and the focus on making good decisions and trusting the process.
  7. Faulty by Design – the state of public sector commissioning (pdf) – not cheery reading, but some good detailed analysis of the fragmentation and barriers to getting more from public services. Unfortunately, it is just an analysis of everything that’s wrong….presumably a follow-up with some solutions is coming!
  8. Reflecting on Millions Learning: Lessons from Teach First’s scaling story – Teach First isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I have some doubts about the transfer of the model to social work and policing. But there’s no doubting the scale of its achievement – to become one of the largest graduate recruiters in the UK in 15 years and support over 1 million people. There’s some interesting lessons here from their outgoing CEO Brett Wigdortz on scale: timing, luck, being ready, thinking system-wide, have the right mindset and more.
  9. Industrial strategy and the challenge of inclusive growth – two phrases bandied around a hell of a lot at the moment (in policy wonky, political and media circles): industrial strategy and inclusive growth. For me, this starts to tentatively put some ideas forward on how the two can be sensibly linked, but it’s very tentative and framed within current confines of thinking. There is a lot of think-tank action on these topics, and a lot of analysis – but few looking at those organisations (including social enterprises) which have developed inclusive, growing business models. I find that odd – work to do.

Happy reading.

 

 

5 New Year books to get you thinking differently

15 Jan

brains-on-fireLast January (2016), I resolved to read a book a week, which I just about managed to stick to (see my other blog, Dog Eared Man, for 52 weeks of reviews), and I’m trying to carry on this year as well. If you like a diet of police procedurals, business books, Kindle Daily Deals and Scandinavian crime, I’m your man. Recommendations welcome – I’m going through the New Yorker’s Books We Loved in 2016
at the moment.

I noticed that Amazon, in its wisdom, had a ‘New Year, New You’ sale which has actually got some good stuff to get you thinking differently. So I thought I’d draw up a little list of 5 books from last year that got me thinking differently, some of which are in the sale.

  1. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande – just a brilliant book by a brilliant man on a hugely important subject: death and how we die. But it goes much further than that, with the central question really being about what makes us happy, and what is progress. Essential reading (and find his Reith lectures online too).
  2. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson – Ronson is another author you can’t really go wrong with, but I think this is one of his strongest. It’s all about social media and the ramifications of the ‘mob’ mentality and the ‘transparency’ that comes with Twitter and Facebook and all that that involves. It’s a fascinating look at an incredibly fast-changing part of modern life; and it is by turns funny and deeply sad as well.
  3. Quiet by Susan Cain – all about introversion and the (unrealised) power of introverts. There’s much here to challenge some long-held beliefs, and things that challenge (people like me) who tend to be comfortable speaking, ‘holding court’ and in outward communication. Great ideas here on recruitment, workspaces, meetings and more. If you’re ‘Loud’, it’s just as important you read it.
  4. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall – the subtitle of this book says it all (10 Maps that Tell you Everything You Need to Know about Global Politics) and it’s the book that made me feel most ignorant reading it and that also had the most ‘blimey, I had never thought of that’ moments. The combination of historical perspective and geographical foundations makes for a read that usefully took me out of the spiralling 24-hour news here & now.
  5. On the Move by Oliver Sacks – Sacks is, of course, best known for his books about the patients he worked with (AwakeningsThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat etc), but this is his biography, and it’s hugely entertaining. What struck me reading this is the sheer energy and adventure with which he approaches life and a reminder to never assume you know a whole person. Sacks is full of surprises, contradictions, and unexpected views – and is all the richer for it.

Others in the sale worth a look – The Examined Life, The Lean Start-up, Decisive.

Happy reading and Happy New Year.

10 things to read ahead of 2017

23 Dec

stay-curiousIt’s that time of year when I finally get somewhere near the end of the inbox and to-do list, and catch up on the hundreds of things I’ve bookmarked and haven’t read.

So here’s some I have managed to read and that I recommend:

1) Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives – I’m an enormous fan of Oliver Burkeman, and highly recommend his books which are an antidote to all the nonsensical self-help books out there. This is equally sensible in relation to email and time management (and the myths associated with it). Obviously ironic to start with this one given my comment about inbox / to-do list.

