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The Future of Doing Good: 7 thoughts

3 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Growing an enterprising culture

26 May

Image[originally posted on SEUK website]

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

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

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

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

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

The right blend: Minsky, Pinsky + Alinsky?

27 Apr

gapingvoid_wisdomIt’s very interesting working at both a type of organisation (a membership body / trade association) and also in a sector (social enterprise) that by their very nature tend to be lightning rods for debate, competing ideas, different expectations (from varied audiences). Trade associations and membership bodies obviously have lots of members of different types with different needs and differing thoughts on a whole range of topics and issues – regardless of best efforts, it is difficult to satisfy all of these at the same time, whether it is the CBI, the FSB, NCVO or our smaller selves at Social Enterprise UK. Social enterprise itself is where socialists meet capitalists, where co-operators meet competitors, and charity meets business – which leads to passionate, important debates about profits, ownership, intention, reporting and much more besides.

All of which poses some questions about what are the best or most successful ways to operate, both individually and organisationally, given that context. This is post-hoc rationalisation, but I think there might be a bit of a blend of things that achieves good results.

1) MINSKY – or the importance of common sense
I was listening to a podcast on the train recently, and it was a programme about an economist called Hyman Minsky (you can listen to the programme here) which discussed how he had largely been forgotten, but rediscovered in the wake of the financial crash – sometime after his death. There is lots of detail out there should you wish to know more about him + his theories (eg this BBC piece), but the crux of it is that he believed that the economic system was inherently unstable and that this could largely be explained by human behaviour at different stages of economic booms. As one economist said about him: “He was much more for getting your hands dirty in the real world. I think Minsky gave us the first sensible overview of capitalism ever, which had warts and all what capitalism is about.

This seems to me (in retrospect) to have been a bit of a thread for me over the last couple of years. First, trying to rely on common sense; second, trying to ensure we are getting our hands dirty rather than relying on assumptions (which has meant a lot more member interaction, and higher quality research); thirdly, being realistic and pragmatic in what can be achieved and what is possible. The mantra has been the oft-repeated ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ – we don’t always succeed on either front, but it’s been underpinning our work and approach.

2) PINSKY – or the importance of (individual) inspiration
Before I got into the disruptive, innovative, paradigm-shifting world of social enterprise (no, me neither), I worked at a small charity that made most of its money from signing publishing deals and selling books. The charity’s founder, an amazing man called Nicholas Albery, had a hundred ideas a day, one of which was about learning poetry by heart – both because it is good for the brain and for the heart, and also because you could be sponsored to do it (learn + recite) and raise money for other causes. This, in turn, led to a book (Poem for the Day) and a follow-up (the creatively-titled Poem for the Day Two) which I co-edited – the royalties still go to charity.

Recently, I found myself diving into some poetry books again, and came across one by Robert Pinsky (himself a pretty inspirational figure) called Samurai Song which speaks to me a bit of resilience, and individual self-reliance: “When I have no means fortune / Is my means. When I have / Nothing, death will be my fortune. // Need is my tactic, detachment / Is my strategy.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out and read poetry as part of the working day, but that we all need those beacons of inspiration, either from our past or our present, who give us strength or encouragement to carry on; and who can provide insight that you don’t get in the twelfth meeting of the day or a policy consultation response.

3) ALINSKY – or the importance of community
Of course, if you just hang out on your own reading poetry and being inspired, you’re likely to become insufferable to yourself + others, and even less likely to achieve anything. If there’s one thing that’s important in my job and my organisation, it’s being able to build relationships and work in partnerships and sustain communities of interest.

This is where Saul Alinsky, the godfather of community organising, comes into it. He went through a brief period a couple of years ago when our sector paid attention to his work (largely when Citizens UK’s campaign work started breaking through, and when the government’s community organisers stuff kicked off). But he’s been less talked about recently. I still think his Rules for Radicals bears some reading, even if it is more rooted in direct political activism – after all, despite the pragmatism and realism that’s needed (see 1 above), we are still trying to change things and change the world around us.

I particularly like Rule 10: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” This feels to me entirely right: critique by all means, challenge and bust the myths, point out the imperfections…but have a possible answer or alternative ready too. This seems particularly appropriate for social enterprise, but we still see plenty from all sectors content to criticise without suggesting what they would do differently.

And what is underlying Alinsky is the belief that we are stronger together, as a movement or collective, than we are as individuals and individual organisations. Increasingly, I think all our best work (if most complex and sometimes slowest and most challenging) comes in partnership and through partnership.

That mix: of realism and sense; of inspiration and self-reliance; and of constructive partnerships. That’s the blend I’m aiming for at the moment.

[NB – Of course, the more cynical amongst you might just be thinking that I’ve chosen these three because they rhyme (with a nod to my previous poetry days), but you would be wrong. Besides, I could have included Gore Verbinski, David Wallechinsky and Natassja Kinski if it had just been about the rhymes. Next week, a post on William Hague, Martin McCague and Norman MacCaig for Tory cricketing poetry fans]

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:


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.

Man on a ledge: achieving life-work balance

4 Mar

It’s been a challenging few months since the last post; I don’t want this to be a confessional blog, but suffice to say that my wife Katie has been fairly ill, having been diagnosed in mid-December. And, frankly, it’s the thing that’s on my mind constantly, so what else to write about….

As ever, such things throw everything else into a sharp, instant perspective, which has a direct impact on how you approach work and all its different parts.

For me, there’s been a few things I’ve noticed:

prioritisation is everything (see previous post on the myth of multitasking); there’s a reason why this is the first blog post in three months or so, and the non-urgent and the peripheral drops away rapidly….apologies to those at the periphery, but that’s just how it’s been of late

impatience as a driver: I’m hugely driven at the moment to cut through flim-flam, inefficient (or unneeded) meetings, stuff that doesn’t deliver change / impact, circular discussions and so forth; and (as the image says), seize opportunities wherever possible; this impatience is something that has to be managed, otherwise it can easily move towards rudeness rather than (more positively) towards greater productivity

support networks: it’s one of those terms/phrases that you don’t really know what it means until you call upon it; thanks to all those who’ve been kind, supportive + listened (and those who continued to take the piss/make me laugh); especially colleagues + workplace who’ve demonstrated for real that the organisational values actually mean something outside of the business plan

flexible working has limits: hospital wifi is poor, and multitasking doesn’t work with this kind of stuff: attention required at all times; so thank heaven for e-mail on smart phones (without which I would be playing an even larger game of catch-up), but I’m also recognising the benefits of an office with flows of information, companionship and co-working [a good reminder of why I left freelancing behind]

there’s always someone worse off (and willing to talk): it’s not a particularly positive thing to hang your hat on, but it is true; people in every network, every sector, every group of friends…are dealing with big, hairy problems all the time; and honesty about your situation begets honesty about theirs

crosswords are therapeutic: I’d kind of got out of the habit of doing the crossword on the commute home, but am finding it a thoroughly useful thing: not only occupying the mind, but also doing something that has definite answers and a clear order; a clarity and certainty not available elsewhere

drink plenty of water and get enough sleep: I may well write a self-help / productivity book in future which simply has this as the title, with a load of blank pages inside; certainly guaranteed to achieve more than any amount of positive visualisation and aligned chakras

On that note, back for some water, crosswords, sleep and prioritising the important stuff over this blog :0)

Focus: and the myth of multitasking

21 Oct

So I’m two and a half weeks into a new job, which is exciting: mostly because the organisation has lots of opportunities to have (more) impact, and has great, committed people to achieve that. Going back into a full-time job in an organisation has got me thinking about my approach / working methods, as well. I think freelancing helped improve my discipline (clarity on objectives, effective meetings, hit deadlines, invoice!), and I don’t want to lose that impetus and focus on delivery.

Such thoughts took me back to a recent visit (thanks to Liam Black and the Wavelength team) to the BBC, at which we heard from Ralph Rivera, who heads up all their online / digital work (Director of BBC Future Media, to be precise). There were plenty of nuggets from Ralph, but one I wrote down during the morning session was:

Focus on a few things / do them well (in the long-term) / get great at them / (kill the rest)

I hasten to add that those were my notes and not exactly Ralph’s words, and that the ‘kill the rest’ was very much tongue in cheek. But the point holds: the BBC could do any number of things in connection to digital, but that would mean distraction, a potential drop in quality, and scattered activity.

Someone else was pointing out to me that this is connected to the “myth of multitasking“; research increasingly shows that multitasking is not productive, that it just spreads activity across the surface of several things, rather than making substantive progress on one at a time. There is even some research that says that multitasking could actually be harmful to mental health, particularly where technology is concerned.

Which meant that this image below, via Kevin Jones, resonated strongly (comes from here). Now I just need to follow it, focus, do stuff well, and do it in the long-term…