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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:


Luck and doggedness

20 Oct

findsomethingKatie and I went to see a play at our local theatre the other night, which doesn’t happen that often – but it was excellent (see here for details of The Herd, written by Rory Kineear). And like all good books or plays or films, we came out talking about it, and it set me thinking.

The bit that stayed with me was late on in the play (#notaspoiler) when the grandfather says that life ultimately comes down to “Luck and doggedness…nothing more than that; sometimes good luck, sometimes bad, and doggedness either way”  – I may be slightly paraphrasing, but you get the gist.

It got me thinking about how this applies more widely than family + relationships (which is what the grandfather was talking about) and particularly how it applies to success in the world of work. My gut feel is that we tend to be extremely impatient in the world of social enterprise – that’s no great surprise, because most people work in this sector / movement in order to change things…and because the problems being tackled remain huge. And, on the one hand, that impatience can be harnessed usefully – it motivates, provides urgency, prompts innovation, and can lend a focus to action. But I’m increasingly thinking that it leads us to ignore history, not wait long enough for results, and be on the constant hunt for things that will accelerate change…rather than those that will sustain and deepen it in the long-term (see this recent article on social enterprise accelerators). And that we therefore underplay the role of both luck and doggedness.

I remember reading Forces for Good (a US book about the six practices of high-impact non-profits) which detailed how one thing the organisations featured had in common was a) the length of time the organisations had been going and b) the length of time their leaders had continued with that organisation. [Interestingly, I heard Andy Street from John Lewis speak last week, and he made the point how most corporate CEOs last around 2 and a half years, an extraordinarily short period of time; he’s currently in his seventh year…and is approaching 30 years total at John Lewis] Doggedness  – which I think of as commitment allied to persistence – played an important role in scaling impact….over a long period of time. Similarly, looking at the ‘scaling social innovation’ literature, one finds that most of the featured ideas or innovations that have scaled have one thing in common – they were at least a decade or more old. Doggedness and keeping at it, and making incremental improvements constantly, and big decisions when necessary, are a key part of success in this world.

The luck can manifest itself in various ways – it is well know that the amount of time you put into a bid or proposal is often inversely proportional to the likelihood of you being successful with it; chance encounters lead to opportunities where planned blueprinted approaches do not; the right government Minister at the right time can make huge change in an area of work (and vice versa); the perfect person can apply for that role you’ve struggled to fill…and so forth. Some of this, of course, comes through doggedness – keep articulating the impact of what you’re doing, keep going to those events, keep improving the quality of what you do, keep building relationships…and the ‘luck’ follows. But sometimes it is pure chance – and, like Royal Mail shares, luck can go down as well as up.

For me, and this may be a very personal view, it is about remaining open whilst being dogged – too often, the latter can mean ‘heads-down, narrowly-focused, on-to-the-next’…which can mean that opportunities, or lucky moments, are missed or not seized. Or the doggedness is only applied to operations rather than business development….this was part of my theme on a related topic, which I spoke about at the excellent Social Enterprise Wales conference in Cardiff last week. I was asked to speak about how social enterprises could innovate to grow and sustain themselves….the powerpoint is embedded below, but my key points were that innovation was about

– implementation, not a nice new idea…(innovation is often incremental, not radical + disruptive)
– staying open to new ideas and new learning
– making time for it to happen amongst the day-to-day
– collaboration – it’s easier to be ‘lucky’ the more people you know and work with…

and, of course, that change is both relentless and continuous…so you have to keep doing it. Or what another person on another day might call  being dogged.

So Unsexy – the drab realities of social enterprise + investment?

1 Apr

technology changesAlanis Morrisette, for those of you who didn’t stick with her beyond the highs of Jagged Little Pill, has a song on one of her later albums called ‘So Unsexy‘ – it’s not a wonderful piece of work, but I’ve been reminded of it quite a bit of late whilst beavering away in the social enterprise space, as we are deluged by the sexy, the innovative, the techno-phile and the next big thing.

This post by the ever-provocative and insightful Craig Dearden-Phillips inspired me to get these thoughts down in writing – in the post, Craig wonders whether the social investment marketplace would ever “back the next Mark Zuckerberg” in its current formation, and wonders whether in fact he or she is languishing away in a bedroom, filling in a grant application. Craig was pointing out that backing disruptive innovation is about risk and that there is no ‘social silicon valley’ equivalent in the UK of the kind of network of entrepreneurs and angels who take that risk over in the tech world of the West coast of the US.

