International events: Canada, Harvard, Davos (again), and London

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A few links to some international events, lest we get too parochial:

Peter Rees says the 2nd Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise has been "nice". Kind of praising with faint damn, I think. He then goes on to mention what’s happening at the Harvard conference, and gives a pretty complete listing of that March event….

– Meanwhile, at Davos, an article in the NYtimes (subscription needed, but here’s a link to a place where it’s not) looks at some social entrepreneurs who are there. Interesting, if patronising new strapline: "Do-Gooders with spreadsheets". Obviously the old do-gooders were using abacuses. Anyway, it gets better from there and ends with:

"It’s one of the most hopeful and helpful trends around. These folks
aren’t famous, and they didn’t fly to Davos in first-class cabins or
private jets, but they are showing that what it really takes to change
the world isn’t so much wealth or power as creativity, determination
and passion."

Which is all good.

– Ok, not so international, but couldn’t help but pick up on John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue/social entrepreneur, putting himself forward to be London mayor; I heard that rumour at the conference in Manchester, but didn’t really give it too much credence….but turns out to be true. I read it in the Evening Standard the other evening, and you can see some of the discussion in the blogs here (check the comments!) and here. It is unclear whether he will be the Tory candidate, or go as an independent; suffice to say that, if he does enter the race, it won’t be dull. He’s far from a spin doctor’s on-message dream, and I mean that as a hearty compliment.

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Tim Smit video, and the enterprise starship

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Just to follow on from my take on Voice 07, Society Guardian has a video of Tim Smit doing his stuff, and an edited transcript of his speech. Worth watching the video for a sense of the energy and charisma he has as a speaker….and for being infinitely more characterful than my summary of it.

There is also Patrick Butler’s take on the conference, ‘All aboard the enterprise starship‘, which opens with the memorable line that "If the third sector is political flavour of the month then social enterprise is the plat du jour, the tastiest morsel on the menu". He describes Tim Smit as "rightly scathing" about conventional business, and thinks that Ed Miliband, for want of a better phrase, ‘gets it’. The implication in the piece seems to be that this is because Ed is young(er) and therefore more in tune with the times….there may be something in that, and certainly the majority of the sector think he ‘gets it’ too, (which is why he is viewed as a good champion for the movement) but I think it has more to do with the inspiring people he has met having appeared at so many events around the country: it’s clearly had a genuine impact.

Just in passing, there was also a column from the late Luke Fitzherbert in the supplement as well (you’d think I was on commission) about how lottery funding has become increasingly prescriptive, and that it should  focus on  "investment in sustainability" in a revived overall programme, rather than one increasingly divided up into specific areas.

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Friday round-up: responses, debates and new thinking

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A brief Friday round-up before the computer ices over:

– A couple of things I previously blogged about have sparked responses / continued in debates. Firstly, the i-genius debate continues both in the comments of David Wilcox’s original post (I particularly liked Tom from MySociety‘s "Yikes, it might be the best site in the world, but it doesn’t seem to
really chime with British social sensibilities. I’d go red at the face
with the idea of adding myself to a site with a name like that. The
hubris!") and in a follow-up post with an e-mail response from the site’s founders. Read on, but give the site a try too….

The second thing was my mention of the Shaftesbury Partnership’s distinction between system social entrepreneur and community social entrepreneur. A summary of my post might read "kind of agree, kind of disagree"….anyway, they’ve posted up a response on their blog which goes into some depth answering some of the questions I raised. I will respond to this more fully, but will do so in a separate post with some proper thought behind it, but am enjoying the conversation.

– George Bush used the words "social entrepreneur" in his state of the union address (thus causing havoc with my Google Alert feeds); I’ll leave it at that

Davos Conversation, a kind of online forum of the World Economic Forum, if you want to know (some of) what’s happening

– the 59 smartest non-profit organisations online claims to be a list of "organisations who are winners because of their web
2.0 smarts and a willingness to engage their constituents far beyond
asking them to dig into their pockets.These are organizations that
give their volunteers and members a voice and get out of the way. They’re pros at mobilizing awareness online. They’re experimentors. Innovators. On a mission. They’re fearless."  That  paragraph is a  bit American, and so is the list: I counted about three non-US sites; I don’t know whether that’s the real proportion (certainly the US leads on this stuff), but I doubt it. Still, lots and lots of interesting content through all these links….

