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Current (social enterprise) reading…

30 Aug

It’s been a Gaping-Void-Start-A-Blogwhile since the last post, so I thought I’d cheat a bit and do an update with some links that I hope are of interest (I now use Pocket for this bookmarking, after a recommendation from Toby Blume). I’ve grouped them into arbitrary random themes….happy reading.

Brexit signs:

 

Technophilia & phobia:

 

Random miscellany (or ‘other’):

Till next time…

 

 

 

The Future of Doing Good: 7 thoughts

3 Jun

besogoodA couple of weeks back, I attended the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Future of Doing Good’ event. If you haven’t come across this yet, they are convening and ‘catalysing’ a conversation which aims to step back and think about what the future of doing good looks like – this is important for their own work, but also for the whole of civil society or, even more broadly, society in its entirety. Or as Dawn Austwick, Big Lottery Fund’s CEO puts it on her introductory blog, it’s a chance to think about how we might achieve “a radical rethink of the way people and communities can shape and improve their lives“. They also commissioned a journalist, Sonia Sodha, to do an overview report on the Future of Doing Good as part provocation, part summary, part mapping of some of the main things to think about. I found it a very interesting, if occasionally frustrating read: which may be inevitable when you are trying to cover such a lot of ground in a relatively short report.

 The event itself aimed to continue, expand and grow that conversation. Below are a few of my reflections both on what we heard, and on what I think should be one of the main focuses of work going forward.

Firstly, I should be honest and say it felt incredibly indulgent for me to spend a day away from work just having a conversation – with no clear remit, plan of where it will go, what it might lead to, or whether it would (ultimately) benefit our members. I was glad I was there, but plagued by a constant nagging awareness of the to-do list and the operational realities in what is now a very lean and busy team. I don’t know if others felt the same: what I do know is that this itself demonstrates one of the challenges we currently have – my internal reaction was a microcosm of the current reality: strained (human) resources, an urgent mindset and an increasing divide between those with money and those without: more parochially in this sector as well as in society at large.

Secondly, there was lots of the discussion of relevance to social enterprise – we were given cards with some of the main trends / areas to think about, and these included: creating opportunity from austerity, blurring of organisational boundaries, people driving change, new ways of resourcing, , environmental change, cross-sector working and so on. If this is the future, then social enterprise and entrepreneurship will continue have a significant role – and should be at the centre of people’s thinking, not in the margins or afterthoughts. And that this needs to not be all about individuals – but about networks, about teams, about recruiting great people (millennials, yes, but also those ‘finishing’ their first set of careers at 65 or 70), about investing in better systems, about incentives to collaboration and more.

Thirdly, there was a lot of ‘the future is sector-less‘ chat. As long as we’re ‘mission-led’ it will be OK. Which I go with to a point, but as I said on the day, that blurring of boundaries is being matched by a growth in transparency and actually a growing interest in ownership (and who owns what). It’s fine to say you are mission-led and (plan to) reinvest your profits, as one of the speakers did, but when you can look up their accounts & governing documents before they finish speaking and (if one wished) share that with the world…well, we are operating in a different time: good intentions aren’t good enough. And anyone reading the papers about, to take two topical examples, BHS or Land Registry, might actually think that who owns assets and how they treat them has never been a hotter topic.

Fourthly, I think new technology (is it new anymore?) rightly featured highly: there is little doubt that increasing digitalisation is having a really significant effect on many organisations and programmes (my example above about transparency being one). It’s hugely significant for membership bodies such as SEUK where I work – we now convene, facilitate, broker, advocate, campaign, use data, communicate and promote in totally different ways. But there still seems to be a lot of superficial jargon being lauded over more reasoned, complex thinking. In the last week alone, I’ve read about ‘impact derivatives’ and a ‘refugee impact bond’ – I may not understand either and both may prove wonderful, but I can’t help feeling that, at times, the product name or intervention is coming before any recognised need for it or clear sense of how it will work. Collateralised debt obligations for social value can’t be far away. Karl Wilding and I started the day joking about proposing an ‘uber for charity’ only for ‘uber’ to be the most used word of the day (without any notable reference to the fact that Uber-type platforms arguably entrench inequality, for all that they bring us in convenience & excellent technology).