It reminded me, though, that actually it is an extraordinarily good time to be a UK-located tech-based social entrepreneur. You could apply to:

Wayra UnLtd
Bethnal Green Ventures
– Google’s Global Impact Awards
– Big Issue Invest’s Tech for Good Challenge
NESTA’s Innovation in Giving
alongside existing pioneering funders like Nominet Trust who focus on this area (and support some of the above) and programmes like Big Venture Challenge that have traditionally had a decent-sized tech slant to them.

This, in my opinion, is a good thing – we need to understand how we better use technology for social good, and put as much resource + energy into that as we do into understanding its potential for neater apps and better games. Where I work has its own slew of tech-based product + service ideas that it wants to implement. And I’m an absolute technophile, excited about all the latest developments (see my latest column on the potential of technology / peer-to-peer in social finance, for example). So the following should be placed in that non-Luddite, ‘not an either-or’ context…

…because I can’t help feeling that we are neglecting, or at least not putting similar sizes of resource, into other, less ‘sexy’ areas. The social enterprise that’s excited me most over the last few months is the Bounce Back Foundation – it does painting + decorating (and other manual work), and employs ex-offenders. And it does it very well. Another which I came away from completely inspired is Fusion 21 – a procurement and housing social enterprise, which uses purchasing scale and aligned social mission to create employment and training. It is fantastic – financially resilient, scaling social impact (1000+ jobs created), and spreading out from its North-West roots to other locations. And creating (real) apprenticeships in construction too.

I could go on with other examples, but what connects these two (though at different stages + scales of their journey) is a) their focus on employment and b) their focus on the mission / social impact; really, painting & decorating and procurement are, in this instance, just means to an end of employment, reduced re-offending, job readiness and so forth. It’s the old “we don’t hire people to bake cookies, we bake cookies to hire people” deal. They are rooted in practicality, and tackling some of the most intractable problems we have right now: youth unemployment and reducing re-offending.

I can tell you where the next socially-minded app or game might come from, or even the most brilliant use of technology in healthcare or crowdfunding which revolutionises its field; but I’m struggling to see where the next social enterprise plumbers, the next social enterprise construction firm, the next social enterprise farm, the next social enterprise garden centre (to add to Social AdVentures), the next housing refit social enterprise, the next loft insulation social enterprise….and so on.

This isn’t arguing for switching investment away from technology – but, to generalise horribly, the things that make it so swift to scale (low cost base, few people needed) also make it less likely to create jobs and employment on the ground. And if the financiers all pile in to tech, because of that potential to scale rapidly, rather than grow incrementally, we may miss a significant opportunity for social enterprise to tackle the biggest problem the country faces right now. It might not be sexy, but it’s hugely needed.


Social finance: ownership challenges

21 Oct

The most recent column on social investment that I write for Third Sector magazine focused on social investment + finance, and the challenges + opportunities that arise from its current growth. Here’s an excerpt and a link to the original article:

“…we should never forget the importance of ownership. While Grameen is an extreme example of government intervention, the wider issue of social investment is bound up with ownership, whether we are talking about community shares, equity investments or institutional boards. Governance and ownership are at the heart of achieving the appropriate balance between the social and financial in investments and enterprises: something as true in Darlington as in Dhaka.”

Read the whole article here >>

Social franchising: the what, why, when and how

20 Apr

So one of the things I’ve been working on of late has been a series of pieces of work on social franchising for the Social Enterprise Coalition. I’ve been interested in this method of replication since running the School for Social Entrepreneurs franchise (and helping develop the central systems and processes), going on to design a learning programme for other organisations seeking to use a similar methodology, and directly advising frontline social enterprises.

You can read a couple of my previous pieces on the subject via the Writing section of this site, and recently on the SSE blog.

Today the Coalition launched the social franchising manual and made it available online, along with my audit of all the current research, tools and support available on the subject. You can download the manual, read it in chapters, and read the research in the social franchising section of their website.

I hope it proves a useful addition to the literature on the subject, but that it is primarily useful as a practical introduction; franchising is just one of a spectrum of replication options, and we need more case studies to add to those included in this guide: as ever, in this space, we learn best by doing. And we need more to be doing more of what they do at a greater scale. Whichever methodology and approach they choose.