Third Sector media darlings

As I waited for my meeting with Matthew Thomson, formerly of SSE and now Chief Executive of the London Community Recycling Network, I opened up Third Sector magazine and was delighted to find:

– on the front page, SSE Fellow Dave Pitchford is kicking up a storm with his web-based organisation Intelligent Giving and their take on Children in Need (Four Things Wrong with Pudsey)

– then on the first inside page, above the article about the new Social Enterprise Action Plan (see previous post ), there is a photo of Ed Miliband, SSE Chief Exec Alastair Wilson and two of our current students, Darren and Tania….who won £1000 for their project at a Dragon’s Den event on Social Enterprise Day

– then (!), on the letters page, they printed my response to Nick Cater which I blogged about here (where you can also read the letter) almost in full and only with one mistake (the School for Social Enterprise rather than Entrepreneurs)…and it won letter of the week, no less, so I get to dispense £25 to a charity of my choice….an SSE student or Fellow, methinks

All good – next week, on I’m a Social Entrepreneur, Get Me In There……

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MySociety or WhySociety?

Great coverage of the E-Democracy 06 conference by David Wilcox over on his Designing for Civil Society blog. Of most interest to me was the following "Not just e-democracy, new democracy says MySociety founder" post. This includes:

"Once you have managed to achieve the funding for tools, fix the bugs,
get people interested it’s time, says Tom [Steinberg, founder of MySociety], to reflect on what changes
we might want to see in the system, as well as in policies. What should
we be pushing for, and what are the dangers in doing that? After the
rush to practical solutions, it’s time for some theory.

Put around the other way "what could be the wrong philosophy of
representative democracy that would lead to us all building and
spending time on tools that were actually unhelpful".

Tom wants people who are building sites in the e-democracy field
to start talking about what sort of democracy they are building those
tools for."

Interesting this, and it obviously follows on from something that Matthew Taylor said earlier in the conference, namely:

"The Internet, said Matthew, had helped people to mobilise. It offers
new methods of search and exposure. But does it yet really help people
engage with dilemmas and challenges, and work their way through to
conclusions? He presented that challenge to developers and advocates of
e-democracy tools."

It is very similar to what I said to Francis Irving (one of the MySociety crowd, who did and then has had significant involvement in their other projects) when we were speaking together at an event in Wales. I basically said that the use of technology had to be driven by social need, that it was a ‘failure’ if it was driven by the desires/interests of the designers, rather than the needs of the users, that the use of new tech must be grounded in the organisation’s values, and that people shouldn’t overestimate (or underestimate) what technology can achieve.

Nothing very groundbreaking or controversial there….though I did then go on to say that I felt the challenge was not developing new tools but translating internet activity to real-world action; I then added that it was perhaps instructive to note that one of the primary successes of Pledgebank was the establishment of a digital rights organisation….so was that really reaching new people, extending democracy etc, or are these sites mostly being used by internet-savvy, Guardian-reading middle-class types? [NB – I should say that I would put myself squarely in that bracket, and think all of the sites are exceptionally well-built and useful….for me].

Now this may be unfair, and I have been a champion of all their sites in the past (particularly via the Global Ideas Bank and Blog + our Social Innovation Awards) and recommend and use them regularly, but certainly what Tom and Matthew say above would tend to support that view: they are great tools, but are they really changing anything? To our students at the SSE, they are just another useful resource to take advantage of, but it is their action, commitment and focus to change things in the real world that will make a long-lasting difference.

Now I don’t think Tom has ever overclaimed what these sites they can do, but their "sexiness" to the media and to the political establishment (which is Tom’s background as a policy wonk) has perhaps led to this situation. There seems to be a stepping back in that statement above (i.e. we don’t need more tools without really thinking about whether they are needed, and what changes they will make; and what, ultimately, this is all aiming towards). Indeed, surely the subtext of what Tom says above is that they rushed to develop stuff without thinking about why they were doing it. Even the most action-prone social entrepreneurs usually know their objectives and goals before they rush headlong into delivery….

These are amazing and incredibly useful tools for information, for campaigning, for communication, for accountability and so on. But it’s important we have them in context, which is why the statements above are welcome.


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Happy Social Enterprise Day: Social Enterprise Action Plan

So, drum roll, here’s the Social Enterprise Action Plan (pdf), and the Office of the Third Sector’s accompanying press release. And what does it say? Well, it’s in four areas which are:

1) Fostering a culture of social enterprise
2) Ensuring right information/advice are available
3) Enabling access to appropriate finance
4) Enabling social enterprises to work with government

Headlines within those include:

  • Promote social enterprise within schools, providing
    curriculum materials and ensuring it is studied in GCSE and A level
    business studies courses;
  • Appoint up to 20 social enterprise ambassadors to be role models for new entrepreneurs across the UK
  • Make over £18m available over the coming years to help knock down barriers to growth and enable social enterprises to thrive
  • Support the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship in promoting social enterprise as a career to young people
  • Research
    new ways to provide social enterprise learning at tertiary level and
    review whether existing professional training provisions meet the
    specific needs of social enterprises;
  • Support a marketing
    campaign to promote social enterprise to young people aged 14–30
    (Enterprise Insight’s Make Your Mark: Change Lives).

Which is all good, worthwhile stuff. Other points of interest include increased funding to the RDAs for social enterprise support, £10m directly for social enterprises (though how is to be decided), and involvement for social enterprises in the Olympics. At the launch of the plan this morning, both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband name-checked the SSE and our work, which is good to hear. Later on today, our Chief Exec Alastair Wilson will also be appearing on a Dragon’s Den-type panel with Tim Smit, Cliff Prior (new CEO of UnLtd) and Ed Miliband as part of today’s activities; who will be the Simon Cowell?

It is perhaps interesting to compare the main themes with those that Alun Michael announced in the Spring:

  • confirming the value and credibility of social enterprise through new research into the impact of social enterprise;
  • embedding social enterprise as a recognised business model by
    ensuring that the publicly funded business support provided by RDAs is
    readily available and applicable to social enterprise;
  • helping to open markets to social enterprise by working with other
    government departments and local authority purchasers to remove
    barriers within the procurement process for third sector organisations;
  • encouraging new entrants to social enterprise by raising awareness
    of social enterprise among new entrepreneurs, working with Enterprise
    Insight, National Council of Graduate Entrepreneurship and the Social
    Enterprise Coalition.

Quite similar, although "encouraging new entrants" has become the wider "fostering a culture of….", but it’s all there otherwise, in a coherent and comprehensive way. It will be interesting to track the regular progress reports on the Cabinet Office website…

Lest we get too Anglo-centric though,  it’s worth noting that the Scottish Social Enterprise Coalition have also launched their manifesto (Bigger Better Bolder) today. See here for more (and to download), but the key points are:

  • Delivering 10% of public spending through social enterprise by 2012
  • Using community benefit clauses in all public procurement contracts
  • Making it easier to communities to own assets and develop enterprises
  • Developing a joined-up national program for supported employment
  • Creating new investment models for businesses making social or environmental benefits

Also today is Make Your Mark with a Tenner wherein 10,000 young people are being given £10 and challenged as follows: "Each student is ‘loaned’ £10 and given 1 month to make an impact. Participants
must work to the best of their abilities to ensure that within one
month they are able to repay their initial £10 and demonstrate how they
made their mark and what profit they made." The 50 who make the biggest profit and the 50 who make the biggest social impact will be highlighted….

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Scruples and social entrepreneurs

Having returned and inspired from one of the most pleasant judging panel sessions in the history of awards (there should be a photo of us next to ‘consensus’ in the dictionary) [I am a judge on the CAF CCI Innovation Award – I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you…etc], I find social enterprise and social entrepreneurs in this week’s issue of Third Sector like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock.