2) Disagree with the result but you can learn from Trump and Brexit campaigns – The page headline rather says it all, but there’s much good sense here for all of us in the social sector and in the policy space. Includes a great quote from Craig Oliver in number 10 that I’m tempted to pin up in our office…

3) The Gig Economy…and making it work? – I am no fan of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ and am glad that it’s started to be called the ‘gig’ economy. This post focuses on the reality of the ‘jobs’ that are being created, and starts to explore what can be done about it.

4) Tech and the Low Wage Workforce – friend or foe? – follows on from number 3 with a really fascinating look at how tech could be used to *help* the low wage workforce, rather than find ever more creative ways to exploit them. Genuine ‘tech for good’ initiative, in the face of a lot of app-lite bollocks.

5) Why there will never be an Uber for Healthcare – this is a good rejoinder for anyone who lapses into ‘what we need is an uber for [insert sector / industry]’. No we don’t.

6) Across the Returns Continuum – not a title to set the pulse racing, and it’s a long read; but it’s an interesting one with much to ponder on social impact and financial return, how they can be achieved, how they should be thought about, and how best to operate across the continuum.

7) Why For-Profit Education Fails – US context, of course, but interesting and relevant to not only our approaches to education here, but our approaches to public services more broadly. NB – isn’t an anti-privatisation piece.

8) Ten Steps to Sustainable Innovation – Mike Barry heads up Plan A at Marks & Spencer and is a leading thinker on this stuff; I found this a useful and practical piece of writing. Ten steps to follow. [gratuitous promo – Mike B will be speaking at the Social Value Summit in February]

9) An Entrepreneurial Society Needs an Entrepreneurial State – Mariana Mazzucato’s profile continues to rise, and she continues to puncture the nonsensical binary private vs public sector narratives we hear so often.

10) We need incremental improvements, not grand projects – I am, by nature, an incrementalist, so this appealed a lot. John Kay is talking about infrastructure here, but you could apply the same logic to many other areas. Strapline for 2017? “A multiplicity of incremental projects”. Catchy.

Have a great Xmas & 2017 all.

Running Man….

8 Sep

v7qluor7_400x400I’m signed up to run a half marathon in October. This is not headline news. It’s the Royal Parks Marathon, a picturesque and very flat half marathon. This is also not headline news – though it is good news, as I don’t like running up hills. And I’m running the half marathon for Breast Cancer Now. Which is also not headline news. Although they did email me and ask me to write a blog. So here we are.

I’m running it for a number of reasons: partly because I need a goal as motivation to do some exercise, and I am overweight; partly because I love London; and partly (ok, mostly) because my wife Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2011. So this is a chance to raise money for a cause that is extremely close to me.

Katie is well and cancer-free, but only because of the advances in research, surgery and treatment which charities like Breast Cancer Now have raised millions to fund and implement. And there is still much to do, particularly for younger women:

more awareness: as the wonderfully-monikered Coppa Feel make clear, there is one obvious route to early detection, but still not enough women know how important this is; put simply, Katie may not be alive if she hadn’t found her cancer as early as she did

more research: it’s been surprising (to me) the relative lack of research into the effects of drugs and treatment on pre-menopausal women with breast cancer; estimating prognosis is an exercise in uncertainty already, but it helps if you know that you are making the right choices

more support: this is where charities like Breast Cancer Now come into their own with clear, practical advice, online and off-line support and more. Our breast cancer nurse Sue was utterly *phenomenal*, helping us navigate various parts of the NHS and providing clarity, continuity and humour when needed most. (By the way, everyone in the NHS has been nothing short of magnificent)

So all of that needs more money and if I (or rather all of the people supporting) can help with that in a small way, it’s worth doing.

