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Update from the field

29 Jun

As it now says in the About section of this blog, I’m focusing on my role at Social Investment Business, so this blog is paused, bordering on dormant. Hence no post since January.

I thought it might be useful to give a bit of an update on what we are doing over at Social Investment Business, though, and link to some recent articles from myself & the organisation as a whole. Hopefully of interest to loyal readers of this blog….

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Work Activity

We run a variety of programmes and funds dedicated to supporting charities and social enterprises to become more resilient. Check out the full list here.

I’m particularly excited about the Forward Enterprise Fund, a new investment fund focused on helping those who are coming out of offending and/or addiction. Get in touch if you know of organisations operating in that field looking for support & finance. The Reach Fund we manage for Access also continues to work well – providing grants for short, focused pieces of work to enable social investment deals to get over the line.

We are also providing the project management & secretariat for the implementation taskforce aiming to build a culture of social impact investment. This is focused on influencing mainstream finance, and you can find out more about that via the link. Right now, there is an open call for evidence on better (non-financial) reporting – it’s short, important and closing imminently >> click here to submit info.

Finally, we have entered a new strategic partnership with Social Tech Trust, formerly Nominet Trust. Early stages, but I’m excited about what we can achieve together in digital / tech for good.

Writing & Reports

We’ve released two recent reports; the first a few months back is a hugely important, in-depth look at our work on business support and readiness programmes over the last 5 years and more. It dives into what we have learned and makes a clear set of recommendations for what we (and the wider sector) should do in future. If you work in the social sector, a read is highly recommended >> Strength in Numbers

The second, much shorter report we released this week, which takes a look at recovery, restructures and mergers in the social sector (and what finance & support could help more organisations). We commissioned external experts Eastside Primetimers to write it, and I think it’s a valuable contribution to the thinking on this topic >> Match Points

Other recent blog posts that might be of interest include:

>> The time is now for social value from our chair Hazel Blears (written before the recent government announcements on this topic)

>> Keeping your friends close and your customers closer by me, on putting customers at the heart of our work

>> Our gender pay gap by our head of People, Shelby Bradley

>> Is social investment perpetuating or challenging inequality?by Owen Dowsett from the Centre for Social Justice Innovation at Dartington

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Hope all that’s of interest – a final note: we are recruiting two newly-created senior roles, so do spread the word and share the link: Director roles. It’s an exciting, busy and (hopefully) impact-ful time to be involved.

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A 5-part dose of new (year) thinking

21 Jan

So I’m a fortnight into a new role, and just back from a few weeks holiday, so I’ve had the luxury of doing a fair bit of reading and thinking, rather than ‘doing’ per se. I’m sure that won’t last and the email volume will rise….but here’s the five things I’ve found most interesting, insightful, inspiring or challenging. Hope you think so too:

1) Us white charity CEOs need to talk – my background is the same as Thomas Lawson, CEO of Leap Confronting Conflict, who wrote this powerful call to action. I’m going to be returning to this regularly on privilege, prejudice (personal & subconscious), lived experience and diversity. [a side-note, McKinsey’s latest research reinforces the link between diversity and positive company financial performance; though this shouldn’t be the prime motivator]

2) For this ‘Righteous Entrepreneur’, fighting hunger goes way beyond food – I had the privilege to spend a bit of time with Mike Curtin of DC Central Kitchen at an event, and he’s a lovely, down-to-earth guy. This is a great, in-depth article on the organisation’s work. Their eight rules of ‘righteous’ entrepreneurship are worth repeating:

  1. It’s Ok to be a little antisocial in service of your mission (stick to your principles)
  2. Maintain a sense of productive impatience (get better every day)
  3. Beware the folly of scale (it’s lasting change you are after)
  4. Shoot to thrill (capture imaginations by exciting others)
  5. Be proactively responsive (have a flexible approach to problem-solving)
  6. Failure is an option (if you learn)
  7. Don’t take **** from anyone (no-one should disrespect the people you serve)
  8. We have a moral obligation to put ourselves out of business (or go out of business trying): NB – does not apply to all models, but many

3) BlackRock’s Message: Contribute to Society, or Risk Losing Our Supportnormally I wouldn’t include the CEO of an investment firm sending a letter, but this was interesting in that it is a large player on the investment side (they manage $6 trillion apparently) talking squarely about social purpose, and how every company must make a positive contribution to society. Understandable then that this has been welcomed (and indeed heralded) by many in social and impact investment, especially in the US. Although of course nice words need to translate into action – BlackRock are one of the investors who seem to have profited from ‘shorting’ Carillion in the past year, for example….

4) The power of little: 6 things you need to know about small and micro community organisationsan interesting post from Nicola Frost of the Devon Community Foundation, and an insight into the so-called ‘below the radar’ organisations that are so crucial in communities (and aren’t necessarily conservative) with their understanding of place and connection.

5) Grant-Makers Must Learn New Tricksthis short provocation paper is part of a series from NPC, commissioned by Lloyds Bank Foundation, looking at how foundations and other funders can do more than just give grants: through non-financial support, through direct advocacy, and through building the knowledge (through research) and capacity of organisations they support to influence and advocate too. Recommended reading.

And a bonus bit of suggested listening. The Criminal podcast is unfailingly excellent, and I’ve learned a lot listening to it over the months (years?). One of the most recent episodes, The Choir, goes beyond being interesting though – it is a profoundly affecting interview with Professor Lawrence Lessig (a pretty famous internet-specialist law professor in the US). Not an interview about his day job, but about the abuse he suffered in his childhood. For anyone who doesn’t understand the profound repercussions that such abuse can have throughout someone’s life, or how an institutional environment (& the people who populate it) enables it to happen, should listen. In fact, anyone should listen, if you want to hear what courage, articulacy, and honesty sound like.

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!

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.

 

 

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.

Weighing up scale

14 Feb

laserfocus Just before Christmas, I was invited by NPC to speak at a breakfast discussion/debate about scale in the charity and social enterprise sectors. It was to go alongside a publication from them called Growing Pains – which is worth a read. Scale is something we seem to come back to over and over, always looking for the answer – how can we share / replicate / grow what works, and solve more of the problems that we face? Is it about letting a thousand flowers bloom, or should we be consolidating and encouraging organisations to merge and combine to be more effective? How do we help grow what exists and works whilst being open new ideas and solutions? Are we talking about scale of organisation, scale of turnover, scale of entrepreneur’s ego or (what we should be), scale of impact or value created?

Yes, lots of good questions and few answers. I’ve been grappling with this stuff in theory and in practice for lots of years now – I was trying to remember when I’d presented the idea of the Long Tail of Social Entrepreneurs at the Skoll World Forum; turns out it was 2007. Here’s the presentation:

Later, I grew (a bit) and ran SSE‘s franchise, and helped develop the brand and evaluation system to help it grow. And then tried to help other organisations replicate, first with a replication learning programme (which is still running) and then a social franchising manual for my current employers, SEUK. I also did a few bits of consultancy as a freelancer, trying to help organisations grow and scale directly. There were some minor successes, but also a dawning realisation about how hard this stuff was: there are a hell of a lot more toolkits, guides, pieces of research and learning programmes (yes, including from me) than actual organisations that have scaled or replicated. Successful social franchises are still extremely thin on the ground – and that’s with good people (like ICSF) trying to make it happen; but still it’s mostly research + accelerators, not organisations growing their impact on the ground.

Now of course the focus is all about how social investment can help you scale – it’s just been the wrong type of finance till now that has prevented scale. But if we combine the right type of finance with the right type of support, it will happen – there’s limited evidence this is the case (albeit there are some individual successes emerging from the likes of Big Venture Challenge and the raft of incubators that have been supported). As I said at the NPC debate, finance and support are absolutely necessary, but so is market readiness. If commissioners or the general public or private sector supply chains aren’t ultimately buying/paying for the products and services provided, then scaling is inevitably difficult or impeded. The other point I made in relation to the incubators + accelerators was that most of the evidence pointed to one common factor in the charities and social enterprises that had scaled: time. Most had taken time. So, unless technology allowed something to grow at a more exponential pace, the most common thing the scaling debate has lacked is a reality check about time – even if we are impatient for things to change.

So, any answers? Well, after making my usual reference to Forces for Good (still the best book on scale / charity + social enterprise I think) I had a stab at a few things I thought might help the sector in my presentation. These were:

1) Collaboration Prize – this one dates back to PopSE! days; there used to be a US prize which rewarded and recognised the best piece of collaboration in the sector. I think a trust or foundation could usefully set up something along these lines to foster, encourage and recognise the sort of behaviour and action we need.

2) Systems Fund – as I say above, finance is obviously important; but it’s often the timing and the type that is key, not just finance per se. Most of the small-to-medium social enterprises we work with who are looking to grow their work are grappling with when to invest in: new CRM systems; bringing HR functions in-house; new technology; new measurement / impact systems; and so on. Where is the investment fund that suits these needs, or focuses on them?

3) Buy Social commitment – small piece of organisational promotion, but the point is a general one. We can all help grow the market and grow the potential impact of organisations by changing how we buy. The sector itself has huge collective purchasing power – channelled for good, it can help us all achieve more (and change the reductive overhead debate).

4) Peer networks – a bit banal this (every support document I read always has peer-to-peer in at the moment….but probably with good reason), but I do think networking organisations at similar stages, and networking the people within them who do similar functions and are facing similar challenges might help. Trade associations and support organisations have a role in making this happen well.

5) Big-small mutuality – this is connected a bit to 3 + 4 above, really; we have started to see more of this, between housing associations and local social enterprises, or between big healthcare organisations and smaller peers. There is much more that could happen though – secondments of people at difficult times; sharing of documents; help with cashflow + bridging loans (without an intermediary); etc. Some of this can be facilitated and brokered; but much is also about relationships and providing the space for trust to be built.

All of these are thinking a bit more systemically, even if still thinking about finance, support and markets – while I don’t think we necessarily need a new buzzword (“systempreneur” ahoy), bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to systems makes a lot of sense to me. And that’s got partnership and thinking beyond just our sector at its heart. More of both would help get us towards the answers (and putting them into action) on scale, and not just generating more questions.

Here’s my slide set from the debate: