Residential wrap: can social entrepreneurs work in teams?

Following Colin Crook's witness session, the SSE residential in Dartington took an unexpected turn (ok, so the staff were expecting it, but anyway). London SSE Director of Learning Marcia sounded the siren from the middle of the Dartington lawn (see photo below) to announce the start of the (drum roll) APPRENTICE CHALLENGE.


14 teams made up of SSE students from across the UK were challenged (by Dartington CEO Vaughan "Alan Sugar" Lindsay) to research, conceive and present a new social enterprise idea, taking into account social impact, community needs, sustainable thinking (financial + environmental) and, most challenging of all, to work effectively as a team along the way. Each team was given a set budget of $500 Dartington Dollars to spend in various advice shops (marketing, evaluation, finance, materials, and even focus groups with "real local people" etc), as well as having to register their team name with "companies house" and submit a press release to a set deadline.

By the end of the Wednesday (day 3 of residential), each team had to have created a stall in the marketplace to showcase their product, with clear evidence of thinking / planning around social impact, a 3 year financial forecast, a brand / advert, mission statement and so on. One team narrowly escaped disqualification for trying to sneak an extra print-out onto their table after time, but otherwise all teams achieved this on time.

Thursday morning was judging time (judges included the CEO of Dartington, and SSE trustees + staff), and the pressure was really ramped up as three teams were chosen to be grilled on the stage by the judging panel. Once one team was dispatched (with the immortal words "you can't polish a turd"), Dramatic Impact were up against Love + Life for the title. It went to the crowd's vote and, perhaps slightly against the judges' preferences, Love + Life won. And celebrated. Quite a lot.


Huge congratulations to all the teams and social entrepreneurs though. It was by far our biggest ever residential with over 150 people there, and everyone really entered into the spirit of the event to achieve the maximum while we were there. At times, it was challenging: as well as being fun, it was also quite a pressurised day and a half, and (as with the real Apprentice), pulling a team together from complete stranger at such short notice is tough. Especially when they are social entrepreneurs with strong opinions and plenty of ideas! But most importantly, given the discussions I heard during and after the event, there was a lot of learning and development (both skills and personal) that took place over the four days. As well as a lot of networking and friend-making.

Here's a final slide-set featuring many of the presentations, teams at work, judging, dancing, clarinet-playing (Jimmy is a star), laughing, big team photo etc etc. Enjoy. And a final huge congratulations to Cynthia, chief organiser-in-chief, and all the other SSE staff and students who made it a success.

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Transparency and (green) social entrepreneurship

So on Day 2 at the SSE residential, 140 social entrepreneurs packed into the Great Hall at Dartington to hear from Colin Crooks, social entrepreneur and founder of Green-Works, the furniture recycling social enterprise It takes quite an individual to hold that big an audience engaged and attentive for nigh on 2 hours, but Colin made it look effortless. And he demonstrated one of his key values, transparency, in virtually every sentence and every answer.

He split the witness session into four sections: Start-up, structure, people and new developments, drawing frequently and vividly and openly on his own experience. Below are my efforts at a transcript / bullet points of what he covered along the way, and the questions asked in each section. Hopefully it makes some sense, and you can take some nuggets of advice and wisdom.

– Hates waste: of things, of products, and of people; used to just rail against it ineffectively before finding social enterprise
– Worked in plastics factory for 40p an hour
– Went to university age 24 + saw wasted talent there…society was wasting that talent
– I pick up things in the street and drive my children mad
– Glad to be in a place that gets environment + sustainability (Dartington)

– Started a paper-recycling business which went OK, but collapsed when the price of paper collapsed. Price collapsed by 35%; margin was 8%.
– Brutal experience, extremely unpleasant, and learned a huge amount.
– Paid off debts (£100,000), got married to an "extremely patient" woman.
– Elected to be a councillor in Lambeth (West Norwood); by accident… (18.9% swing); See things as a councillor (schools, hospitals, charities, residents association) that you would not normally see
– Lots of organisations that had “shocking furniture”; one meeting with 30 people…with no furniture
– Next day, went into major blue chip company that was throwing away 600 desks and chairs
– "Idea was obvious to me: so I rented a van… moved 600 desks over 4 months"; that was the beginning of Green Works: an intermediary role to solve market failure: I will take this furniture off you at a timetable that suits you, and I will provide / sell that furniture to organisations that need it (via a massive warehouse)

– But very hard: steep learning curve; have to take it all within 24 hours….
– £23,000 turnover after year 2…not getting paid; van + volunteers; was it going to take off?

