100 social enterprise truths – revisited in 2015

6 Apr

popseIt’s almost four years ago that I took part in PopSE!, the first ever pop-up social enterprise think tank. I remain proud of what we got up to that week, the report we produced (which still bears reading), and the people who I got to know, meet and work with. It was also a lot of fun, and a refreshing break of new thinking, unfettered by organisational strictures and political agendas. One of the most read pieces was the 100 social enterprise truths that I tweeted throughout the week; they have been translated, re-blogged and continue to get sent round occasionally as they get re-discovered. Somewhat inevitably, the quality went down during the week, and there’s an air of desperation to some towards the end….as you will see. At the risk of extended navel-gazing, I thought I’d have a bit of a revisit of them and see what still holds four years on…

1. Measuring social impact is about improving what you do, not just proving how well it works
Stating the obvious, but still needs saying now – evaluation needs to be of use internally: for decision-making, to improve a product or service, or to motivate and retain staff and supporters. How many are doing social value forecasts looking ahead to the year?

2. Choose legal structure after getting clarity on mission, activities, financing, governance
Yep – still stands.

3. It’s not the size of the profit, it’s what you do with it that counts
Sort of – although you can do more if you make more, arguably. I have a feeling I may have just been making a crude sexual allusion rather than a serious point.

4. More-than-profit is better than not-for-profit (profit’s not a dirty word)
I still don’t think profit is a dirty word – but I don’t think more-than-profit is great. I’m a not-for-dividend-distribution guy now.

5. Successful social entrepreneurs build trusted, authentic relationships
Still think this is true, and still overlooked when people look at success factors. You can’t accelerate trust and authenticity, generally.

6. Social entrepreneurs aren’t individual heroes; they build teams, create networks, mobilise movements
Yep.

7. Social entrepreneurs can work at community, local, national and international levels
Yep.

8. If a pound was donated each time a social entrepreneur quoted Gandhi, no-one would need to fundraise
This has only got worse as Twitter has taken hold. The web is awash with platitudes.

9. Teach too many men to fish and you screw up the entire marine ecosystem and deplete the fish stocks
The serious point about the complexity of problems we are trying to solve still stands. It’s why people are banging on a lot about systems these days; and collaborative impact. Stuff like that.

10. Scale of impact is more important than scale of organisation (or scale of ego)
Yep.

11. A particular legal structure doesn’t guarantee an organisation won’t be rubbish (or that it will be brilliant)
Yes. On a run of stating the obvious here. Although I did see one organisation say that being a social enterprise “guaranteed social value” in the last year or so, which is obviously hogwash.

12. You don’t need an MBA to be a social entrepreneur; you need a JFDI
I’ve probably mellowed on this a bit; I still think people can get lost in the theories and the plans, and never see if they have a customer…but the wave of activity from universities and business schools isn’t a bad thing.

13. Successful social enterprises have a ‘network mindset’ not an organisational one: focus on the mission
This is one I feel more passionately about – seems like everything we do of any value is in partnership, or beyond the boundaries of our organisation.

14. All money comes with strings attached; that’s fine as long as you know what they are
Sort of – although some come with a hell of a lot, and some with barely any.

15. Social enterprise isn’t a panacea; but it can provide a treatment for some social ills, and help prevent others
A bit trite, but true enough. Social investment is the solution to everything now, so I’ve been able to say this a lot less recently.

16. Social entrepreneurs’ work has a ripple effect: mobilising and inspiring others to get involved
The best do, but not all move beyond themselves.

17. There is nothing more tedious than a social enterprise definition debate (apart from two of them…)
The wifi connection on Virgin Trains is beginning to be a serious rival.

18. Not everyone is a changemaker (FAO Bill Drayton)
This was a reaction against the Ashoka mantra. Actually, their university work is more democratic and wide-reaching than the Fellows programme, and I saw them use the phrase ‘Everyone a contributor’ recently (hat tip Eli Malinsky) which seems more realistic to me.

19. The thing that connects most organisations that have successfully scaled is length of time
Still banging this drum. Still being ignored, largely. My fledgling plan for a ‘decelerator’ will have to wait.

20. Social enterprises overestimate what they can achieve in the short-term, and underestimate it in the long-term
I think I was trying to say stick at it, because good things happen if you keep going at the right thing. Still believe that.

21. Organisations are powered by people, and they should be trained, supported and invested in
File this one under obvs.

22. Networking is important for social entrepreneurs: be generous and genuine, and it will be reciprocated
Networking is important, but only if followed-up and leading to something tangible. As the saying goes, networking is only one vowel away from ‘not working’

23. Even if you call them a client, an end-user or beneficiary, the customer is still king
Yes, yes, thrice yes.

24. Social enterprise leaders need to look after themselves; if they burn out, often so does the organisation
Still true, though not just of the leaders.

25. Populate the organisation with radiators not drains
Believe this more than ever. A drain can occasionally do a passable radiator impression at interview.

26. Before you get the right people in the right seats, be sure you’re driving the right bus
Yep – persistence is only good if you’ve got the right thing to aim at.

27. Enjoy it: it’s not called “earnest-and-worthy-and-dull” enterprise; humour is allowed (& often necessary)
Humour in the right context and at the right time.

28. All organisations live or die by the quality of what they deliver (at the price they do it)
Yep. A cynic might add “who they know”.

29. Buy from other social enterprises, and get them in your supply chain: but only if they deliver
Ahead of its time – Buy Social now a big campaign and initiative for us.

30. Underpromise and overdeliver: all too rare in social enterprise
A bit harsh perhaps, although still too few seem to know the old maxim that success = performance minus expectation

31. A crisis might be a terrible thing to waste; it’s also a terrible thing to cause (#bigsociety)
Bit dated this….but you get the gist.

32. There are more holy grails in social enterprise than in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Sort of – certainly there’s always another person with “the answer” though I think that happens in every field.

33. When talking about asset transfer and finite resources, don’t forget the most important assets + resources are human
Yep.

34. For ‘niche in the market’, read ‘need in the community’ (and vice versa)
Yep.

35. Addressing market failure probably won’t have a commercial rate of return
Yes. Much of social investment would do well to return to this; of course, not always true, but often enough.

36. Learn by doing, learn from others, learn from failures, keep learning
Still believe in being prone to action where possible, and being open to learning.

37. A 3-year government contract is no more sustainable than a 3-year grant
Sustainability comes from diversity these days, I feel (see below).

38. Sustainable financing comes through not being over-reliant on any one source of money
Easier for some than others, but diversification remains important.

39. Optimistic pragmatists and realistic opportunists flourish
I think this is true – but now I think that the optimism + pragmatism (or realism / opportunism) don’t have to be in the same person; they can be in the same team or senior leadership.

40. There a lot of good social enterprise business plans, not many good businesses
I’m not sure there are that many good plans, actually; the business plan obsession may have lessened a bit.

41. If the motivation isn’t really there at the start, it certainly won’t be when times get hard
Bit meaningless this one.

42. Charm and ‘being nice to people’ are enormously underrated
Yes, although it also doesn’t equate to delivery or to speaking truth to power. All things in balance + moderation.

43. Edison was right (1% inspiration, 99% perspiration)
If anything, he overdid the 1%.

44. The “Facebook for social entrepreneurs” is Facebook
Still true – I got a call about “developing a digital social network platform for social entrepreneurs” this week!

45. Newsflash: your social network for a niche community won’t fund itself by advertising
I think I saw a lot of these as applications to Big Venture Challenge round 1, so was a bit bitter.

46. Honesty builds trust builds credibility builds support: ‘calculated candour’ is the way forward
Probably the most important thing on here; with the exception of the ‘calculated’ which implies cunning and planning, whereas it was meant to mean ‘don’t be nasty for the sake of it’.

47. Diversifying too early usually means doing lots of things averagely rather than one thing well
Yes, though tough to square with 38 above. Diversifying at the right time (whatever that is) seems the key.

48. Don’t scale up before the model’s proven, however much noise & encouragement there is
A version of 47 really, but still true. And we still see start-ups talk social franchising.

49. There’s more truth spoken over drinks and meals at a conference than on the stage
Yes. Still not cracked how we create more of that at events – perhaps one can’t.

50. BigSociety, Social Enterprise, Civil Society, Third Sector: it’s more important what we do than what we call it
Well, no-one calls it Big Society any more.

51. Believing your own hype is the start of the downward spiral
Erm, OK.

52. The biggest challenge for spin-outs is not technical but cultural
Yes. And for charities “becoming” social enterprises too.

53. The UK is a pioneer in the field; but first mover advantage also means first mover mistakes
Yep. What’s worrying is not being aware of that when we start to export…humility and caution!

54. If the government created an investment fund for construction, it would be called BuilderBuilders
A bad and dated joke. Now it would be called the Builder Investment Readiness Fund.

55. Measuring social impact is where financial reporting was 200 years ago (so don’t beat yourself up)
196 years ago now. I *think* we’ve made some progress.

56. Too many people confuse innovation with novelty; an idea is easier than continuous improvement
Yes – although now people confuse innovation with everything. It’s a miracle I haven’t been disrupted while typing this.

57. It is possible to go to a social enterprise conference or seminar every working day of the year
No it’s not.

58. There is a difference between having great contacts and actually making use of them
See Networking above.

59. Work is needed on better exit strategies for social entrepreneurs (no more ‘life president’ stuff)
Remains an issue across the social sector, though there are good examples too.

60. More than 146,000 new species have been discovered since the first Social Investment Task Force began
At this point, it seemed like Big Society Capital might never open.

61. UK social enterprise debate is too internally-focused: huge amount to learn from international models
Yes – I think we have a lot to learn, and haven’t brought enough of the learning back to the UK.

62. Mission isn’t about a nice statement: it’s for decision-making, communication & planning
Obvs.

63. Beware the ‘self-styled’ social entrepreneur; normally means it’s more about ‘self’ and ‘style’ [see Melody on the Apprentice]
Here’s one I got totally wrong – I still think people calling themselves a ‘social entrepreneur’ without having done anything need to chill their pants a bit. But I was entirely wrong about Melody Hossaini – she’s shown herself to be absolutely committed to social enterprise and doing a load of good work enthusing future generations in recent years. Apologies.

64. Empowerment means giving power to and equipping with skills, not ‘asking a few questions’
Yes – I think there was a rash of government consultations about empowerment at the time.

65. You can’t really solve or change much from your desktop #slacktivism
Yep.

66. Entrepreneurship is a mindset, an attitude, a set of behaviours (so is social entrepreneurship)
Yep. And skills, and knowledge, and networks etc.

67. You can’t teach entrepreneurship, but you can learn it; learn it by doing and from others
This is a stating the obvious section, I think.

68. Look back after you leap, and work out how you might leap differently next time
Same point as giving things a go and learning from failure.

69. There are many social impact measurement tools, with more in common than they care to admit
This has become a bit more apparent since – the principles of reporting are now largely agreed by most of the main social value measurement agencies.

70. Social entrepreneurs are often ‘biographical’: powered by a personal injustice or experience
Yep.

71. The word ‘synergy’ should be outlawed from daily use
There are worse crimes.

72. Risk literacy and risk awareness are where we need to get to (not just risk vs risk aversion)
I think there’s a nugget of something interesting here.

73. The best CaféDirect coffee is the Machu Picchu: not too strong, but smooth + robust
Still drinking it in the SEUK office.

74. (Social) entrepreneurs are a little bit born and a lot made
Probably. But depends.

75. A group of social entrepreneurs always ultimately revert to gossip
One could replace ‘social entrepreneurs’ with ‘people’, probably…

76. Bad partnerships mean muddied thinking, a multitude of meetings, & compromised delivery
Yes. And even good partnerships take a lot of time. Agreement on the way in is key….

77. There are a spectrum of replication options: it’s not ‘open source’ vs ‘command and control’
Yep.

78. Social enterprise blends outlooks and approaches; so a blended return makes sense
Yep.

79. Understanding the problem is part of the solution (tackle the causes, not the symptoms)
This is important, if seemingly facile. We still treat a fair few symptoms – that’s not always a bad thing, but reflection on where we can have most impact is always useful.

80. Imperfect action is almost always better than perfect inaction
Testify.

81. BigSociety is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma (apols to Churchill)
And now it’s a memory, wrapped in a sheet, buried in the ground. Pretty much.

82. Financial management matters; you need to know your way round a P&L and cashflow
Obvs.

83. Investors and social entrepreneurs don’t speak different languages, they speak different dialects
I’m not entirely sure what I mean here, apart from trying to sound clever or possibly repeating someone cleverer than me without understanding their point. There is still definitely a job to do around language, as I’ve been hearing this in recent weeks still (from both parties).

84. There are as many social enterprise support agencies & networks as actual social enterprises
Not any more.

85. “Build it + they will come” only works if you build it right (& listen to the people you’re building it for)
Still important reminder for those at the levers of power…

86. Social enterprise isn’t an easy option; starting a business never is
File under obvious.

87. Finding a good social enterprise web designer is like finding a needle in a haystack
We have some better ones now!

88. ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’: with fewer ‘deep’ quotes and more doing
Same point as the Gandhi one above, really. Well was clearly a bit dry at this stage.

89. If London-Edinburgh trainline was a social enterprise, it would stop outside Newcastle when it ran out of funding
Ironically, our former Director of Comms got stuck outside Newcastle on a train to the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, which is about as close as this metaphor got to ringing true. Of more interest should be: can we have a social enterprise rail franchise?

90. Most investors, funders, policymakers to do with this space are in London (it’s not an anti-Northern conspiracy)
Bit lame this – no excuse, and lots of the best stuff is in not-London. We did recommend Big Society Capital should be based in Leeds….

91. The dark Divine Chocolate is a bit full on: go for the (lovely) milk / mint / orange / hot chocolate
This is obviously made-up as I ran out of inspiration. The Sea Salt and Caramel is the actual flavour to go for.

92. Sectors are diverse + contain multitudes; don’t talk about the public or private sectors (or social enterprise sector) as if they are uniform
Obvs.

93. Survival rate is meant to refer to the business, not the social entrepreneur
Still holds – largely same point as burn-out point earlier.

94. There is an over-supply of loan finance already, with not enough organisations fit, able or willing to take it
Interesting to reflect that I wrote this in May 2011, well before people started talking about the lack of pipeline. If anything, that supply has only been (substantially) added to.

95. Social entrepreneurship isn’t a career, it’s a calling (do something before you take the label)
Bit trite.

96. Secretly, most social enterprises are still pursuing the “hope for a sugar daddy or mommy” business model
I’m not sure this is true – most are hoping to achieve what they set out to do, but they tend to also be fairly independent.

97. The first social entrepreneur was a Sumerian who started the first library / tax system in 1500 BC
Fact.

98. Enterprise support agencies are often amongst the most un-enterprising organisations around
Not always true, but I think it certainly can be.

99. Despite the cynicism + in-fighting, there are great orgs, great people, real change happening
This is still true if a bit “hug-it-out”. Our job is to not let the internal debates cloud or mask the large swathes of great stuff happening.

100. Don’t believe anyone spouting supposed social enterprise truths at you; they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about ;0)
Clearly desperate to make 100 at this point.


I was trying to think about what I’d add to these now. Here’s a few:

101. Just enough anxiety propels an organisation forward
Organisations who are completely secure can get complacent or lazy or try and do everything. Ones that are fighting to survive often miss the larger picture or opportunities due to fear + panic. There’s a book called Just Enough Anxiety too.

102. The big problems require answers and partnerships from all sectors – public, private and social.
I’m frustrated by the binary conversation of the main political parties (public vs private) and in the fact that they are behind much of the private sector itself in how to create a more sustainable, social economy. It will come from the do-ers on the ground.

103. Drink enough water, get enough sleep, keep things in perspective
If the last few years have taught me anything, it is partly to go for it but also to keep things in perspective. Some things are out of our control, some things happen by chance; all we can be is prepared and resilient.

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5 Responses to “100 social enterprise truths – revisited in 2015”

  1. Bounceback Food April 6, 2015 at 8:57 pm #

    Thanks for sharing Nick, it’s the first time I’ve seen the list. A fascinating read, so many of these ring true with Bounceback Food’s start-up journey!

  2. leeinroyston April 7, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Reblogged this on Enterprise Essentials and commented:
    I wish I’d been part of the PopSE! four years ago – I’ve certainly valued the 100 truths since and recommended them to others.

  3. Adrienne Bitoy Jackson April 11, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Mission Messages.

  4. adrian ashton May 25, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

    if only every social enterprise and social entrepreneur I meet had read this list first…

    but with regards to no49 – you’ve obviously never heard me speak on stage or participated in ‘training’ sessions I deliver 😉

  5. Eddie Capstick June 8, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    Reblogged this on Eddie Capstick and commented:
    100 + 3 social enterprise sentences. Number 97: The first social entrepeneur was a Sumerian who started the first library / tax system in 1500 BC (is the first recorded…)

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