Fifthly, I was struck by the really interesting conversation about anger – how the original drivers of charity and social entrepreneurs were (are?) anger and injustice, but that now they feel increasingly dissipated by a focus on scale, organisational professionalism and managerial effectiveness. I think there’s truth in that, and there is a challenge to us all to maintain and foster our activist and campaigning edge – the balance between working to change the system from within and from outside, perhaps. It also struck me that, when people were talking about truth to power, the Big Lottery Fund itself is arguably at least as powerful than most government departments now.

Sixthly, it was interesting to listen to a lot of the conversation turn to local systems and place-based change (Immy Kaur from Impact Hub Birmingham was spot on with her thoughts about key leaders across sectors driving change, I thought, as was Diane Coyle saying that system change didn’t happen top-down). I entirely agree: it’s increasingly clear that the mayors of big cities have the most interesting jobs and portfolios and power. And that one of the effects of austerity in central government combined with various pieces of devolution is that Whitehall has diminishing relevance. The most important work we do (such as the Social Enterprise Places programme or our Health & Social Value work) is all with and through local partners, trying to change things in local areas.

But it requires infrastructure, particularly because devolution can actually mean aggregation at regional or city level (as things join up into ever bigger bodies…) – and I was amazed (at least in the conversations I was in) on the lack of discussion about local infrastructure. The sector seems, largely, to have spent nigh-on 7 years analysing the problem in as many different ways as possible without genuinely committing to trying new approaches and solutions (NB – of course not true of all!). We are piloting a whole load of different approaches and joint deals with local networks and partners to try and work out what might sustain us all: what does a lean, local, effective, cross-sectoral infrastructure look like? and how is it resourced? Given the huge need for such networks and organisations with the way things are heading, it should be front and centre for foundations and those thinking about where they put investment. And let’s act not analyse on this one: we know what the problems are, and there are solutions and great examples out there.

Finally, I ended the day in a really interesting conversation about money (who pays) with a range of colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds (charity, infrastructure, youth, foundations, entrepreneurship etc). It was a more tangible, realistic conversation that covered a lot of interesting ground. For me, the main thing I took away was the ongoing need to maximise the opportunities and value from all of the assets we either have already or can influence now and in future: which means everything from the small charity switching to CafeDirect coffee through to how a foundation manages its endowment; from a big social enterprise providing a standby facility to a smaller peer through to big charities and universities buying social in their supply chain; and from a local council applying social value across all its services to a company using its reserves to invest in new innovation.

It is these last two which for me have to be key elements of the Future of Doing Good. Place-based plans and approaches will only work with significant investment and innovation (in the real, rather than novelty sense) over the long-term in (new) infrastructure. And we will only be able to tackle the problems of the future if we mobilise all our collective assets and resources and skills towards them. That is a future worth trying for, and to start building now.

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.

Social enterprise listening…

2 Mar

listenLast week I was getting the rail miles in – Cardiff, Manchester, Exeter and Cambridge planning, discussing, representing and speaking about social enterprise. Apart from giving me an in-depth knowledge on the exciting topic of “which railway company’s wi-fi is worst?” and checking out which parts of the country are still underwater, it also meant I had the chance to listen to some podcasts I’ve been storing up for a while or which I haven’t got to on the commute. There’s a lot out there (they’ll let anyone have a go these days – see here). So here’s some recommendations from recent listens:

Peter Day‘s programmes are always worth listening to; one recent one on ‘disability in the workplace’ featured John Charles of social enterprise Catering2Order >> download here

– The magazine Monocle has always struck me as the paper equivalent of a Hoxton hipster with an asymmetric haircut, but it’s actually a decent read with interesting content. I recently discovered their Entrepreneurs podcast. Episode 73 (they are now on 124) was on social entrepreneurship, and featured the House of St Barnabas >> download here

– Analysis is always worth a listen, though requires a bit more concentration than some of the frothier radio out there. A recent episode that was more interesting than I thought it might be was ‘The Philosophy of Russell Brand’, looking at the philosophers and thinkers behind the Occupy movement and more >> download here

– While we’re still on Radio 4, the Bottom Line is still a winning format: 3 CEOs / leaders discussing a particular industry or area of business, hosted by Dragon’s Den / Today maestro Evan Davies. It remains an aspiration to get an episode renamed ‘The Triple Bottom Line’, but until that happens, I’ll have to enjoy episodes like the recent one on MBAs or something that I remain unmoved by and sceptical of, the ‘Sharing Economy’ >> download here

 

