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11 essential social enterprise & entrepreneurship reads

30 Apr

I was happily scanning Twitter the other evening and came across a tweet from charity luminary Martin Brookes who asked “Charity types – can you recommend good articles, books or thinkers on what modern/21st century charities should look like, please? Thanks.” It’s worth checking out the answers from people more plugged into current charity thinking in response to the tweet. A couple of links that I’ll be following up on include articles on digital futures and ethics particularly.

I threw in a few suggestions, more from the social enterprise perspective, and it got me thinking about what would be the books that I would recommend to someone trying to get good insight and practical thinking for their social enterprise, responsible business, enterprising charity or new ethical start-up. So here are the ones that I rate, use and draw on myself.

1) Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits
Written by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod, this follows the Good to Great template of Jim Collins and tries to establish the key factors that make a successful charity or social enterprise. It’s obviously US-centric, but there’s plenty of interest here that still stands up a full decade after the first edition (it was updated in 2012): on leadership, on how to inspire advocates, on earning income (in pursuit of mission) and on combining service with advocacy.

2) Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Tim Harford is best known for his Undercover Economist colum in the Financial Times, and for being at the helm of the excellent More Or Less statistics podcast. This book is well worth a read, too, though – because at a time when social sector organisations need to a) test out new approaches b) have constrained resources and c) have no idea what is round the corner, being able to adapt is critical. There are important lessons here on how to ‘bet small’ with new ideas, on how to be resilient, and how to respond to changing conditions.

3) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
This book by Susan Cain has had me thinking more deeply about the ‘workplace’ and ‘team’ than probably any other in recent years. Social enterprise is about inclusion and accessibility, and we rightly focus on the track record of better representation of women, those with disabilities and those from different ethnic backgrounds. But this book too, at its heart, is about inclusion – of those who learn, work, communicate and contribute differently. As someone who chairs networks, convenes groups, facilitates workshops and tries to build a team and foster a culture, it’s a hugely relevant and important read. Unless you’re not interested in how you get the best out of everyone in your organisation…

4) Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck
I read this a long time ago, but still go back to its core essentials. The Heath brothers have written a couple of books since (about making decisions and about making a big change) but I think both pale compared to this, their first, which focuses on how to get messages across. For many in the social and ethical business space, this is a key area – we still underinvest in marketing, we still struggle to refine and articulate a core message (either for individual enterprises or as a movement) and yet we have the best stories: of transformation, of change, of the future. There’s some good practical advice in the Heaths’ SUCCESS formula that’s worth taking note of.

5) The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout
Beth Kanter is one of the most engaging and informative writers on all things social sector (aka non-profit) in the US. For many years, she was my go-to read on social media meets social sector, and this more recent book focuses on self-care – of individuals and organisations. As the oft-repeated saying goes, survival rate is meant to refer to the enterprise not the founding entrepreneur – and the swiftest route to not creating impact is to burn yourself and your team out. Thinking about that from the start – and what a similar approach might mean for your organisation – make this a good, healthy read.

6) The Social Entrepreneur’s A to Z
Whichever way you look at the data, there is a growing number of social and ethical start-ups being established by a whole range of people. And an almost equivalent number of intermediaries giving support, advice, business plan frameworks, funding, investment and legal structures advice. At Social Enterprise UK, we also have a rewritten and re-designed start-up guide coming soon, to respond to the level of demands and enquiries we get. For a more personal perspective and one that I think rings true from what I’ve seen in our world, I recommend Liam’s book – it’s real and honest about the anxiety, about the money, about the basics and about much more besides for budding (and current) social entrepreneurs.

7) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist
Underlying the growth of social enterprise and hybrid business models is an increasing understanding and acceptance that the way that capitalism and business is run currently is simply not working. I wrote about some of the aspects of this in my recent post on an inclusive industrial strategy (value, productivity, growth, resources), but there are people who’ve been giving substantive thought to this for years. Kate Raworth is one of those – someone proposing what economics and economic thinking should look like in the future. If you want some intellectual heft and academic clout to back up your arguments, start here.

8) Estates: An Intimate History
Social mobility, creating opportunity and the myth of meritocracy seem to me like some of the central challenges and problems we face. This book by Lynsey Hanley is a memoir but one with universal learning and appeal, particularly on how the physical walls and barriers are matched by psychological ones. A must-read for anyone wanting to get a personal insight into housing, employment and opportunity in modern Britain.

9) Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business
One of the central premises of social enterprise and, even more so, co-operatives and mutuals is that it puts employees, the community, and beneficiaries (or service users or whatever other synonym you want to use) at the heart of the business in a different way: in the governance, in decision-making, in the design of programmes and so on. But this premise isn’t always carried through, and I think there are still lessons to learn from other sectors. This book shares learning from some businesses big and small, and from years of customer service and satisfaction research: good insights aplenty.

10) What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
In this space where charity meets business, where money meets mission, the trade-offs between the commercial and the social are always at the forefront; indeed, they are at the centre of many of the main debates and areas of contention in social enterprise. This book by Michael Sandel is a brilliant exploration of how far the commercialisation and marketisation of our society can and should go – and what those limits mean for the world we want to live in and want to build. Thinking to inform your day-to-day.

11) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
A final dose of reality. It’s long been my view that much of success in social enterprise (indeed, in most things) is down to passion and perseverance. The imported myths of Silicon Valley incubation and super-speed scaling apply to only a small sub-set of (mostly tech-based) social businesses, and most of the other successes have passion, perseverance and commitment in common. Combined with luck, timing, and a great team, perseverance is as critical a thing to have in your locker as anything. And now there is research to back up this view – which provides the solid underpinnings to this book, which should give hope and succour to every entrepreneur who is battling to not only stay afloat but do more and do better.

Happy reading!

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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.

Moneyball and flash boys: social enterprise?

29 Jan

dataFirst post of the year, and the fact that it is almost the end of January probably reflects what a busy start to the year it has been – at SEUK, as everywhere, there’s a lot on: new people joining, working on strategy / business planning, policy work ahead of the election, next state of social enterprise research in full swing, plenty of delivery before year end, and events, dear boy, events. Yesterday, I was up in Salford with about 30 participants of our Health + Social Value programme, and then on February 3rd we have our Social Value Summit – a big conference in London to try and move the whole field forward. More to come throughout February + March, and more local events with members too.

All of which unrelenting pace means it was nice over Christmas to take time out to do a bit of reading, and get a bit of external inspiration and thinking in. Given my new role which started in January, I read Consiglieri by Richard Hytner which was OK, if a bit badly structured – there were some nuggets (highlighted ready to be Evernote-d), but nothing that earth shattering or insightful. Interesting to think about the interplay between senior people in an organisation, and what makes that work, and how different pairings and groups can work best together. But not sure the book added much to existing management and leadership literature.

More thought-provokingly if behind-the-times-ingly, I read both Moneyball and also Flash Boys by Michael Lewis (find more on both here). The former is all about ‘sabermetrics’, the data revolution in baseball and how it changed the sport for good. The latter is all about how technology (and the people in charge of it) changed, corrupted and made a mockery of the stock exchanges in the US and elsewhere. I’d recommend both – Moneyball the book is better than the film, with more of the tracing of the history (some data nerd back in the 70s stapling his own publication together), more depth in the surrounding characters, and more detail on how it actually works. Of course, all of that would have made a more boring film, but it makes for a great book. My takeaways are: don’t assume what you’ve always done (+ taken to be right) is the right way, or always will be; don’t underestimate what data can do for you (but also use it in combination with gut, feel, instinct + heart); and don’t think you can’t win with fewer resources.

Flash Boys is genuinely terrifying – I don’t feel capable of explaining it here, but basically clever programmers + traders exploit microseconds of difference in the speed it takes for trades to travel along broadband / cable lines to manufacture profits for themselves in between buyers and sellers of stocks. And financial institutions create their own ‘dark pools’ (basically closed exchanges) in which the customer has no transparency, but is promised said financial institution will get them the best price – strangely, they tend to rip the customer off…who would have thought? I thought having read a couple of books about sub-prime and collateralised debt obligations that I had read about the lowest to which financial services could stoop + over-complicate; but this stuff is quite extraordinary. Blatant screwing of the individual, of the smaller company, and even of large main customers – and basically buying up the exchanges + regulators to the extent that no-one can change it.