After Jonathan Bland and Ed Miliband on the forthcoming Social Enterprise Action Plan (unfortunate acronym) comes Allison Ogden-Newton from SEL on why we need more ethical businesses [I’ll link to these when Third Sector puts them online]. Then there is a comment piece by Nick Cater entitled "Skollarship, or how to forget your scruples"….which is so flawed as to have roused myself to write a letter  (ok, e-mail) in to the magazine. He accuses social enterprises of having a "chequered history" and a "confused focus", takes a random shot at the funding of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, and then deconstructs their criteria for social entrepreneurs. So, for example, he ‘translates’ these for us (in red here):

– A willingness to face failure and start again
(Leave funders and beneficiaries in the lurch and move on)

– A bias towards action rather than reflection
(Don’t think, consider or care about the consequences)

– A habit of developing a network and subtly or unsubtly exploiting its members
(Line em up and lead em up the garden path)

And so on. Of course one might equally put in brackets behind these:
(Not wanting to sustain an ineffective and unsuccessful project)

and (Not wanting to spend entire life in committees, meetings or (!) writing about improving things, rather than actually doing anything)

and (Developing support networks, useful contacts and routes of opportunity to improve impact)

but let’s not ruin a lazy argument… He also suggests (tongue in cheek, I assume) that social entrepreneurs are "mercenaries selling questionable goods for whatever they can get".

Anyway, obviously we differ from the Skoll Centre (we are practical, rather than academic; their focus is global, ours is more UK etc.), but we certainly share common goals of promoting the movement and encouraging new entrants from all walks of life. So, here’s my response to Nick Cater’s piece:

"Nick Cater’s sideswipe at social entrepreneurs is lazy and misleading, but the piece does raise some interesting points, albeit by accident, rather than design.

The first is that the point about "beneficiaries being left in the lurch" should remind us that many social entrepreneurs were themselves viewed (patronisingly?) as ‘beneficiaries’; that is, they often come from the community they are aiming to serve (so cannot leave them behind so easily). The second is that the myth of the heroic individual social entrepreneur is just that, a myth: all successful entrepreneurs work through building networks of support and influence; what this has to do with garden paths, I have no idea.

The third is is that of a "chequered history": I can’t speak for others in the field, but 85% of SSE Fellows’ organisations are still running (the 1998 cohort’s survival rate alone is over one and a half times conventional business), they gain an average six-fold increase in turnover, over 50% gain more than half their income from trading, they create jobs and volunteering positions (30 and 70 respectively per 10 Fellows), and are delivering countless positive outcomes and inspiring others in their various communities. I would suggest that far from being "left in the lurch" or feeling their money is being "squandered", funders and investors would consider these mission-led organisations an excellent investment giving a substantial return.

Social entrepreneurship is not just about profit (though earning money should not be a cause of shame), but about an approach and a mindset to addressing unmet needs, big and small. And social entrepreneurs set up all different types of organisations, from charities to for-profit businesses, in order to achieve their goals. If Nick wants to find mercenaries, he might do better to look at his own byline: ‘consultant’."

We shall see if they publish…

Incidentally, some of the headlines there are from our forthcoming evaluation from the New Economics Foundation. Coming soon….

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Enterprise Week and Social Enterprise Day

I’ve been tracking a few associated pieces about Enterprise Week (and Thursday, Social Enterprise Day). Today is of course, Women’s Enterprise Day (because the acronym is WED?)….anyway, here are some related bits of news:

– Jonathan Bland of SEC in the Society Guardian today saying what you’d expect, really: a rolling out of the 55,000 numbers and a rallying call on procurement

– A couple of slightly more critical responses from the Adam Smith Institute and the Daily Telegraph, the latter of which looks at whether government legislation has helped foster an entrepreneurial culture in the UK…and questions whether event days actually work

– …well, judging by the FT’s coverage, they don’t do any harm, as they have a series of interviews running all week, including some top tips for entrepreneurs (from John Caudwell and Sir Tom Hunter, amongst others)…although the FT is the official media partner….

– Gordon Brown applauds a renaissance of entrepreneurship and enterprise at the start of the week

– Check out the Trailblazers supplement as part of the campaign (via Social Enterprise Magazine)

– From a personal point of view there seems to be a little less going on this year (maybe, because there was SO much going on last year: awards, publication launches etc….), although there is a shindig at no.11 tomorrow (at which SSE will be appearing, I believe….), the launching of the social enterprise plan, which will be pored over by us all, and the launch of a new venture from SSE Fellow James Greenshields’ Media for Development: Inside Job Productions

What’s most impressive about the day and the week are the organisations it brings together in one co-ordinated campaign, and that enterprise is promoted by all of those as a means to job creation, wealth creation and improving people’s lives in the round. If some greater focus is given to these issues as a result, then it can’t be viewed a failure: promotion and marketing is a key part to any campaign’s success….

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