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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.

Growing an enterprising culture

26 May

Image[originally posted on SEUK website]

I’m looking forward very much to speaking at the forthcoming Evolve conference organised by NCVO and partners (including ourselves at SEUK). I’ll be leading a workshop on ‘Building a culture of enterprise‘ which, for me, is at the heart of building a sustainable, enterprising organisation. To put it simply, a legal structure or nice mission statement doesn’t guarantee you will deliver anything; or to quote the mighty Peter Drucker, guru of gurus, “culture eats strategy for breakfast

It’s also all too easy for those looking at social enterprise, whether they are starting up or starting out in the charity and public sectors, to view it in a very technical way: is it a trading arm? should we be a CIC CLG or CLS? can we TUPE the staff across? what board + governance will work best? And so on. Or the temptation (especially for start-ups) is to get obsessed with the business plan, with forecasts, with modelling and more – this ‘paralysis by paper’ was a not uncommon sight in my time at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, as people tried to get everything sorted before they started. Plans are important frameworks for overall direction and strategy – but, as the saying goes, no plan survives first contact with the customer…

So we are really talking about culture here: that people within an organisation feel the ability to spot, develop and pursue opportunities (in line with the mission), to take and be comfortable with risk (and reward), to be creative and problem-solve, to be flexible and responsive in their approach. I tend to think of culture as like an organisation’s ‘personality’ – like people, a culture can be rational and objective, shy and introverted, or outgoing and gregarious. Sometimes there are visible signs of this ‘personality’: how people dress, what the workspace feels like, mission and value statements. At other times, it is through actions and interactions that a culture becomes apparent: actions that say “this is the way we do things here“.

Over the last few years at SEUK, we have worked with lots of groups from the public sector spinning out as social enterprises, and many charities exploring a social enterprising approach: to all, the mantra has been that the culture is the important bit, not the technical process. At the same time, as an organisation ourselves, we have been undergoing a similar shift: the transition from having a large core government grant to being a real social enterprise ourselves with mixed, diverse income streams would not have been possible without a more enterprising culture – in every person, in every team. Many of our members have also likewise successfully developed a more enterprising culture – from 100+ year-old charities to 2000-employee spin-outs from the NHS.

How? Well, you’ll have to come to Evolve and the workshop to find out – but it involves strategies around challenge, validation, recognition and communication. And a surprising amount of repetition. And a surprising amount of repetition. And the willingness of great, committed, skilled people to come on the journey – fortunately there is no shortage of them in the charity and social enterprise world.

Investment readiness for social enterprise

5 Jun

[I’m now writing an article every couple of months in Third Sector magazine on social investment; here’s the one from last time….]

Much of my time of late has been taken up with planning for the Social Enterprise Exchange, last month’s trade fair and conference in Glasgow. A key element of any event is the programme and, with our partners Social Enterprise Scotland and CEiS, we deliberated long and hard about what areas to cover, which structure to use and whom to invite.

One area that everyone agreed had to be included was social investment, because it remains not only a hot topic of debate but also a key area of practical interest for social enterprises on the ground. We know from our research that access to appropriate finance is the leading challenge for social enterprises across the UK.

And it does feel like we’re entering a time of more action, rather than more debate.Big Society Capital has now been launched, seven years after the original Commission on Unclaimed Assets was established. For context, Westlife were number one with You Raise Me Up at the time; and, if you’ll excuse the shoehorned reference, much of the sector hopes the influx of new capital will indeed help “raise them up to walk on stormy seas”.

But BSC requires the intermediaries to be ready to take the capital and the enterprises themselves to be ‘investment-ready’ – a term that has now fully entered the lexicon of social enterprise jargon, and means, of course, different things to different people.

At Social Enterprise UK, our experience is that investment readiness comes after business readiness and finance readiness, which means getting the organisation’s operations and financial management ship-shape, even before you look at investment. Alongside this internal work, many of our members are learning about the external social investment world, which can appear fragmented and feel difficult to access and navigate.

Click here to find out more!Even as more complex and advanced financial instruments are developed at one end of the social investment world, there is much still to be done to make it accessible for social enterprises on the ground. The session at Glasgow focused on these practical realities, risks and rewards of social investment, because it’s not a panacea by any means.

So there is much work still to do, but there are also more promising signs in many different areas than just Big Society Capital: the new £10m investment and contract-readiness fund to be run by the Social Investment Business; the continuing growth of community shares (FC United recently raised £1.6m); the development of crowdfunding platforms (including an organisation successfully raising £112,000 on Buzzbnk); ClearlySo‘s new Social Business Angels Network; and the new investment coming into the Big Venture Challenge 25.

Best of all is that there is so much good partnership work in these initiatives; if we’re going to use social investment effectively to achieve substantially more social impact, then real partnership work and the hard yards of delivery will be essential.

>>Read the original article, and more on social investment, on Third Sector’s website here

Pop-ups, truths and language

16 May

I spent the whole of last week as one of the POPse! collaborative, helping create and run the world’s first pop-up social enterprise think-tank. It seems to these biased eyes to have been a great success: providing some fresh thinking (formal reports forthcoming), building new networks, and helping regenerate the local community (via the physical space) and the social enterprise community (via the posts, reports and events) a little.

[you can find a short video of me and another collaborator Henry Hemming talking a bit more about POPse! on the video page (scroll down)] 

It was also, crucially, great fun. And although I’m knee-deep in finalising a report about social impact measurement, and how we can move that whole space on, I confess to having enjoyed helping create the social enterprise playlist and  the 100 social enterprise truths a great deal. I think the latter has been tweeted and re-tweeted more than anything I’ve ever written or been involved in. Most people seem to be finding something of amusement / irritation / resonance (or all three), and it’s great that it’s being so widely read.

It makes me think about whether the reason something like that gets read more is because you approach it with a sense of fun and openness rather than approaching it as ‘work’ with ‘seriousness’. In that context, this recent Peter Day podcast about language and business is well worth a listen; a reminder to all in communications not to let words, jargon, language and our mindset get in the way of the job in hand (or to dull all creativity).

POPse! certainly did the opposite, allowing creativity and fun to give life to the work; and was one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling weeks for me in a long time as a result. Now we hope that the various policy reports and recommendations that have been produced also have an impact on the audiences they are intended for.

Jargon-watch: things I learned last week…

3 Apr

I love a bit of jargon as much as the next person; the odd neologism never hurt anyone, and it can be very entertaining…and just occasionally, even be insightful or make sense. And the social enterprise arena is prime territory, so I kept my ears and eyes open for gems over the course of Voice 11, Oxford Jam and the Skoll World Forum. Here’s some new, old and updated that stayed with me:

1) Crowd-so(u)rcerers: A term to be applied to genius socially-motivated tech types who use crowd-sourcing technology to solve social problems. eg. Patrick Meier of Ushahidi

2) Risk literacy: This was used by Larry Brilliant (the excellently-monikered former head of, and I prefer it to the normal ‘risk-aversity’ or ‘risk-awareness’ terms. As Mr Brilliant puts it:

“We need a whole new generation of leaders, leaders who are cross-trained in governance, who understand risk literacy, who can communicate complex problems in simple ways, who truly believe in democracy, and who are willing to engage with their constituents in a way that ups the conversation. So people know what the hell they’re voting for.  And what the consequences and the risks that they’re taking on. We’ve reached the stage where the public is being used as if it were the ultimate re-insurer. What happens when a nuclear power plant us built on an earthquake fault and things go bad? It’s paid for by the tax payers in ways that we haven’t contemplated. Who has done the risk cost benefit  analysis of continuing to use fossil fuels? So these are not things that we normally train students with. It’s a shame but I think that the three “r’s” of reading, writing and arithmetic must have a fourth “r” added: risk; as we understand the ever-more risky world that we have inherited and the complex interrelated-ness of the factors that lead to it.”

More on this here.

3) Impact investing: Ok, this is less new, but it was big news this week just gone. Now that JP Morgan are talking about this as a $3 trillion dollar market….(something described at one event last week as “outrageous or smoke-and-mirrors, depending on where you’re coming from”)…there is a massive amount of interest. As ever, Paul Cheng and Venturesome are ahead of the game, and they came armed with the Impact Investor’s Handbook which does a better job than I ever could of explaining the term and the field.

4) Deep Leadership: the title of a session at the Skoll World Forum which featured Desmond Tutu and Paul Farmer (of Partners in Health) amongst others. Though Skoll is prohibitively expensive for most, like TED it combines that exclusivity with accessibility online, so check out this and other videos on the SWF site; you can read Farmer’s speech (about Haiti) here. And this was looking at the ‘interior dimensions’ of leadership, which sounds a lot more pretentious than it was; certainly for many social entrepreneurs and leaders of social change, it’s an internal journey as much as an external one.

5) Intergenerationality: Interesting session on this at Oxford Jam, led by Volans, which changed the meaning of the term for me from “between generations currently living” (i.e. the usual way it’s used here is for bringing kids / older people together via a project / building etc) to “between generations alive now and those generations who will come after us”. Which changes the perspective radically in terms of legacy, innovation, business models and much more (see Volans’ website for more on this)