What’s interesting about it is that it takes all skill out of the process – there is simply technological exploitation (admittedly very cleverly designed technological exploitation), no understanding of markets, analysis of companies, building of relationships, gathering intelligence, or applying of experience; just quicker fibre optics + algorithms. I’m not sure what I took from this book, apart from raised blood pressure – a reminder, maybe, that while we look at methods of investment + financial products in the social sector, we should be careful what we import and what we seek to emulate.

It’s got me thinking a lot about the unintended outcomes of new technology too – I wonder whether, as Stephen Miller has written recently, we need to be thinking about the ramifications + potential of ‘tech for ungood’ as well as ‘tech for good’. But at the same time, I’m hugely encouraged by the potential of data (again through advanced technology) to better inform and influence our knowledge and our decisions. Given we do (some of) the leading research on social enterprise in the UK, we need to up our game on data, follow the money + help share it better so that the whole movement can use it: no small feat for the year ahead.

Economics, equality and enterprise: recent reading + links

11 May

came_here_to_be_inspiredI’ve been struck recently how very significant trends and evidence seems to pass the social enterprise world: we’ve got our own voluminous waterfall of information, announcements, news, analysis and reports to cope with, so it can be difficult to get time to look at the contextual stuff too. And yet quite a bit of it is very interesting indeed – particularly how, at the same time as social enterprise continues to interrogate its relationship to mainstream capital (often through the vehicle of social investment), that same mainstream capital(ist) system is being questioned quite fundamentally by places like the FT and the IMF and the OECD, and other important initials. So there is a broad theme here of inequality, economics and their relationship to our world. And some other stuff I thought was interesting :0)

– Martin Wolf writes in the FT about how A more equal society will not hinder growth – he bases this on a note from the IMF (pdf) which, to quote Wolf, found that “societies that start off more unequal tend to redistribute more; lower net inequality (post- interventions) drives faster and more durable growth; and redistribution is generally benign in its impact on growth, with negative effects only when taken to extremes”. I think this (and Wolf’s further analysis) is fascinating – in a sense, at the heart of the social enterprise movement is a belief that business can reduce inequality, increase social justice, and help everyone prosper. The IMF might just be backing that up. And the analysis could not be more relevant in the UK where growth headlines don’t tell the full picture.

– There is more on inequality here (via @JeremyANicholls) on the Public Leaders Network: The 2014 budget fails to deal with the deeper issues of inequality in Britain which talks about the OECD pointing out that the austerity implemented may be having good overall economic effects in the short-term (as per growth headlines mentioned above) but be storing up trouble and cost in the medium to long-term.

– Stephen Miller, Senior Researcher at UnLtd, has been taking a look at neolilberalism and social enterprise on his blog. It explores the relationship of civil society and the social sector to business paradigms, and what effect the current financial / economic climate might have on social enterprise, social entrepreneurs, charities et al: “Is there a danger that good ideas are left on the roadside because they aren’t in vogue, or because they can’t generate substantial financial return?” and “There is an argument to be made that, actually, the retraction of the State from civil society just displaces dependence, rather than creating more independence”. Well worth reading part 1 too.

– More geekily / narrowly, I was interested to read David Ainsworth’s take in Civil Society on the new Social Investment Tax Relief and how it might play out – he points out that there might be some gift and loan scenarios that make it an exceptionally good deal for lenders….much more so than those getting the investment?

– There’s more good stuff from Martin Wolf on the Astra Zeneca-Pfizer smackdown: Astra Zeneca is more than the investors’ call He discusses how it creates questions about ownership, control and who should make decisions (newsflash: he thinks the employees might have a say….I wonder where that happens more currently? #socent) [via @JohnHitchin]

– Dan Corry’s RSA lecture on How do we drive productivity and innovation in the charity sector? also warrants a read. Some of it is fairly unsurprising ‘impact measurement organisation recommends impact measurement as important’ shocker, but there is some more interesting stuff there too even if (again) it assumes that importing private sector practice and theory is right (creative destruction etc). I think the part about feedback loops (which plays to why stakeholder involvement / accountability is so important) and how little collaboration we see is spot on – we’ve been involved in some really big collaborative projects of late. They are *hard* but also the most important things we are working on. Much else to agree and argue with here…

– Elsewhere, business leads government kicking and screaming into the future. As politicians tread water on the environmental challenges we face (across parties), business takes it seriously because they are thinking further than May 2015 (or indeed, 5 years after that). Latest example? Lloyd’s of London calling on insurers to take climate change into account (via M&S’ Mike Barry: @planamikebarry )

– Meanwhile, this wouldn’t be a blog about economics if it didn’t feature Piketty (review in the Telegraph of his book, Capital), who is so de rigeur as to already be a cliché. Piketty also argues that capitalism as it is leads to inequality, and that the evidence for this is overwhelming. The response from the right I’ve most enjoyed on this has been Janan Ganesh’s call for ‘rational optimism’ and the Conservatives introducing a property tax – an unlikely prospect, perhaps, but interesting reasoning on the way there.

– And then, today, Ha-Joon Chang (of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism fame) returns to a theme he has covered previously: how students are demanding a more plural economics curriculum, and how we should resist anyone saying that economics is a ‘settled science’. And he challenges the ‘economics can analyse everything’ trend we have seen in recent years. Read more in After the crash we need a revolution in economics teaching

– And a final non-economics, non-equality one, but one that will undoubtedly be more useful than the rest, and usable tomorrow! – 7 rules for meeting up. I love these. Now if I could just stick to them….

Social enterprise and entrepreneurship links round-up July 2012

20 Jul

As ever, I’ve been struggling to read all the things I would like to….so here’s a snapshot of the various pieces, articles and publications that I’ve been bookmarking and finding of most interest in the last few months. Hopefully, they are of interest to you too…

– Fascinating article by John Lanchester (whose Whoops! book on the financial crisis is highly recommended) on how finance is ‘postmodern’ and the concept of value has become increasingly blancmange-like: Melting Into Air [via Dan G]

– Widely covered but important reading: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on poverty, employment and what the situation might be by 2020 – The Impact of Employment Changes on Poverty in 2020

– I’m always a sucker for anything interesting about China, having worked out there quite a bit in the field of social enterprise, and this is a decent round-up of recent + current activity: Pioneering social innovation in China

– Just an excellent one-page image of what non-profits should know about social media (pdf): Social Media Posting Strategy

– While we’re on the subject of social media, Beth Kanter is the go-to person on social media-meets-social enterprise + non-profits; so, for the geeky end of anyone reading, here’s her post on How to Get Insight from Data Visualisation which is significantly more interesting than the title makes it sound…

– Housing associations are commonly referred to as sleeping giants in the social enterprise world, but plenty of those giants have awakened and are doing some thought-through work in the space; see this article on Housing Associations and Social Investment for example

– Social investment is the most commonly-written about topic at the moment, and one area of interest is how charitable foundations think about utilising their endowment / investment policies to contribute to the growth; Dave Ainsworth from Third Sector magazine gives a good round-up on the subject here: Put the money where the mission is

– Impact investment and social investment require a different take on capital and markets; Panahpur’s video promo for their Return of Capital is a useful 5 minute introduction as to why this take on investment is growing; and has production values uncommon to the third sector to boot…worth a watch (and a read of the book)

– More practical in its focus and aim is the (rather hyperbolically-titled) The Ultimate Guide to Raising Finance for Social Enterprise which, rather prosaically, is a useful primer and introductory article on the subject. But useful nonetheless….

– Ashoka UK have a ‘Changemaker Toolbox‘ which is a list of organisations and websites (admittedly that sounds less exciting than Changemaker Toolbox); it’s a bit confused, with lots of overlap between sections and a little tricky to navigate by the headings, but it makes up for this in its sheer copiousness…

– And if that’s not enough reading for you, NCVO’s Karl Wilding has put together his traditional summer holiday reading list for us social sector types…see What’s on your summer holiday reading list? and add your own in the comments.

Cheers!

A brighter shade of fail: openness, adaptation and learning

17 Jul

I was on the phone the other day to an organisation, discussing the challenges of maintaining culture at a time of growth,  when I was asked if I could give “a couple of examples where organisations had failed to do so successfully“. Having shared a couple of examples where I felt that had been the case, it got me thinking how we continue to only discuss failure in closed conversations, back-channel discussions, confidential peer-to-peer programmes, internally within organisations, or privately over drinks. And yet it is a truth universally acknowledged that the best learning comes from mistakes, missteps and failures; indeed, that was why the question was asked on the call: “can we learn from other organisations, so we can improve and do things more effectively“….

