5 New Year books to get you thinking differently

15 Jan

brains-on-fireLast January (2016), I resolved to read a book a week, which I just about managed to stick to (see my other blog, Dog Eared Man, for 52 weeks of reviews), and I’m trying to carry on this year as well. If you like a diet of police procedurals, business books, Kindle Daily Deals and Scandinavian crime, I’m your man. Recommendations welcome – I’m going through the New Yorker’s Books We Loved in 2016
at the moment.

I noticed that Amazon, in its wisdom, had a ‘New Year, New You’ sale which has actually got some good stuff to get you thinking differently. So I thought I’d draw up a little list of 5 books from last year that got me thinking differently, some of which are in the sale.

  1. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande – just a brilliant book by a brilliant man on a hugely important subject: death and how we die. But it goes much further than that, with the central question really being about what makes us happy, and what is progress. Essential reading (and find his Reith lectures online too).
  2. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson – Ronson is another author you can’t really go wrong with, but I think this is one of his strongest. It’s all about social media and the ramifications of the ‘mob’ mentality and the ‘transparency’ that comes with Twitter and Facebook and all that that involves. It’s a fascinating look at an incredibly fast-changing part of modern life; and it is by turns funny and deeply sad as well.
  3. Quiet by Susan Cain – all about introversion and the (unrealised) power of introverts. There’s much here to challenge some long-held beliefs, and things that challenge (people like me) who tend to be comfortable speaking, ‘holding court’ and in outward communication. Great ideas here on recruitment, workspaces, meetings and more. If you’re ‘Loud’, it’s just as important you read it.
  4. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall – the subtitle of this book says it all (10 Maps that Tell you Everything You Need to Know about Global Politics) and it’s the book that made me feel most ignorant reading it and that also had the most ‘blimey, I had never thought of that’ moments. The combination of historical perspective and geographical foundations makes for a read that usefully took me out of the spiralling 24-hour news here & now.
  5. On the Move by Oliver Sacks – Sacks is, of course, best known for his books about the patients he worked with (AwakeningsThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat etc), but this is his biography, and it’s hugely entertaining. What struck me reading this is the sheer energy and adventure with which he approaches life and a reminder to never assume you know a whole person. Sacks is full of surprises, contradictions, and unexpected views – and is all the richer for it.

Others in the sale worth a look – The Examined Life, The Lean Start-up, Decisive.

Happy reading and Happy New Year.


10 things to read ahead of 2017

23 Dec

stay-curiousIt’s that time of year when I finally get somewhere near the end of the inbox and to-do list, and catch up on the hundreds of things I’ve bookmarked and haven’t read.

So here’s some I have managed to read and that I recommend:

1) Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives – I’m an enormous fan of Oliver Burkeman, and highly recommend his books which are an antidote to all the nonsensical self-help books out there. This is equally sensible in relation to email and time management (and the myths associated with it). Obviously ironic to start with this one given my comment about inbox / to-do list.

2) Disagree with the result but you can learn from Trump and Brexit campaigns – The page headline rather says it all, but there’s much good sense here for all of us in the social sector and in the policy space. Includes a great quote from Craig Oliver in number 10 that I’m tempted to pin up in our office…

3) The Gig Economy…and making it work? – I am no fan of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ and am glad that it’s started to be called the ‘gig’ economy. This post focuses on the reality of the ‘jobs’ that are being created, and starts to explore what can be done about it.

4) Tech and the Low Wage Workforce – friend or foe? – follows on from number 3 with a really fascinating look at how tech could be used to *help* the low wage workforce, rather than find ever more creative ways to exploit them. Genuine ‘tech for good’ initiative, in the face of a lot of app-lite bollocks.

5) Why there will never be an Uber for Healthcare – this is a good rejoinder for anyone who lapses into ‘what we need is an uber for [insert sector / industry]’. No we don’t.

6) Across the Returns Continuum – not a title to set the pulse racing, and it’s a long read; but it’s an interesting one with much to ponder on social impact and financial return, how they can be achieved, how they should be thought about, and how best to operate across the continuum.

7) Why For-Profit Education Fails – US context, of course, but interesting and relevant to not only our approaches to education here, but our approaches to public services more broadly. NB – isn’t an anti-privatisation piece.

8) Ten Steps to Sustainable Innovation – Mike Barry heads up Plan A at Marks & Spencer and is a leading thinker on this stuff; I found this a useful and practical piece of writing. Ten steps to follow. [gratuitous promo – Mike B will be speaking at the Social Value Summit in February]

9) An Entrepreneurial Society Needs an Entrepreneurial State – Mariana Mazzucato’s profile continues to rise, and she continues to puncture the nonsensical binary private vs public sector narratives we hear so often.

10) We need incremental improvements, not grand projects – I am, by nature, an incrementalist, so this appealed a lot. John Kay is talking about infrastructure here, but you could apply the same logic to many other areas. Strapline for 2017? “A multiplicity of incremental projects”. Catchy.

Have a great Xmas & 2017 all.

Running Man….

8 Sep

v7qluor7_400x400I’m signed up to run a half marathon in October. This is not headline news. It’s the Royal Parks Marathon, a picturesque and very flat half marathon. This is also not headline news – though it is good news, as I don’t like running up hills. And I’m running the half marathon for Breast Cancer Now. Which is also not headline news. Although they did email me and ask me to write a blog. So here we are.

I’m running it for a number of reasons: partly because I need a goal as motivation to do some exercise, and I am overweight; partly because I love London; and partly (ok, mostly) because my wife Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2011. So this is a chance to raise money for a cause that is extremely close to me.

Katie is well and cancer-free, but only because of the advances in research, surgery and treatment which charities like Breast Cancer Now have raised millions to fund and implement. And there is still much to do, particularly for younger women:

more awareness: as the wonderfully-monikered Coppa Feel make clear, there is one obvious route to early detection, but still not enough women know how important this is; put simply, Katie may not be alive if she hadn’t found her cancer as early as she did

more research: it’s been surprising (to me) the relative lack of research into the effects of drugs and treatment on pre-menopausal women with breast cancer; estimating prognosis is an exercise in uncertainty already, but it helps if you know that you are making the right choices

more support: this is where charities like Breast Cancer Now come into their own with clear, practical advice, online and off-line support and more. Our breast cancer nurse Sue was utterly *phenomenal*, helping us navigate various parts of the NHS and providing clarity, continuity and humour when needed most. (By the way, everyone in the NHS has been nothing short of magnificent)

So all of that needs more money and if I (or rather all of the people supporting) can help with that in a small way, it’s worth doing.

Katie is amazing: not only has she overcome major surgery, chemotherapy, and three different types of drug treatment, but also powered on with renewed energy in life. She’s now running her own fashion business in (what little) spare time she has from being a full-time secondary school teacher and head of year…

If she can get through all of that with good humour, doggedness, resilience and determination for the last 5 years, then I hope I can do the same with this much smaller, much less significant personal challenge for about 2 hours. And help Breast Cancer Now help more women like Katie in future.

>> Please sponsor and support if you can <<

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.