Blogging social entrepreneurs…

Was delighted to discover a few blogging SSE students and Fellows the other day, so thought I would bring them to your attention:

– first up, the Blind Blogger, SSE Fellow Roger Wilson-Hinds, founder and chief entrepreneur of Screenreader, which provides low-cost / free screen-reading software to the visually impaired….thus ensuring thousands are not excluded; most recently, Screenreader has added the Duke of York as a patron, David Blunkett as a champion, and been commended in the ICT Hub Awards….

– second, a first post from Andy Gibson on the current weekly programme in London (project: the School of Everything); seems to be going OK so far, then…..

– meanwhile, SSE Fellow Nathalie McDermott leads the cavalry into web 2.0 via OnRoadMedia and via an article in today’s Society Guardian: ‘Voices of Freedom’

– and SSE Fife Fellow Mark Kelly is equally ambitious, as the domain name would suggest:


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Cartoon for the early-stage social entrepreneur: go team!

Great GapingVoid cartoon which sums up those early stages of starting up an organisation; we’ve all been there….[click to expand]


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Public service delivery over Demos breakfast

Having returned from Estonia (of which more soon), SSE launched straight back into the deep end with a breakfast roundtable discussion at Demos on ambition, social enterprise, the third sector and public service delivery. Luminaries attending included senior policy people of NCVO and ACEVO (Nick Aldridge, soon off to be CEO of MissionFish), Ben Metz from Ashoka, Cliff Prior from UnLtd, and Stephen Sears from ECT.

Once coffees were downed, people clicked into gear and the debate began, albeit with relatively few sparks flying. In fact, reading between the lines, there was significant agreement between those present. Diversity, and government understanding of, was one key theme: that it is impossible to decide whether "the sector" should a) aim to deliver a greater percentage of public services or b) transform capitalism or c) innovate at the grassroots or, indeed, d) all of the above…..rather, each organisation decides what it does to achieve its goals, giving a complex, diverse, rich picture.

There was also significant agreement about the need for more thought-through commissioning (an old and well-worn chestnut…if you can have a well-worn chestnut), that it should be outcome- not sector-based. This is very much in line with our feeling that, increasingly, the boundaries between sectors are becoming blurred and what matters is the quality/value/impact of activity, and how transparent an organisation is about the way it operates (and in how it communicates).

A social enterprise or charitable structure doesn’t guarantee quality, particularly if what differentiates them (aka the values/mission at their heart/inception) is no longer there…which is a possibility if organisations are formed to respond to sector-based commissions. The powerhouse that is ECT started as a small voluntary community transport organisation by people passionate to see that need to be met.

There were some interesting points about innovation too: I made the point that social enterprise was meant to be about new solutions, risk, innovation etc, but that it was difficult to commission innovation or procure entrepreneurship. And that social entrepreneurs, particularly in their early years of activity, are responding to what is NOT being met, rather than aiming to deliver a public service that is already recognised. The ramifications for funding, support, devolving power and money are clear. Nick A. added that research had shown that the sector was involved in more incremental innovation now, rather than "disruptive" innovation, and that this was to be welcomed.

Further interesting points came around user-led services, whether it will make a difference if Cameron/Brown get in (general feeling: not really, though we won’t know until either of them do, and they’ll both have less money to work with…), and how Ben/Ashoka will bring down capitalism. Or something. ;0)

Best of all, a roundtable discussion that didn’t attempt to define social enterprise or the third sector once: marvellous.

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Preventing entrepreneur burnout

It seems appropriate to write about avoiding burnout whilst working from home (sorry, ‘telecommuting’) due to a heavy cold that has now done the rounds of the office. I was reminded of the perennial subject by this extensive post by Britt Bravo, entitled Do-Gooder Burnout: How Do You Beat the Burn?. It reports that most young entrants to the third sector leave because of a) low pay and b) burnout. I think something similar could be found with social entrepreneurs (a leadership subset of those new entrants), though it might be phrased as a) no pay and b) overstretching. These relate directly to the entrepreneurial characteristics we seek in our students: risk and responsibility; on our current programmes, there are people who have given up secure jobs, and even sold homes to do what they believe in.

What this means, though, is that looking after themselves is absolutely crucial: to refer back to the leadership advice from the event last week: problems at work often relate to ones at home, and support networks are key. This is written through what SSE does like a stick of rock: indeed, the first act on joining the programme is to meet 15-20 people going through the same thing. Action learning sets, tutors and mentors all provide routes to seek support and advice as well…and the personal no less than the organisational.

Interestingly, much of Britt’s post focuses on what the individual can do in terms of direct actions (learn to say no, learn to let go, do-delegate-or-dump, etc), a lot of which is worth reading. It does also mention “intensive self-care” and encourages “nonprofit selfishness” time….but seems to miss out that developing support networks at work and home should be central for any entrepreneur. Sometimes it can seem like a mantra, but no one person (despite the ‘heroic individual’ myths) can do everything alone, nor be everything to everyone. Talk to people; share problems; eat well; turn off e-mail in the mornings; and cut down your to-do list to the three you can do today. ;0)

Now having ignored all of those, it’s back to work….

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(Slightly less) Patient Opinion

Interesting article from Paul Hodgkin, SSE Fellow and founder of Patient Opinion, in Wednesday’s Society Guardian entitled "Conversation Peace". On the face of it, this is an interesting diversion into how new technology might have ramifications for the NHS (video footage of mixed wards, unclean areas, bed shortages on YouTube etc.), but it is also the story of how the NHS is giving mixed messages about independence.

On the one hand, the NHS is being encouraged to commission and work with social enterprises to deliver services, and substantial sums of money have been made available for this. So, on the one hand, the NHS is being encouraged to devolve services to social enterprises and the volutnary sector. On the other hand, in the case of Patient Opinion, it has decided to develop its own solution in-house (NHS Choices), albeit with a slightly broader remit. And in an area where, as Paul points out, trust is absolutely paramount:

"Running Patient Opinion has convinced us that the state or public
sector providers themselves are likely to be poor hosts for these
conversations. Citizens are likely to instinctively distrust government
websites, suspecting them – rightly or wrongly – of spin. They may also
be reluctant to give email addresses to a feedback platform owned by
the NHS when they may be users of its services in the future. And, of
course, health abounds with controversies, be it hospital closures or
herceptin rationing.

In our view, the NHS will find it easier to
handle such firestorms if they are hosted on a platform that is clearly
independent of the main players

Now obviously, innovation is welcome and new models may bring different benefits. Patient Opinion will also have the benefit of years of operation, building its credibility and refining its model, whilst the new site has to build that from scratch. But NHS Voices may well, as the article points out, bring interesting new slants, open data to be used, interesting ways of gathering collective experiences and so on.

Still, even if this NHS IT project goes smoothly in development, there seems (admittedly from a distant standpoint) to be something of a divergence here between rhetoric and reality. Others have voiced concerns over health/social enterprise with regard to a) lack of social enterprises able to deliver; b) need for sufficient support and c) opening up commissioning to private sector (if not the first time, then after 3 years). There’s some validity to these, although there are good, well-informed people at the DoH working through the issues, but my concern is more of a cultural one: will the NHS really let go?

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