– some interesting stuff on action learning via School of Everything via David Wilcox ; more on this soon as well, I hope

– something causing a bit of debate is a report from the City Parochial Foundation called Building Blocks about second-tier organisations which has some interesting findings including:

– small groups clearly benefit more than medium-sized organisations who struggle to fund their infrastructure support needs
– small groups in particular feel their voices are not heard and it is funders and outside agencies which decide what they ‘need’
– frontline groups value one-to-one help, from knowledgeable,
experienced, committed, and skilled individuals/bodies which are not in
competition with them for funding

CPF provide some funding to our London programme [disclaimer alert], and we are featured in the report as an example of good practice [double disclaimer!], but there is real validity in the points above. And it should be those that are reported, as well as what has become the headline (Cut back second tier non-profits, says major funder).

– and finally, an interesting article from Simon Jenkins in the Times (from October 2006: finger on the pulse, as ever), which includes, on the second page, the following:

"Someone should spur a revival of community participation in Britain.
A crash course in parish innovation is needed similar to that which
swept Scandinavia in the 1970s and 1980s, enveloping communes,
municipalities and mayors. It should capitalise on the wealth that is
pouring into many British villages and on the time that many retired
people have to spare. Most rural communities in most parts of the world
look after their old people without having to call for help from a near
bankrupt nationalised industry.

Nor is all lost. The admirable Leicestershire village of
Sheepy Magna raised £45,000 in 2003 to convert part of its church into
a one-stop community enterprise, with internet access, a baker’s shop,
a Fairtrade market and, of all things, a sub-post office. It took
nothing but determined local leadership. It can be done, even in
England."

Rural social entrepreneurs come forth…..

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Voice 07: the verdict

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Ok, so live blogging proved a bit ambitious, but here’s a bit of the lowdown on what went on at Voice 07, the social enterprise conference.

The night before the main event there was a drinks reception, with a bit of light networking and (for some) heavy drinking….and good to see lots of enthusiastic people ready for the next day.

The opening session of the main event was started by the chair of Social Enterprise Coalition (Baroness Thornton), who then passed on to the chief exec of the NWDA (the regional development agency, who helped fund the event)….The next two speakers were Ed Miliband and Tim Smit (of the Eden Project), which made for an interesting contrast…

The Minister concentrated on the "kind of people who work in social enterprise…and their can-do spirit", their "entrepreneurial spirit…with values". And it was good to hear that people-centred focus. He also made the (more political) point that the public services agenda was not about an abdication of responsibility, but enabling new approaches, and about "reshaping services around the user".

He was also honest about the social enterprise action plan not being the complete answer ("there is further to go") and made a clear plea for the sector to lobby on tax incentives……before moving on to outline his vision of government’s role as catalyst, customer and champion (the latter he connected specifically to the new ambassadors called for in the plan, who he termed "evangelists").

The main gauntlets thrown down were around impact and the need for hard evidence, and around voice. There seemed to be an widening of the remit here to listen to diverse and different groups of voices. Perhaps this is connected to his final point, which I strongly agree with, that this is a movement, "not just a sector". [See here for what was announced / Cabinet Office press release]

Tim Smit did his thing, which was pretty entertaining, and not a little inspiring. He started off by calling for utility companies and railway companies to be social enterprises, and followed that swiftly by saying that private companies did have lessons for us, but also many things to avoid. As an entrepreneur, he talked of innovation coming from "the confidence to trust your own instincts", about attitude combined with values, and the need for the movement to be more bullish about its potential. Yes, yes and thrice yes to those.

He trampled over the definition debates ("there is no definition of social enterprise" closely followed by "you’re all in love with hippy shit") before talking of the need to slow down and spend time thinking deeply about "new rules of engagement". Clearly he could have gone on more and more, but finished by talking about the fact that "innovation can’t be judged" (there’s nothing to judge it against), and the natural authority of people that are born to lead….all good stuff, and a good challenge to the stuffiness and stuck-in-the-detail of what sometimes happens at these events (in which I include myself).

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Tim and Ed were followed by Liam Black introducing four potential entrepreneurs, including SSE Fellow Nathalie McDermott. All four were pitching direct to the audience (and well done all, because that’s a pretty large crowd) for our "five pound vouchers"….or monopoly money as Oliver Letwin later dismissively described it.

– Nathalie’s project was i-citizen: a kind of "OurSpace" for citizen journalism online, encouraging ALL groups to use technology to their own ends.

– Next up was Andrzej, whose Primus Personnel organisation was working to act as a bridge between skilled migrant workers and potential employers, as well as giving migrant workers advice and support through the process.

– Jennifer Inglis was third with If-Food, which was about local sourcing + local food networks (combined with online ordering?)…

– And finally, there was Puppet Ship which was, as the name would suggest, a proposal for a puppet theatre on a ship: a floating arts venue that would also go out on outreach projects.

the winner was Primus Personnel, which I think (all SSE loyalties aside) was a worthy winner. Best of luck to all four on the entrepreneurial journey ahead; and well done to the Coalition for introducing this practitioner-focused part of proceedings…

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The break-out session I went to was about Communities in Control, which was pretty interesting: case studies from West Kilbride and Durham, and more overview stuff from the Plunkett Foundation CEO James Money-Kyrle, and Barry Quirk (from Lewisham local authority) who is overseeing the review of asset transfer of public assets.

