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.

The First £1.5 billion – and what it tells us

10 Apr

Gritty with quote_1As one (tough) financial year passes, and another (as tough) begins, it feels like a useful time to delve into the sector’s finances more broadly. More specifically, to take a look at Big Society Capital’s report on the Size and Composition of Social Investment in the UK, released a couple of weeks back. (NB – the report was Matt Robinson’s swansong at BSC, as he leaves for international development pastures – he’ll be missed as a clear, reasoned, and principled voice).

The headlines are impressive: £1.5bn worth of social investment (that’s the total value at the end of 2015, not deals done in the past year). Dealflow in the year c. £430m (which is up from the £200m figure reported two or three years back) demonstrating 20% growth or thereabouts. And some evidence of a shift from secured lending to more unsecured lending and different types of products.

[in passing, it is worth mentioning that I enjoyed the “We are confident to a reasonable degree of accuracy (+/- £tens of millions)”, which rather illustrates that the data is still not great. Oh for that margin of error….]

There is much else of interest in the report, not least the fact that this total is dwarfed by about £9bn in bonds and bank loans to charities and social enterprises, not to mention a further £59bn or so if housing associations are taken into account. An alternative version of the report could be titled “Social investment: putting it in perspective”, as some have argued for some time. Nevertheless, there are some signs of progress, and they should be welcomed.

I liked the definitional / segmentation approach too, as best demonstrated by these two diagrams:

BSC Segmentation 1 BSC Segmentation 2

This approach to thinking more clearly about social investment and the terms we use (impact investment, ethical investment, positive investment) is a useful contribution; it also came up recently at the release of some new analysis of social investment research by Jess Daggers and Alex Nicholls – also well worth a look – as well as in the Alternative Commission report. This segmentation of what we mean when we talk about different things seems increasingly important to me where social investment is concerned: so much of the heat and light and baby-bathwater debate flows from misunderstandings, often between (potential) investors and investees.

The percentages table on page 9 is where it gets very interesting: this is a breakdown of social investments by proportion / type. Here it is:

BSC Table 1

[The categorisation on the left relates to BSC’s strategy (Social Innovation, Participation, Scale etc). ]

So to draw out a few things here:

  • there does seem to be a bit more unsecured lending going on: this is good news from a social enterprise perspective, as we know this is what a lot of organisations want/need – although we don’t know how much of the 47% lending figure relates to property; when one adds this to 9% in ‘high impact social property’ and whatever might be in the 30% to ‘non-asset locked’, then the figure could still be quite high. Indeed, if one takes the 30% not going to charities and CICs out of the equation (called Profit with Purpose here), even a cautious estimate like the Social bank lending + the high impact social property give you 45% / 70% which would be equivalent to around 65% secured lending. Not the 80% / 90% figures we used to see, but still a significant majority
  • Social Impact Bonds are responsible for 1% of all social investment in the UK. 1%. Even though the report mentions that this could have been double if calculated mid-way through 2015, that would have only taken it (by my maths) to, er, 2%. If data beats opinion, as someone wiser than me once said, then let us hope that due notice is given to this figure – community shares are responsible for 6 times as much; charity bonds 6 times as much (from the same number of investments), unsecured lending 10 times as much etc.
  • Social Investment Tax Relief-related investments are small but there’s been some decent progress in year 1; it will be interesting to see if they can grow as fast as Community Shares, and add to the ‘democratisation’ and ‘retailisation’ of social investment: 353 investments in total for community shares, involving thousands of people.
  • it’s a bit unclear what’s in the 30% at the bottom; in the annex it says this largely includes work by ClearlySo, Triodos (eg. loans to co-operatives), work by Mustard Seed and more – estimated at £462m through 807 investments, £118m dealflow in 2015 through 46 deals. Would be interesting for someone to disaggregate this a bit more, see if there is overlap with some of the sections above and what extent is just companies limited by share and what is social enterprises or co-operatives with pre-CIC or non-ben-com structures etc

I’m sure that the data isn’t perfect, and I’m sure Matt knows that too – indeed, he has some excellent recommendations on how to continue to get better with the data and reporting. More transparent reporting like this will also help eliminate duplicates (eg. with co-investees arranged by a broker) more comprehensively, and also create benchmarks that can allow for better understanding of progress. I’ve learned whilst being in charge of the State of Social Enterprise survey, that improving the data and the questions is an incremental process and one which is best improved by openness (see our report for Access, Prospecting the Future, for example).