 

Of course, it’s completely understandable why failure stays mostly behind closed doors. When something goes awry (be it big or small), people want to move on from it, not do a speaking tour on the ins and outs of the mistakes they made. There may also be reasons behind something not working that either can’t be made public or are simply due to unavoidable external circumstances. And it is also rare that something is simply “a failure”; it’s rarely that black and white or binary in nature, and the reality is often messier, greyer and more mixed: an organisation that closes down may have achieved huge impact (and a huge legacy), while an entrepreneur may make both mistakes and inspired judgements in close proximity. How often do you look back and say you would go back and do it differently if you could?

 

I’m intrigued by this relationship between failure and success: the fact that small ‘failures’ actually help us learn and achieve more, and achieve it more effectively….and avoid ‘big’ failures. This is something at the heart of Tim Harford’s book Adapt…which is an illuminating read for those interested in business and problem-solving alike. Harford’s central thesis is that the way to solve complex problems is to experiment and adapt. Or, more precisely, to try new things in the sure knowledge that some will fail; to make those failures survivable; and to evaluate (aka knowing when you’ve failed and why).

 

This starts to give us an indication of how we can build failures and learning into our organisational processes, to really get to a position where continuous improvement (and incremental innovation) is a reality not an aspiration. And to a point where this moves beyond piloting and testing the market by individual entrepreneurs who are learning-by-doing; instead, we need to move to a place where this is built into our internal systems and processes.

 

As for the public side of failure, maybe it just needs reframing, or included in future awards ceremonies: best comeback, most resilient social entrepreneur, most dignified exit, finest legacy….until we get to these levels of acceptance, we’ll continue to not only miss out on the richest, most practical learning but also risk giving an overly positive (or narrow) view of a sector that suffers the same range of mishaps, closures, successes and comebacks as the commercial world.

All that you leave behind

1 May

I’ve been finalising some pieces of work for my old employer, including the launch of their forthcoming evaluation. There’s lots in there, but the bit that has resonated with me over the last few days has been about the ‘ripple effect’ that individuals can have (in this case, social entrepreneurs): inspiring others, passing on experience + expertise, mobilising volunteers, employing locally and so on. Much of which is difficult to quantify, but extremely valuable.

Having been at one organisation for a long time, it’s also inevitable to think about my own personal impact there: projects overseen; strategies implemented; contributions made. There’s also a flipside with the life of the freelancer, who usually drops in to an organisation or project, makes a contribution, then leaves and moves on to the next thing. Is the contribution constructive, useful, implemented, practical? Does it move the project forward? Or, to put it another way, the question on both counts is “What did I leave behind?”

Which is why it was a pleasure to get a package through the post this week which took me back to the first organisation I’d ever worked at. I worked with a phenomenal social entrepreneur called Nicholas Albery. He started too many initiatives for me to list here; suffice to say it encompassed everything from learning poetry by heart to declaring a part of West London independent from the UK to ecologically-friendly funerals. One of the myriad things he started was a walking club, which was connected to a book he authored: the Time Out Book of Country Walks. You could do one of the 52 walks whenever you wanted, but if you did them on a particular weekend (according to the rota in the book), you would find yourself with the self-organised walking club.

It was (and is) a brilliant idea, combining many of Nicholas’ loves: walking, nature, health, community, togetherness. The strength of the idea is best illustrated by what happened when Nicholas tragically died in 2001. Members of the Walking Club he created wrote a new book of walks in his honour; I negotiated and co-ordinated with Time Out, drew the maps (!) and edited / proofed their excellent text…and this was ultimately printed as the Time Out Book of Country Walks vol. 2. A great testament to Nicholas, and a fitting tribute from the people he’d inspired and brought together.

Both the walking books have just been reprinted (all the proceeds from both still go to support charities that Nicholas set up), and those involved were kind enough to send me a couple of complimentary copies. They’ve been improved and updated (still by the members of the walking club, working with Time Out), and it was great to see that they are still going, still providing thousands of people with enjoyment each year, and still raising thousands of pounds for charity as well.

What an amazing legacy Nicholas left behind: the Walking Club + books are just one example…and he is an example too. I’d be happy to leave even a hundredth of the impact he did in the things I do.