The Plunkett Foundation is now thinking of itself as a "rural community change agent", and emphasised that the thing that connected all their activities (across retail outlets, labelling etc) was the people. to quote directly, "the people are the assets" not just bricks and mortar. We made a similar point in our response to the Comprehensive Spending Review that a sustainable resource base has to include human resources….

I was impressed with Barry Quirk as well, particularly when he spoke about the need for recipes rather than blueprints, for things emerging from communities, on facilities being a means to an end, and on the need for community empowerment. Inevitably, as someone overseeing a government review, Barry got most of the questions in the discussion, which covered how to pitch to a local authority, avoiding being transferred a liability, and on getting payback for everyone from the investment.

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In the mid-event plenary, we had Jonathan Bland chairing Oliver Letwin and Rita Patel from the Peepul Centre in Leicester. Two more different speakers it would be difficult to imagine. Oliver Letwin referred to social enterprise being driven by the "huge efforts of people", but focused on the need for investment….and the availability of capital as a barrier. His three "great lines of thought" (!) were 1) investment vehicles for a different scale of private (and public?) money to be available; 2) a helping hand and a champion; and 3) relieving the constraints of regulation. Which is all fine, if nothing really new or concrete perhaps.

Rita Patel basically told her own inspiring story as a social entrepreneur, and it’s quite a story. There were some great quotes ("we called it community action; the government called it riots") and pearls of wisdom ("understand the system you’re dealing with"; "remain determined and focused")…an amazing woman, and an amazing achievement. One thing that stayed with me was the need for champions and networks which can open up doors that had previously been closed. She also made the important point in the short discussion that "you can’t start an entrepreneurial organisation on risk-averse funding"….

One other thing that made me think was when she exhorted the crowd to believe in their potential and ability to change things ("you all have passion" as practitioners and social entrepreneurs). But actually, most of the room was filled with second and third tier organisations and agencies. Obviously, I confess to adding to that number, but it just made me wish she was speaking to a room full of social entrepreneurs and leaders who would have really identified with her story, and channelled the lessons and inspiration into their work.

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At this point, a confession about leaving early/missing the last workshop occurs; my defence is a meeting with our Fife SSE representatives, and the need to prepare for the next day for our new Liverpool SSE. But there were some announcements in the final session that made it to my inbox, and which can be found on various websites. [see the government link again]

The main one that people picked up was Ivan Lewis announcing £73m for developing and supporting health and care social enterprises. There was also £200k for investigations in how to get more private money into the movement (entrusted to Charity Bank and Community Innovation UK), and some progress in the DTi and DfES….

Congrats to SEC for organising: seemed to go without a hitch to me, and the event is always worthwhile, not only for the networking and refreshing of relationships, but for what is sparked off from different conversations and presentations….

The thing that stood out for me was how many speakers emphasised that this is a people-centred, people-powered movement….but much of the focus is on finance and structures and curricula. That is surely the next challenge for the movement in the coming years: to find, encourage, develop and train the individuals who will found, lead and populate the social enterprises of the 21st century.

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Altruism hardwired in the brain?

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Reading about how a certain part of the brain is more active in those who are altruistic sparked off a range of responses and ideas….but Nick Booth over at Podnosh has covered this much better than I could, going into the research a little more, and extrapolating outwards what this might mean for non-profit use of technology:

"…Flip it the other way and you make the case that those with the most
sophisticated understanding of social situations are more likely to do
things for others because it is most likely to make sense to them. They
have mental tools better attuned for empathy, for relating to others,
for calculating knock on consequencs of acts of generosity. So what is
my point re the social web?

These are the people with
the most sophisticted and complex (dare I say evolved?) ways to
understand and act in the social world. These are also the people which
you should find in a greater proportion in charities and non-profit
organisations. Yes you’ve guessed it: these are the folk who should
find it easiest to grasp the social web."

Interesting stuff: do those who work in this sector have a heightened sense of empathy, which leads them to be involved in this world? Is this more complex/’better’ than others, or just a particular area of strength? Is there an altruistic brain spectrum along which we could plot people we know and work with and support? Certainly the connection between "seeing other people’s actions as meaningful" and "being altruistic" is an interesting one which other researchers could pursue and drill down on.

What would neurologists make of social entrepreneurs I wonder? Maybe we should stop with the refined interview process focusing on traits and characteristics and just get a MRI brain scan to see what potential lies in store…….or maybe not….

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