Katie is amazing: not only has she overcome major surgery, chemotherapy, and three different types of drug treatment, but also powered on with renewed energy in life. She’s now running her own fashion business in (what little) spare time she has from being a full-time secondary school teacher and head of year…

If she can get through all of that with good humour, doggedness, resilience and determination for the last 5 years, then I hope I can do the same with this much smaller, much less significant personal challenge for about 2 hours. And help Breast Cancer Now help more women like Katie in future.

>> Please sponsor and support if you can <<

Current (social enterprise) reading…

30 Aug

It’s been a Gaping-Void-Start-A-Blogwhile since the last post, so I thought I’d cheat a bit and do an update with some links that I hope are of interest (I now use Pocket for this bookmarking, after a recommendation from Toby Blume). I’ve grouped them into arbitrary random themes….happy reading.

Brexit signs:

 

Technophilia & phobia:

 

Random miscellany (or ‘other’):

Till next time…

 

 

 

The Future of Doing Good: 7 thoughts

3 Jun

besogoodA couple of weeks back, I attended the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Future of Doing Good’ event. If you haven’t come across this yet, they are convening and ‘catalysing’ a conversation which aims to step back and think about what the future of doing good looks like – this is important for their own work, but also for the whole of civil society or, even more broadly, society in its entirety. Or as Dawn Austwick, Big Lottery Fund’s CEO puts it on her introductory blog, it’s a chance to think about how we might achieve “a radical rethink of the way people and communities can shape and improve their lives“. They also commissioned a journalist, Sonia Sodha, to do an overview report on the Future of Doing Good as part provocation, part summary, part mapping of some of the main things to think about. I found it a very interesting, if occasionally frustrating read: which may be inevitable when you are trying to cover such a lot of ground in a relatively short report.

 The event itself aimed to continue, expand and grow that conversation. Below are a few of my reflections both on what we heard, and on what I think should be one of the main focuses of work going forward.

Firstly, I should be honest and say it felt incredibly indulgent for me to spend a day away from work just having a conversation – with no clear remit, plan of where it will go, what it might lead to, or whether it would (ultimately) benefit our members. I was glad I was there, but plagued by a constant nagging awareness of the to-do list and the operational realities in what is now a very lean and busy team. I don’t know if others felt the same: what I do know is that this itself demonstrates one of the challenges we currently have – my internal reaction was a microcosm of the current reality: strained (human) resources, an urgent mindset and an increasing divide between those with money and those without: more parochially in this sector as well as in society at large.

Secondly, there was lots of the discussion of relevance to social enterprise – we were given cards with some of the main trends / areas to think about, and these included: creating opportunity from austerity, blurring of organisational boundaries, people driving change, new ways of resourcing, , environmental change, cross-sector working and so on. If this is the future, then social enterprise and entrepreneurship will continue have a significant role – and should be at the centre of people’s thinking, not in the margins or afterthoughts. And that this needs to not be all about individuals – but about networks, about teams, about recruiting great people (millennials, yes, but also those ‘finishing’ their first set of careers at 65 or 70), about investing in better systems, about incentives to collaboration and more.

Thirdly, there was a lot of ‘the future is sector-less‘ chat. As long as we’re ‘mission-led’ it will be OK. Which I go with to a point, but as I said on the day, that blurring of boundaries is being matched by a growth in transparency and actually a growing interest in ownership (and who owns what). It’s fine to say you are mission-led and (plan to) reinvest your profits, as one of the speakers did, but when you can look up their accounts & governing documents before they finish speaking and (if one wished) share that with the world…well, we are operating in a different time: good intentions aren’t good enough. And anyone reading the papers about, to take two topical examples, BHS or Land Registry, might actually think that who owns assets and how they treat them has never been a hotter topic.

Fourthly, I think new technology (is it new anymore?) rightly featured highly: there is little doubt that increasing digitalisation is having a really significant effect on many organisations and programmes (my example above about transparency being one). It’s hugely significant for membership bodies such as SEUK where I work – we now convene, facilitate, broker, advocate, campaign, use data, communicate and promote in totally different ways. But there still seems to be a lot of superficial jargon being lauded over more reasoned, complex thinking. In the last week alone, I’ve read about ‘impact derivatives’ and a ‘refugee impact bond’ – I may not understand either and both may prove wonderful, but I can’t help feeling that, at times, the product name or intervention is coming before any recognised need for it or clear sense of how it will work. Collateralised debt obligations for social value can’t be far away. Karl Wilding and I started the day joking about proposing an ‘uber for charity’ only for ‘uber’ to be the most used word of the day (without any notable reference to the fact that Uber-type platforms arguably entrench inequality, for all that they bring us in convenience & excellent technology).

Fifthly, I was struck by the really interesting conversation about anger – how the original drivers of charity and social entrepreneurs were (are?) anger and injustice, but that now they feel increasingly dissipated by a focus on scale, organisational professionalism and managerial effectiveness. I think there’s truth in that, and there is a challenge to us all to maintain and foster our activist and campaigning edge – the balance between working to change the system from within and from outside, perhaps. It also struck me that, when people were talking about truth to power, the Big Lottery Fund itself is arguably at least as powerful than most government departments now.

Sixthly, it was interesting to listen to a lot of the conversation turn to local systems and place-based change (Immy Kaur from Impact Hub Birmingham was spot on with her thoughts about key leaders across sectors driving change, I thought, as was Diane Coyle saying that system change didn’t happen top-down). I entirely agree: it’s increasingly clear that the mayors of big cities have the most interesting jobs and portfolios and power. And that one of the effects of austerity in central government combined with various pieces of devolution is that Whitehall has diminishing relevance. The most important work we do (such as the Social Enterprise Places programme or our Health & Social Value work) is all with and through local partners, trying to change things in local areas.

But it requires infrastructure, particularly because devolution can actually mean aggregation at regional or city level (as things join up into ever bigger bodies…) – and I was amazed (at least in the conversations I was in) on the lack of discussion about local infrastructure. The sector seems, largely, to have spent nigh-on 7 years analysing the problem in as many different ways as possible without genuinely committing to trying new approaches and solutions (NB – of course not true of all!). We are piloting a whole load of different approaches and joint deals with local networks and partners to try and work out what might sustain us all: what does a lean, local, effective, cross-sectoral infrastructure look like? and how is it resourced? Given the huge need for such networks and organisations with the way things are heading, it should be front and centre for foundations and those thinking about where they put investment. And let’s act not analyse on this one: we know what the problems are, and there are solutions and great examples out there.

Finally, I ended the day in a really interesting conversation about money (who pays) with a range of colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds (charity, infrastructure, youth, foundations, entrepreneurship etc). It was a more tangible, realistic conversation that covered a lot of interesting ground. For me, the main thing I took away was the ongoing need to maximise the opportunities and value from all of the assets we either have already or can influence now and in future: which means everything from the small charity switching to CafeDirect coffee through to how a foundation manages its endowment; from a big social enterprise providing a standby facility to a smaller peer through to big charities and universities buying social in their supply chain; and from a local council applying social value across all its services to a company using its reserves to invest in new innovation.

It is these last two which for me have to be key elements of the Future of Doing Good. Place-based plans and approaches will only work with significant investment and innovation (in the real, rather than novelty sense) over the long-term in (new) infrastructure. And we will only be able to tackle the problems of the future if we mobilise all our collective assets and resources and skills towards them. That is a future worth trying for, and to start building now.

The First £1.5 billion – and what it tells us

10 Apr

Gritty with quote_1As one (tough) financial year passes, and another (as tough) begins, it feels like a useful time to delve into the sector’s finances more broadly. More specifically, to take a look at Big Society Capital’s report on the Size and Composition of Social Investment in the UK, released a couple of weeks back. (NB – the report was Matt Robinson’s swansong at BSC, as he leaves for international development pastures – he’ll be missed as a clear, reasoned, and principled voice).

The headlines are impressive: £1.5bn worth of social investment (that’s the total value at the end of 2015, not deals done in the past year). Dealflow in the year c. £430m (which is up from the £200m figure reported two or three years back) demonstrating 20% growth or thereabouts. And some evidence of a shift from secured lending to more unsecured lending and different types of products.

