A tale of recovery, and of many colours

There’s an interesting article in Social Enterprise Magazine this month about the Community Action Network (who incidentally have a new logo…with a new website to come?). It’s snappily titled "From pear-shaped to peachy" and details how Adele Blakeborough and her team have successfuly turned CAN around from an ailing membership organisation with a myriad of projects on the go (and which apparently came close to collapse), to a focused and growing social enterprise. CAN now focuses on its Mezzanines (a new London centre is just opening), and its Breakthrough investment fund (we blogged about the launch) here, seeking to both provide co-location facilities for social enterprises, and to allow a few select enterprises to scale up with appropriate finance and support.

Interestingly, with respect to the latter, the article discusses the fact that Permira (who fund the fund) have come under fire from unions et al recently for asset-stripping, blanket redundancies, lack of accountability and so forth. Indeed, a question about private equity was put to Ed Miliband at the launch of the Edge Upstarts (see previous post, and listen to the podcast) by Paul Myners.

The article raises it thus:

"However, Roger Cowe (sector specialist) says he understands why some social entrepreneurs have
also sounded a note of caution. In May last year, for example, the GMB
Union led a picket outside Damon Buffini’s local church in protest at
job losses suffered by the AA motoring organisation after it was taken
over by Permira and fellow venture capitalist CVC. More than 50 MPs
signed a parliamentary motion accusing the private equity firms of
‘greed’ and ‘blatant asset stripping’.

Cowe says: ‘I can
understand that some social entrepreneurs might be nervous. The great
advantage of social enterprise is that it’s grounded and near to the
people it wants to help – and there is a danger with expansion that you
can lose that closeness. Personally, though, I’m sure the organisations
working with Permira and CAN are well aware of this and will keep the
proximity to their customers.’ "

Not a bad point, but the issue about proximity to customers is one pertinent to scaling generally, rather than just when being assisted to do it by private equity money/support. Obviously, the structures of social enterprises would pretty much prevent "asset-stripping" (indeed the CIC has an asset lock…), so perhaps people’s issue is more a kind of ‘should we take money from organisations acting like this’ type of one. Perhaps there is something about the philanthropy supply chain here (in the same way that grant-making trusts are being ‘encouraged’ to invest more ethically), but I would tend to fall on the pragmatic side here: this money and support gives significant opportunity to this handful of select organisations.

It also got me thinking about how, back in 1997, when CAN and SSE were established, they were virtually the only players in this field of support, and the different approaches taken to growth and business development (CAN diversified substantially into many areas and has then refocused, SSE delivers virtually the same product/programme today, if refined, and have replicated gradually through franchise). No judgement there, apart from to say that the wider social enterprise movement in the UK has been the winner.

Indeed, there is another article in this month’s Soc Ent Mag (sadly not online) by Barbara Philips which makes the case for how a rich, diverse and well-populated social entrepreneurship movement is exactly what the third sector needs. Amen to that.

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Social enterprise and entrepreneurship news February 07

Apologies for the long and prosaic title to this post: uninspiration has struck.

Anyway, a few points of interest:

– UnLtd have announced their next Level 2 Awards round; expressions of interest by March 12th

– Edge Upstarts (already?) have launched their awards for 2007; launched, I should add, at an event at which our erstwhile chief executive was speaking….see all the details here (there’s even a podcast and some flickr photos); nominations by first week of April…

–  Speaking of UnLtd, Richard Alderson from there has properly launched his CareerShifters website; I haven’t had a chance to look round fully, but looks good…

– Finally, SSE Fellow Ros Spearing makes her appearance on ITV’s Fortune programme this evening at 8pm….

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Social business supplement

Brief post to note the ‘social business’ supplement in the Society Guardian today (not online, sadly, that I can see…). It’s a kind of follow on to Voice 07 and includes "seven social enterprise pioneers" (aka the magnificent seven, which includes SSE Fellow Paul Hodgkin (of Patient Opinion) and other familiar names like Liam Black (Fifteen), Penny Newman (CafeDirect), Gordon D’Silva (Training for Life), Nigel Lowthrop (Hill Holt Wood)  and Andrew Mawson (Bromley by Bow). Indeed, the only new name to me was that of Sital Punja, who runs Sari UK, a social enterprise "marrying fashion, recycling and international aid". Interesting stuff…check out the website (though it doesn’t work for me…).

There’s also a report from the conference, a piece about enterprise education, the opportuntities in the food market and care, and an article focusing on the north of England. There’s also a column from Ed Miliband, which is pretty similar to his conference speech; he points out that social enterprise is "pioneering new ways of achieving social change…..and….social enterprise can be another channel for our idealism. It can be a force for dynamism, prosperity – and social justice." Elsewhere it covers the action plan, the role of government and tax relief. Perhaps the key sentence, which is pulled out as a quote, is "In praising social enterprise, the motivation must not be to palm off responsibility". Cue cheering from the rafters….