– I enjoyed the Freakonomics books, and I enjoy the podcast too – it’s still a bit superficial and I still occasionally find myself ranting at it, but it’s well-produced, takes different approaches to subjects, and gets me thinking. And that’ll do me. Recent episodes have looked the Pope dissing the free-market economy and a conversation about how to Fight Poverty with real evidence >> download here

 

– Social Good is a podcast from the Chronicle of Philanthropy which looks at social media for the social sector (broadly). It’s not bad, if completely US-focused, for a UK audience – still some good tips + nuggets of practical advice to take away in amongst the mutual congratulation. And occasional stand-out episodes like the recent one on big data >> download here

– Finally, of course, you have the ubiquitous TED talks. To be honest, these vary substantially in quality and level of insight, particularly with the rise of TedX. And I think there is something to recent critiques of boiling everything down to neat soundbites. Arguably you know something has reached peak hype when it gets a talk (for example…). But there’s some gold in them there hills too – recent highlights have included a talk on ‘how to make companies productive in an increasingly complex world‘ (ignore the fact that TED felt the need to add subtitles because the guy has a French accent speaking English!). You should also check out Michael Porter (on business / shared value) and Michael Sandel (on morals / markets) – Sandel wins, IMHO. But I’m a sucker for self-deprecation and unassuming big achievements, so here’s Paul Pholeros on, well, fixing homes to make people healthy:

 

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
Nexters
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.

 

Can information drive behaviour change?

8 Sep

Been wondering what to blog about after another hectic month or two. Then I was talking to someone this week about retrofitting social housing, and the need for this to be accompanied by behaviour change….and it occurred to me that the area where technology meets behaviour change was pretty pertinent at the moment. It was interesting to learn about the work going on in preparation for the Green Deal (which is what our conversation was about), and how the technical changes (eg. photovoltaic cells on roof, new boilers, new insulation, better glazed windows) need to be matched by behaviour change. Not much point changing all the windows if the resident opens a window rather than turn the heating down…which led to a further chat about whether some of the nudge-type techniques (including how much money neighbours have saved on utility bills, smart meters etc) would really work.

I love reading behavioural economics books like Nudge and they are very persuasive, but I have found myself questioning whether it isn’t just a way, from a policymaker’s point of view, of ducking difficult decisions. This post by Will Wilkinson, which I was alerted to on Twitter, takes that thought and expands upon it at length: Behavioural Economics: Ammo for Bullshitters. Well worth a read, especially because it deals exactly with the electricity bill example I mention above (“showing someone their neighbor’s bill is not the best way to get them to cut their own bill. The best way is to charge an amount that reflects the true cost of the electricity”).

That leads me on to SoCap 2011 which is a conference about the intersection between money and meaning, or more prosaically about all things social investment and impact investing in the US and beyond. I’ve watched a few of the sessions livestreamed, and the opening plenary had an interesting discussion which included Mathieu Senard of Alter Eco and Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation. They had an interesting conversation about whether they wanted their products to be judged purely on their place in the market (i.e. a bag bought because it’s a great bag, not because of any other reason…) or whether they wanted to utilise the stories behind the product to sell it (potentially at a premium). Is it enough to sell the products and have the associated social impact or does that waste the opportunity to utilise the products to create awareness and behaviour change (and potentially more impact)? That can be a chicken and egg type of conversation, as SoCap founder Kevin Jones pointed out: “Once you’ve changed the world, you’ll be able to sell way more bags…”.

Stories that hold the meaning proved crucial when doing my work in Beijing recently (running a learning programme with university students to enable them to run their community projects and potentially become social entrepreneurs). Case studies that had resonance to them brought them and the subject alive, so I was drawing on all the examples I knew of over the three days of the programme. And used videos liberally (of Catch 22, MyBnk, We Make A Change and many more)…. Inevitably with a cohort of 75 (!), some were more engaged than others, but I’m hopeful that some of the information and inspiration in those stories does lead to behaviour change in some small ways.

Finally, to tie all of that together (he says hopefully), I found a whole series of links from Beth Kanter on infographics and their use for charities and social enterprises (found because she sent them to me!). See Infographics for Non-Profits: the New Storytelling, this post on infographics and this post on video infographics. All worth a look for anyone who’s interested in this whole area of stories, information, meaning and changing behaviour. I’ll leave you with the best video I’ve seen of late (I think this may even be an infographic), which is an animated colour representation of Kiva’s loans over the last five years. I tried to spot my half a dozen loans, but no luck. Enjoy: