Start pedalling while Rome turns…

5 Jun

This post Stop fiddling while Rome burns! by Liam Black has prompted a fair amount of attention over the last few days: many supportive (it seems from the re-tweets on Twitter + the comments on the piece) with a significant minority agreeing with the bulk of the analysis but asking what the actions or solutions are.

I think I find myself in the latter camp. Anyone who’s been working with social enterprises or entrepreneurs over the last 12 months knows the reality at the coalface: the Big Society rhetoric is far removed from the reality of what cuts mean for civil society at the frontline. Funding, investment, capital, income: whatever we call it, there is less money around, and accessing it (or competing for it) is more difficult than ever. And where new opportunities are meant to be arising with initiatives like the Localism Bill, Big Society Bank, Apprenticeships and more, they are either coming too late, are too small, or not relevant for the majority. And existing opportunities are either disappearing completely or, due to scale or cost, disappearing out of reach.

But, as Jonathan Jenkins said in an article recently, “Spelling out the problems which are currently being faced locally is the easy bit”. We all know, to use Liam’s metaphor, that Rome is burning. The question is what to do about it. Liam’s solution is clear:

“And where the bloody hell are the leaders of the so-called ‘social enterprise movement’ whilst all the hard won gains made over many years are being wiped out on the ground?…Dare they publicly take on a government which still pays most of their bills? Seriously, they need to before they have no-one to lead.”

There is definitely a need to be clear with government about the realities on the ground, and the realities that are flowing from some of their policies. But, as David Floyd points out in his response to Liam, leaders like Peter Holbrook and Allison Ogden-Newton have been speaking out on such issues. A quick glance at SEC’s recent press releases and published letters shows that they’ve strongly critiqued the white paper, the NHS reforms, the approach to the Regional Growth fund, the Big Society Bank, and the government’s approach to welfare. A press release on the latter topic says that unless government changes things on the frontline: “…Big Society risks going down in history as nothing more than hollow words.” Surely not a million miles from Liam’s words?

So then it becomes about the way you do policy work, the way you advocate and where you place your emphasis. Some have less confidence than others in the behind-the-scenes policy conversations and realpolitik that continue alongside the public pronouncements; but hectoring can lose you a seat at the table. And leadership isn’t about who shouts loudest.

And, if Rome is burning, social enterprise should not just be standing there shouting ‘Please don’t burn! Stop lighting fires!’, but also trying to put the fires out, supporting those who are suffering from the effect of the fires, building fire exits and sprinkler systems, keeping their own organisation from going up in flames, and, as Sarah Dunwell puts it pragmatically in her blog, pitching for the rebuilding work. The challenge for social enterprise leaders is to try and meet all of these needs, not just the important one of fighting social enterprise’s corner by taking on the government: to protect work, prevent damage, and prepare for the future as best as they possibly can.

Where I do strongly agree with Liam is about the cult of the ‘digital’ social entrepreneur; I’m no Luddite, and am fully aware of the potential for new technology to change things for the better in new ways: to connect, to mobilise, to communicate and so on. Indeed, I have promoted and advocated for the use of new technology in every organisation I’ve worked in. But in the social and political spheres there is a current fetishisation of new technology that gives it undue prominence over the frontline, face-to-face work. People seem to continually forget that Kiva works because of the microfinance organisations on the ground; that a volunteering app only works because it links to real volunteering opportunities created by real organisations; and that crowdfunding needs something to fund. When Rome’s burning down, the digirati and slacktivists aren’t going to save it from behind a computer screen; though at least we’ll be able to crowdfund the rebuild, and visualise the new city layout on our iPad 2. :0)

Finally, a very unsexy point, but we can’t base policy work on anecdote and personal experience either. As an evidence geek, it will be interesting to see the effect of the last couple of years on social enterprises on the ground, and how this shows up: in UnLtd and SSE’s evaluations, in Delta Economics’ research and in SEC’s State of the Social Enterprise survey. Are things as bad as it feels (or about to be that bad), and it does feel bad to me, or will the research say something different? That research won’t make a difference to those losing jobs, cutting back work, and feeling the pain in reality right now. But it does matter to those leading the movement, and for those seeking to judge whether they’ve been effective in their work.


9 Responses to “Start pedalling while Rome turns…”

  1. beanbagsandbullsh1t June 6, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    “People seem to continually forget that Kiva works because of the microfinance organisations on the ground; that a volunteering app only works because it links to real volunteering opportunities created by real organisations; and that crowdfunding needs something to fund.”

    Yes. I’m also wondering if it might be time for someone to shine a light on the (apparently little challenged) notion that lack of volunteering is down to the failure of community organisations to make use of the surplus time corporate types have available on the commute to and from work:

    ‘Andy, 32, an account manager at Delete As Appropriate, says: “I have at least seven and a half minutes’ uninterrupted coverage on my iphone every morning after the train leaves Guildford. I’d be more than happy to devote three and a half of those minutes to advising a local charity on how they could improve their online strategy for recruiting volunteers. I sent a them message on Twitter but I’ve heard nothing for three whole days. And then they complain that no one wants to help out in the community!”

  2. Theresa Burton June 7, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    “and that crowdfunding needs something to fund. When Rome’s burning down, the digirati and slacktivists aren’t going to save it from behind a computer screen; though at least we’ll be able to crowdfund the rebuild, and visualise the new city layout on our iPad 2. :0)”

    I am a strong believer in more collaboration in the sector instead of division. First we have Liam Black pointing his finger at “Social Enterprise Leaders” plus a bit of backlash at the “digirati and slacktivists”.

    Call me old fashion, but I don’t see how this helps anyone. Anyway, all this seems very familiar, when I worked in large corporates in the private sector, internal bickering also helped to divide instead of build and innovate. Shame the SE sector doesn’t seem to be doing any better.

    The NESTA report on Growing Social Ventures got it right “Work together” should be more of a theme for the SE intermediaries.

    Yes, I am co-founder of a crowd-funding site, so no doubt resent the implied take on it ;-). No, not unrealistic that digital technology will solve everything and don’t think it is the latest and greatest – just hopefully a part of the solution (after 20 years of working with information technology I have seen many waves of gushing euphoria about what it can achieve come and go, it is just a part of the landscape, to more or less degree, to any business or social solution).

    I absolutely ADMIRE hugely, and am honoured to work with, the social entrepreneurs who are out there trying to innovate and deliver change in whatever way best suits their skill set, experience and passion.

    Theresa Burton
    CEO and Co-founder, Buzzbnk

    • Nick Temple June 8, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

      Hi Theresa: thanks for the comment. I don’t think I or Liam are against crowd-funding or other uses of technology; on the contrary, I’m a big fan, and think it does play an important role in what the new intermediary infrastructure looks like. So am supportive of BuzzBnk’s work.

      But I do think government / the Big Society funders / backers are placing an undue emphasis on technology-based solutions. Your Square Mile might well be great; as might some of the work of the Nexters (indeed, I know several of them, and the work IS great), but few of them are operating on the coalface…more assisting those working on the frontline to be better connected / better funded. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s about the emphasis, and where the money / support is flowing that my beef was with.

      There are bits and pieces of money that are doing things differently. I think the BIg Local Trust, which is £200m over 10 years for the most deprived and disadvantaged communities, is of much more significance than the Big Society Bank, for example. But that’s where the trouble, unrest and needs are (see Catherine’s comment below).

      That’s not to say we shouldn’t pursue the use of new technology and new digital solutions: but I think things are a bit too skewed in that direction currently. We used to joke at my old work that if you were starting a new charity for fundraising purposes, you’d start a sick donkeys for sick children charity. These days, in social entrepreneur-ville, I think I’d start a smart phone app for connecting a fragmented community….

      Finally, I don’t consider this internal bickering. I think Liam threw out a useful challenge (how should the social enterprise movement respond to what’s happening) and various people have responded. Isn’t that healthy debate? I’m all for sector partnership (I helped build and negotiate several whilst at SSE), and am currently working for various intermediaries in the sector, and its a common theme to my work. Debating the big issues doesn’t mean we can’t work together.

  3. Catherine Court June 8, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    Do we really believe that evidence will be the good deed in the dirty world? Our major (over 3000 unemployed participants) multi-location self-employment initiative offered three years detailed evidence – and analysis – to DWP’s policy wonks to guide New Enterprise Allowance policy. Their response? “You should share this with the NEA new contract holders when they’re appointed, oh, and maybe BIS would be interested…” Evidence, schmevidence. Policy is set, regardless of suitability, and it’s based on low- or no-budget, unproven, “brainstorming” from a bunch of new i-consultants. Maybe we just all have to hang on in there till it all implodes, then pick up the pieces using the emergency funds that will surely be found to stave off unrest…

    • Nick Temple June 8, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

      Hi Catherine.

      Thanks for the comment. I take the point; I had a bit of a rant about this to someone the other day. I spend my time going round talking to social entrepreneurs about the importance of measuring their social impact (having listened to politicians and private-sector financiers say how important it is) for proving and improving what they do…only to see it often summarily ignored when contracts / funding / investment is decided. There is, to use someone else’s phrase, too much policy-based evidence making and too little evidence-based policy-making…

      In this instance, I just meant the evidence that social enterprise was suffering significantly under the current public sector / capital constraints. I hear lots of stories, and know of many examples (such as your own), so my feeling is YES! But I’m also wary of basing decisions on a few examples, rather than substantive data.

      Good luck amongst the schmevidence and i-consultants ;0)

  4. Tobyblume June 8, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    Oi! Stop havin a pop at iPads as well! 😉

  5. Celia Richardson June 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    The evidence from State of Social Enterprise survey, to be published very shortly, is surprising. Please rest assured, we’ll be pulling no punches when we present the evidence on public services and cuts. But the story’s not a one-liner because while they’re faced with obstacles and a tough environment social enterprises are being….entrepreneurial. What’s clear is that there’s a fightback in the offing. The people leading it are social enterprises and they need the spotlight this time. No-one would question the need for social enterprise leaders to fight the corner of social enterprise.


  1. Your apps are lovely but… | Beanbags and Bullsh!t - June 14, 2011

    […] said Nick Temple in his response to Liam Black’s recent suggestion that social enterprise leaders had failed to respond to the […]

  2. Digital isn’t the only answer « Jon Kedwards - June 15, 2011

    […] Interested to see a bit of debate kicking off about the cult of the digital social entrepreneur – most notably here. […]

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