[in passing, it is worth mentioning that I enjoyed the “We are confident to a reasonable degree of accuracy (+/- £tens of millions)”, which rather illustrates that the data is still not great. Oh for that margin of error….]

There is much else of interest in the report, not least the fact that this total is dwarfed by about £9bn in bonds and bank loans to charities and social enterprises, not to mention a further £59bn or so if housing associations are taken into account. An alternative version of the report could be titled “Social investment: putting it in perspective”, as some have argued for some time. Nevertheless, there are some signs of progress, and they should be welcomed.

I liked the definitional / segmentation approach too, as best demonstrated by these two diagrams:

BSC Segmentation 1 BSC Segmentation 2

This approach to thinking more clearly about social investment and the terms we use (impact investment, ethical investment, positive investment) is a useful contribution; it also came up recently at the release of some new analysis of social investment research by Jess Daggers and Alex Nicholls – also well worth a look – as well as in the Alternative Commission report. This segmentation of what we mean when we talk about different things seems increasingly important to me where social investment is concerned: so much of the heat and light and baby-bathwater debate flows from misunderstandings, often between (potential) investors and investees.

The percentages table on page 9 is where it gets very interesting: this is a breakdown of social investments by proportion / type. Here it is:

BSC Table 1

[The categorisation on the left relates to BSC’s strategy (Social Innovation, Participation, Scale etc). ]

So to draw out a few things here:

  • there does seem to be a bit more unsecured lending going on: this is good news from a social enterprise perspective, as we know this is what a lot of organisations want/need – although we don’t know how much of the 47% lending figure relates to property; when one adds this to 9% in ‘high impact social property’ and whatever might be in the 30% to ‘non-asset locked’, then the figure could still be quite high. Indeed, if one takes the 30% not going to charities and CICs out of the equation (called Profit with Purpose here), even a cautious estimate like the Social bank lending + the high impact social property give you 45% / 70% which would be equivalent to around 65% secured lending. Not the 80% / 90% figures we used to see, but still a significant majority
  • Social Impact Bonds are responsible for 1% of all social investment in the UK. 1%. Even though the report mentions that this could have been double if calculated mid-way through 2015, that would have only taken it (by my maths) to, er, 2%. If data beats opinion, as someone wiser than me once said, then let us hope that due notice is given to this figure – community shares are responsible for 6 times as much; charity bonds 6 times as much (from the same number of investments), unsecured lending 10 times as much etc.
  • Social Investment Tax Relief-related investments are small but there’s been some decent progress in year 1; it will be interesting to see if they can grow as fast as Community Shares, and add to the ‘democratisation’ and ‘retailisation’ of social investment: 353 investments in total for community shares, involving thousands of people.
  • it’s a bit unclear what’s in the 30% at the bottom; in the annex it says this largely includes work by ClearlySo, Triodos (eg. loans to co-operatives), work by Mustard Seed and more – estimated at £462m through 807 investments, £118m dealflow in 2015 through 46 deals. Would be interesting for someone to disaggregate this a bit more, see if there is overlap with some of the sections above and what extent is just companies limited by share and what is social enterprises or co-operatives with pre-CIC or non-ben-com structures etc

I’m sure that the data isn’t perfect, and I’m sure Matt knows that too – indeed, he has some excellent recommendations on how to continue to get better with the data and reporting. More transparent reporting like this will also help eliminate duplicates (eg. with co-investees arranged by a broker) more comprehensively, and also create benchmarks that can allow for better understanding of progress. I’ve learned whilst being in charge of the State of Social Enterprise survey, that improving the data and the questions is an incremental process and one which is best improved by openness (see our report for Access, Prospecting the Future, for example).

So what are the take-aways?
– welcome the evidence of progress, especially with riskier, unsecured lending
– segmentation, segmentation, segmentation
– let’s use data to inform our policies, programmes and practice- let’s be as open about that data as possible (esp. its quality and how to improve it)
– let’s keep this stuff in perspective