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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!

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.



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.

100 social enterprise truths – revisited in 2015

6 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

80. Imperfect action is almost always better than perfect inaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

Innovation: why disruption isn’t the only option

21 Aug

GoldfishGoogleIn the world of innovation, Clayton Christensen is a big deal – his book The Innovator’s Dilemmahas been the bedrock of much innovation theory since it first came out in the late 90s. It’s central thesis about disruptive innovation (& how new technology disrupts old businesses because their existing value networks & paradigms don’t value the new stuff) and it has been hugely influential across business and a wide range of other sectors. Which is why it caused a bit of a stir recently when it was given a fairly public takedown by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. Her take was that taking a rigorous, research-led look at Christensen’s theory identifies plenty of holes – not least that several of the organisations he raised up have since not done that well (while those apparently being ‘disrupted’ have since gone on to great things).

I’m not well-informed enough to know which side of the argument to come down heavily on, although my sympathies are with Lepore – captivating business theories aren’t often followed up and analysed fully (it will be interesting to see if we are *still* talking about changing the tax letter 10 years from now as the best case study of ‘nudge’ in action in the UK). It’s been similarly well-documented how many of the companies in Good to Great then went to Gone. Broadly, I’m with John Kay in the FT on the Lepore-Christensen squabble (see Innovation disrupted by warring gurus).

But the thing that stood out for me from Lepore’s critique was less about the strength of the research / evidence or otherwise (Christensen has pointed out he has updated his book several times since), but more her attack on the overuse and misuse of the term itself. As she puts it, “Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives” – that certainly resonates with me. In the social sector here, we do seem to have simply appropriated the term and assumed that we should also seek to achieve or find or foster disruptive innovation. Should we? Is what Christensen puts forward about digital cameras or steel manufacturing as easily applicable to mental health services or youth unemployment? Is the language and landscape of clusters, accelerators and incubators appropriate for the social sector?

I was struck by this when listening to a senior guy from Google talk to a room full of mostly social enterprise leaders about all things Google – how they innovate, what products are coming up next, building culture, not being evil etc. It was interesting & engaging, and there was the odd nugget or takeaway that I felt I might be able to apply or think about putting into action in some way. But I couldn’t help feeling there wasn’t much that translated; a feeling reinforced by one of the leaders afterwards who pointed out that it was a little bit different running an enterprise supporting the most vulnerable people with complex needs in a very disadvantaged area in England – the ability (& propensity) to take risk is entirely and rightly different; innovation very likely to be incremental not disruptive; 20% of time on innovation development a non-starter; minimum viable product a scary prospect..and so on. Even before we get to the difference in scale. Is Silicon Valley really the model for everywhere (& everything) else?

It’s prevalent – take this recent TED talk from Joi Ito which takes the Silicon Valley ‘model’ (& different iterations of it) as the model for innovation everywhere, in a vast swathe of assumption. Or, as another recent article put it, we have heard a lot about Zappos and the way their values and practices revolutionise business, but we have heard less about Zalando and their effective implementation. And our sector ends up talking about social silicon valleys and the like, despite a long and outstanding track record of creating organisations & movements that create social change – Amnesty, Oxfam (& countless other major charities), Open University, the co-operative movement, the Big Issue (& accompanying network of street papers), fair trade, and many more. It’s primarily supposition that more innovation infrastructure, or mimicking venture capital in all its forms will lead to any acceleration in the continuation & growth of this track record.

The other error our sector seems to be making is often conflating innovation with technology (and in doing so, often with novelty). Got an idea? Got an app to go with it? Score! Got an approach that works? It isn’t online? No score! [NB – this is exaggerated for probably limited comic effect] I’m a passionate advocate and user of new technology, and of course it is changing our lives in myriad different ways, and opening up new possibilities – but does it require specific focus to generate more examples? Or, as one recent post put it, isn’t every entrepreneur a digital entrepreneur now? Isn’t every social entrepreneur too? Maybe this specific focus is helping drive progress – though I’d like to see more money flowing to investment in technology that helps existing organisations have more impact; apparently the ‘systems investment for medium-sized effective charity/social enterprise’ doesn’t have quite the same pzazz as a new start-up being accelerated.

[incidentally, kudos to Local Partnerships who are piloting a social investment fund for investment in technology; it has a narrow-ish focus, being only aimed at spin-out social enterprises from NHS / Local Govt, but let’s hope other funders and investors see if there is room for similar]

It’s not just about the social sector, though. Innovation is everywhere – I’m a big fan of Santander at the moment, because they have really authentically engaged with the social enterprise world, and supported a good range of initiatives (including some with my organisation, SEUK) which are trying to address gaps and build markets. But their current account advertising baffles me: its claim is that it is three things: 1) Useful (OK) 2) Rewarding (OK) 3) Innovative (erm…). Why on earth would I want my current account to be innovative? Many other companies are doing the same – as if innovation (rather than reliability, customer service, responsiveness, better pricing, consistency etc) is simply a good thing per se.

Of course, this isn’t an argument for the status quo – we need new answers and solutions but we also need to use the ones we have already found (& evidenced) more effectively; and we need to improve and refine models and services that work, but could be even better. And we know that social enterprises innovate – sometimes through necessity, sometimes by happy ‘accidents’ and coming-togethers, and sometimes by design. Often they have new collaborations and partnerships at their core. Certainly at SEUK, our most meaningful forward-pushing work is done in partnership (often multi-partnership) – sometimes that makes it more challenging than going alone, but the outcomes are usually better and more lasting.

So this isn’t an anti-innovation rant. But it is a ‘let us think about (& foster) innovation in the ways that are appropriate and fit to us’ plea. Less catchy. As I’ve written before, Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals says that the “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative“. I’m not sure this has been an attack, or successful, but here’s a go at a constructive alternative made up of several parts:

– let us celebrate and encourage incremental innovation (and the persistence and commitment it can require), giving them profile to rival the new start-ups and waves of entrepreneurs
– let us look at infrastructure & interventions that promote & incentivise collaboration, partnership and joint working; across sectors, seeking to create shared, collective social value (less bees and trees than constructing a hive)
– let us look at the best innovation practice from not-the-US: what are the best approaches from Europe, Asia and elsewhere? (have we given up on frugal innovation? where are the long-term approaches + thinking on diffusion / replication?)
– let us read + respond + give equal prominence to alternative voices: the work of Judy Estrin (the Innovation Gap) and Mariana Mazzucato (the Entrepreneurial State) as we do to the Facebooks and Googles (Judy Estrin is worth listening to as a counter-blast to the rest of Silicon Valley on this recent Peter Day podcast: Inside Silicon Valley)
– let us create funds for investment in IT and finance systems, and in training / networks for those in operations, project management and partnership roles
– let us support innovations seeking to change the market and operating environment so that all those start-ups can thrive in their chosen industry

Or we could wait for the hack hack and the Accelerator for Accelerators to be joined by a Lab Lab and an Incubator Incubator. And wonder whether the money spent is really helping the people and communities that prompted the action in the first place.

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.