So what are the take-aways?
– welcome the evidence of progress, especially with riskier, unsecured lending
– segmentation, segmentation, segmentation
– let’s use data to inform our policies, programmes and practice- let’s be as open about that data as possible (esp. its quality and how to improve it)
– let’s keep this stuff in perspective


Social enterprise: complex

31 Dec

As I log back into this blog, I clear the electronic tumbleweed away and say hello – it’s been a long, tough and challenging year; for most in the social sector, and certainly for many of our members over at SEUK. For some in Yorkshire & the North West, they will be entering the new year facing a significant  floods-created challenge too. The reference to the challenging year is also partly  by way of an apology for the increasingly long gaps in posts here…

What strikes me, looking back at the last 12 months and more, is how complicated and complex things are. Sometimes by our own hand, sometimes by their nature and sometimes by a mix of the two – or so it seems to me. So far, so banal…here goes.

For four years and more now, I’ve been working closely with a lot of the social enterprises who spun out of the NHS between 2008 & 2014. As you get deeper into that world, the complexity and interlinked nature of things is, at times, mind-boggling. Not to mention deeply frustrating and worrying. But rather than just list adjectives, let me give you some examples of what organisations have to cope with. A social enterprise that spun out with one contract was tendering for the same services – but now they were in 37 different contracts. Another social enterprise is sub-contracted by a hospital which is commissioned by the CCG – the hospital has just decided to (arbitarily) not re-sub-contract the social enterprise with no notice and no reason (the outcomes it has been achieving are first-rate); the CCG are supportive but won’t intervene, and no-one really knows who in the system is accountable for something that will a) reduce the quality of the service and b) actually cost the system more.

The systems are very complex, of course – we had the slightly strange occurrence in the comprehensive spending review of people celebrating an up-front settlement for the NHS. But social care remains under significant strain (even with a possible council tax levy) and public health spending has been cut substantially – and what removes stress and cost from primary health care system? Yes, that’s right, social care and (in the medium to long-term) preventative public health work. And while large swathes of the general public consider “healthcare” to mean “hospitals and A&E”, and until there is cross-party agreement on a 25-30 year plan, we remain trapped in a short-term cycle that makes the situation worse.

Another area where complexity has manifested itself is charities and their accounts (& other broader activities). Charity accounts are difficult to read and understand, making them prone to misunderstanding, as seen in the recent True & Fair Foundation debacle in which a manifestly flawed analysis was deemed to merit front page news in several papers. If it wasn’t so damaging it would be laughable – the True & Fair Foundation failed its own test in previous years; the charity the journalist tweeted about two days later failed the same arbitrary test – and both displayed a lack of understanding about charitable trading, restricted funding, endowments and much else besides. This felt like an area where, in a quest for clarity and better understanding, people leapt to the simple rather than the clear. But the complexity demands more transparency and better explanation from charities themselves.

Another simple phrase masking complexity is “social enterprise needs to go mainstream”, which – along with “what is a social enterprise anyway” and “I can’t find these social enterprises” – is probably the thing I hear the most. But a few quick questions opens up the complications: for some, mainstreaming means the concept being known about by everyone; for some, it means everything being a social enterprise; for some, it means greater influence and infiltration of ‘mainstream’ business to the point where its tenets are accepted; for some, it means more social enterprises involved in big scale public service delivery; and so on. All might be worthy goals, but all involve and require different strategies, approaches, risks and benefits.

For example, if you go down the public service delivery route, you are part of a ‘social enterprise industrial complex’ (see Pamela Hartigan here), doing government’s work and losing the entrepreneurial spirit; if you focus on awareness, you are a campaign, and awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into anything – everyone knows who Kim Kardashian is; if you go for influence and infiltration, you are tackling symptoms and accepting the (capitalist) system as it is…and so on and so on. And we further complicate by adding countless different versions with different titles – inclusive capitalism, a blueprint for better business, impact enterprises, social ventures, social business, B corporations, non-profits, not-for-profits, more-than-profits, responsible business, and more and more. It’s no surprise to me that our most successful work in recent years has been Buy Social. Easy to understand, easy to communicate, and clear – more please.

The other frustration with this complexity, particularly as it relates to systems, is that it tends to lead to an avalanche of analysis. Which seems, in turn, to lead to more analysis and no small degree of paralysis. Do we need any more research or surveys or commissions that tell us that local charitable and social enterprise infrastructure is struggling? We knew this five years ago, yet still the reports arrive – newsflash: writing another report isn’t solving anything (on its own) unless it is paired with action, be that advocacy or (better) practical help and solutions and partnerships. It’s been instructive to test out, and to try and find sustainable models to work with and support local and regional social enterprise networks in the last few years – recognising that we need to be better at the local, and that we all need to be leaner and more collaborative nationally. I’m deeply proud of our work on Social Enterprise Places, the Social Economy Alliance, closer work with our home nations’ equivalents, and different partnerships with regional bodies in the East and West Midlands – not all of it has worked perfectly, and we have got things wrong, but we continue to be committed to this work: doing, not writing about what we should do.

I feel slightly the same on systems more broadly – this seems to have been the year when ‘systems’ became the key word to use, I guess partly because of the complexity I’m talking about. So we heard about ‘systempreneurs’ (yes, really) and we had a rash of  reports about systems change. The problem with reports about systems change (as a topic) is that they tend to, inevitably, be very general. So you get banalities like “understand what your shared objectives are” or “relationships between partners are important”. Well, thanks for that. Actually, what makes progress is diving in, obsessing about detail, bringing people with you, tackling the thorny challenges, and doing all of that and more over a long period of time with a relentless focus on a) action and b) outcomes and c) openness. Weirdly, it seems there is more money available at times for the analysis rather than the action; deeply frustrating.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure, to be honest – I just hope that 2016 sees us not confusing clarity with simplicity, or action with analysis, or logo placements with partnership; and that we act in the long-term even when all the drivers push us towards the opposite.

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:

The 3 productivity apps that work for me

6 Feb
reinventionAs January begins, so bookshops and app stores alike throw self-help books and productivity apps at you like they are going out of fashion. All promise instant results, and a swift route to a new effective, productive you  – and a successful 2015. I won’t dwell too long on the many self-help books, which are largely a waste of time unless you believe in empty quotes and chakras. Oliver Burkeman is the man who can help you wade through, and pick out the nuggets – I heartily recommend his The Antidote and Help! (How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done), which are funny and insightful in equal measure.

As for the apps, well there are enough to-do list apps now to confuse even the most technophile of lifehackers. I used Remember The Milk for to-do lists for a while, but found that it was too divorced from everything else (although this may be down to my own lack of investigation) and didn’t work with what else I used, so I dropped it. Then I became an Evernote devotee (app no. 1) – I can’t speak highly enough about Evernote: I genuinely wish I was on commission, because I recommend it to everyone, including my team. It’s just extremely intuitive, reliable and easy to use, as well as on phone, tablet, desktop and laptop. I’ve set up an IFTTT to send useful docs + links from twitter straight to Evernote when I use a particular hashtag too, so it becomes a searchable receptacle of reading.

So I no longer have a notebook for day-to-day use, but capture everything on Evernote – and this is starting to change how I work with the organisation’s systems. I have shared notebooks with other team members for particular areas of work, and am trialling syncing notes straight to Salesforce accounts. The latter, if it was a bit smoother, could be great – I could be meeting a social enterprise member, or a new business lead, and sync the notes straight to their Salesforce account, providing a trail of activity that doesn’t require me to log into the Salesforce platform and replicate what I’ve just done….

There are decisions ahead, I think, about spreading this throughout the team and investing in the technology; we’ve already moved to cloud-based 365, and I can foresee more decentralisation / cloud-based sharing ahead. Already, I use Dropbox as much as I use the organisational shared drive (Dropbox is app number 2), and I can see the whole thing moving soon. I know there are other cloud-based server systems, but I haven’t found any that work as well as Dropbox for either group or individual work. Again – intuitive, reliable, easy to use and seamless on every device.

The 3rd app is a new one which is my Remember the Milk-replacement, the new to-do list app….and I’ve plumped for Wunderlist. Again, good syncing across platforms, simple interface, easy to upload tasks (by email or directly by app / desktop), easy to share lists, and easy to prioritise. Ultimately, I find I need a long list of to-dos (emptying the brain of everything I know needs doing), and a shorter list of prioritised to-dos (to keep focused on the important, not the urgent). Wunderlist makes this easy. But it also works with Evernote – to do lists haven’t really worked for me in Evernote (I tend to end up with actions at the end of different notes, and I can’t make Reminders work for me in a way that makes sense), but now I can just add a task box next to an action, tag the note with TaskClone (which syncs between the two apps via another IFTTT) and it appears in my Wunderlist to-do list.

The key for me is that apps like this work with the way I already work, so that it’s seamless and doesn’t involve inventing a whole new set of habits and behaviours. For me, that means across devices, integrating + syncing between them, but being relatively simple – notes, to-dos, access to files. And when I think back to writing notes in a book, drafting + re-drafting a to-do list (on paper, naturally) and saving files onto a USB for transport, I can almost feel the time being saved. My only area left now is email – I’ve resisted all the various email apps so far, although I’m looking hard at SaneBox

Would love to hear which apps work for you. What have I missed? Do they pass the simple, seamless, sensible test? Do they genuinely free up time, rather than absorb it in ‘productivity procrastination’? For now, I’m sticking with Evernote, Dropbox and Wunderlist and (hopefully) going to have a productive year.