There’s also a top 10 of tips from Unique Social Enterprise CIC…which I’ll try and post up another time.

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System social entrepreneurs: the return…

I said I would get round to responding to the Shaftesbury Partnership’s response to my response to their post about system social entrepreneurs (as opposed to community social entrepreneurs). I think this helpfully elucidates what they mean by the differences here:

"A key prerequisite of what we term community entrepreneur is that they are people-orientated, and possess significant local political and social capital – enough for reforms and new ideas to really take route [sic] in their communities. This does not mean they cannot at the same time then build scaleable initiatives, but there is ultimately a localness about the community entrepreneur related to the number of people they can genuinely and personally influence"

while

"System social entrepreneurs, if you like, are somewhat opposite in temperament – their inclination is to really understand the systemic problems to be addressed and then identify the key solutions to them in a top down fashion, but aware that part of the solution must involve the inclusion of community entrepreneurs if the initiative is to succeed and culture change is to be brought about"

They go on to say that system social entrepreneurs are more likely to come from the City, business or government, and give some examples. There’s some interesting thoughts here: I would agree that we need new entrants from all places and walks of life, and would also agree that we need to bring these diverse people together: that’s when the strongest work emerges, in our experience. I would also agree strongly that top-down initiatives have often failed to connect with or give ownership to the grassroots/local frontline. The scaling up of local initiatives is one we have covered several times on this blog; suffice to say that it is a difficult process suitable for some, not all, and I would say the main problems tend to be not enough proof of concept, expansion before consolidation, and not enough risk assessment, rather than access to finance.

They also address the difference between social innovation and system social enterprise; basically saying that the former is ‘solutions-oriented’ and the latter is ‘problems driven’, and that innovation is inevitably more concerned with the new, and the ‘light bulb’ moments, rather than simply transplanting/honing/merging existing ideas, as a system social entrepreneur might.

"This incidentally, also puts a limit on the amount of system social enterprise that can take place, because the starting point is not necessarily the idea or innovation, but the problems within the system and the risks needing to be managed (using ideally social derivative thinking), and finding people who can quickly understand them and identify the community entrepreneurs who can help them shape and disseminate the solutions required"

I think there would be those in the social innovation world who might not agree with all of this (indeed, I think they are trying to move it away from innovation as newness or novelty, and make it more systematic, though it does inevitably have more freedom of thought associated with it). I think this is a helpful dialogue, which adds to our understanding, rather than simply dwelling on definitions (which I’ve railed against enough previously). They end with the nice phrase: "Less ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ and more ‘co-create the flower we need for the job’ ", which I think helps sum up where they are coming from. It is a more strategic, holistic, planned approach to solving the problems that are there from within (and without) the existing systems. I look forward to perhaps bringing some of the planters of our thousand flowers to get involved in that co-creation process.

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Your Ethical Business + SSE

When we were undergoing our re-branding (the final part of which, the website, will be coming soon), we did discuss whether we should change our name. Why? Because people get misled by the word ‘School’, and assume we are an academic institution delivering taught content/programmes. When, as anyone who knows us will tell you, our focus is on action learning and personal support: learning by doing, and gaining confidence and self-esteem, as well as business skills and knowledge, to achieve personal and project development. But some people don’t get past the word ‘School’….

Anyway, as you will have noticed, we never got that far down the line of a name change, given the track record of the organisation, its reputation, and so forth (the agency who suggested the name ‘Spark’ will remain nameless; although if we ever diversify into soap powder, we may revisit). One of my former colleagues, Matthew Thomson (now at the London Community Recycling Network), suggested cunningly that we should change it from School FOR Social Entrepreneurs to School OF Social Entrepreneurs, making ‘school’ the collective noun for social entrepreneurs, like…er…whales. And making clear that we are representative as well as service-driven.

Why am I burbling on about all this? Because I was asked to give feedback about a new book, Your Ethical Business, which is being launched in March. It aims to be "a ‘how to’  handbook covering everything you need to know about starting and succeeding in an ethical enterprise" and it’s pretty good: clear, coherent, and covering all the main areas. But, as you may have already guessed from the above, we are mentioned only as delivering ‘academic programmes’ and bracketed with accredited university courses, rather than listed as a deliver of business support in the (otherwise very good) resources directory. Very frustrating and, given that all our literature/website makes clear that our ethos/aproach is the exact OPPOSITE of an academic programme, I can only assume it is because we are called ‘School’.

Rant over. The book is a good introduction to the field, and worth adding to your reference library, although it does make out that it’s all rather easier than is really the case. I would have put a few more lines in about the need for personal support, support networks, work-life balance and so forth which we have seen emerge as key issues for social entrepreneurs over the years. The only other comment I would give is that, as someone said to me recently, entrepreneurs (of all types) have a drive and spirit that can’t be gained from a book and, if they’re a true entrepreneur, they probably won’t have time to read it anyway…..

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