– HSBC: invited in to HSBC’s major bank in old City of London; cabinets for sticks, gloves and hats
– Start talking about HSBC’s new building at Canary Wharf (Colin used to be a window cleaning manager)…filling the entire building with 7,000 people + closing down 17 smaller buildings in City of London; and new furniture for Canary Wharf
– Want us to take away 7,000 desks in 6 months; took me 3 seconds to take the risk and go for it
– £500,000 contract for a business turning over £23,000: the original business destroyer contract (if they pay a day late etc…); this is mad, this is too early….optimistic side won: gotta go for it
– Demanded sum up front + water-tight contract to allow him to get bank support + warehouse

–  Peter Weatherstone (@First Fruit) signed and sealed a deal with him; to employ homeless people + get warehouse…on first meeting; his turnover was £75,000
– “That’s why I love being a social entrepreneur and in social enterprise; because we did it on trust, on wanting to achieve the same thing”
– Got pro-bono legal advice from Lovells: and ripped up the normal HSBC supply contract: November 7th 2002: signed the lease…+ first trucks rolled in
– 3,000 tonnes of furniture over the next 6 months; 52,000 items of furniture (including 1,000 hat stands) “The most amazing experience of my life: I’ve never enjoyed myself so much ever”

– Story shows you two things about starting up:
1) If you really believe in what you’re doing, and you believe you have the skills to do it…then do it; (but make sure that it is in line with your mission)

2) You cannot do it on your own; and there’s no reason why you should; huge diversity of skills and expertise needed to make it happen; the sum of the parts greater than the whole

Is there competition now? Huge, intense competition; lots of people + orgs emerged; mostly delighted (because GreenWorks couldn’t cope with it all); some competition using dodgy tactics

What are your personal key values…and how do you apply them? You can stamp your values through your organisation like a stick of rock as a social entrepreneur. For me, it is never divert to landfill; absolute integrity and transparency; + giving people a chance. Challenge to apply those, but we make them part of the interview, induction and review process in the organisation

How challenging to forge relationships? You do create an energy around you; all you can talk about is the enterprise (breakfast, dinner, pub, friends, networks). Word of mouth got us HSBC. Relationships are the key things, but need to have an authenticity; you have to do a lot of networking, and kiss a lot of frogs…but find some princes on your wavelength who get it. Don’t try and force something that isn’t naturally happening. “If it doesn’t come naturally, you’re doing it wrong”

How do you ensure furniture is re-usable? We collect everything, regardless of its state. And none of it goes to landfill


– I really believe in a not-for-profit model…company limited by guarantee: need directors + understand you are no longer the owner.
– First year: £2000; second year: £23,000; at first, friend + wife was enough. Needed more challenge as things went on (not just yes-men).
– Guy from Centrica: instantly professionalised us: get the numbers and know the numbers (disciplines + structures).
– 3 person board grew to 6. Bringing in particular sets of skills. People we knew or knew of.
– Recruited people who are do-ers. No "Lady Mucks and Lord Fauntleroys", but people who open their phone books and help us. And push and probe and challenge me. Advice that I couldn’t buy.
– Decent balance: I give up control of salary and (some of) strategy, but they were recruited to help me achieve my mission. And therefore I’ve found that hugely rewarding….
– Frankness is the key to making that board work; be honest when I don’t know the answers; you can be superman outwardly, but need to be open and trusting to the board. Then they will help you, not beat you up. If I tell them all the answers, how are they going to help?


–  Is your structure succession-proof? Probably could do with tightening up. Biggest concern with integrity of business + some of those things I hold.

Where do you recruit trustees/directors from? Advertise some vacancies on NCVO, SEC, SEL….and they are people who are looking for this kind of thing. It’s also about being networked, and networking your networks. [we are a charity and a company limited by guarantee; so the directors are also trustees]


– I’ve made a lot of mistakes and got a lot of things wrong; and some right
– Sometimes you know instantly if you’ve got it right (Chris); just got on with it; applied himself intelligently…etc. for 4 days; then took him on when I dislocated my knee
– Best single recruitment I ever did: and it was backing enthusiasm and intelligence and attitude
– You have to be direct and clear with people (which some people find tricky)…you have to call the line, otherwise people cross it

– Recommends Good To Great (section on there: get the right people on the bus) by Jim Collins; get the right people on the bus and make sure they are in the right seat; and the bus journey may change…so the people may need to change (or change their seats). Need to know what skills you need, what part of the journey you are on, what skills you don’t have and what skills you need to get in…

– I’m out of my depth a lot of the time…and I don’t always know how to do it; I freely admit that.
– Brought in a load of more experienced people: didn’t get the dream, didn’t get the mission… didn’t get it in their belly, even if they did on their spreadsheets; and it nearly destroyed us. £200-300k spent on people taking us nowhere. Very much harder to get rid of them.
– Learning is: Do not recruit in a hurry…if you don’t think the person is right, go round again. Frustration of getting the wrong person in is infinitely worse than taking time getting the right person. 
–  Regular feedback from day 1. Direct, straight and true.
– If it’s not working out, the sooner the better in terms of getting rid of them / parting company


When did you draw up an HR plan? When we got to around £1m. Intensely different business then and at £2m. But before that, keep the momentum going; do stuff. Instinctual.

What was the problem with the ‘wise heads’? Was it about the money primarily for them? Yes. Not just about the money; it’s also about doing what’s right. They knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

How did you start to dismiss these people or agree to part? A frank conversation, normally. Pointing to history + some examples. Ask them "What do you think we should do?"

Who are the key players in the business? Changes all the time. Depending on circumstances and what stage of the journey the organisation is at.


– You have to keep revitalising, keep developing, keep it new.
– Done some of the biggest ever contracts for recycling furniture in the UK. So looking also for some new things
– Went to Sierra Leone; met an MP starting a library there; offered her furniture; most amazing place I’ve ever been…most amazing people; so we are working to revitalise a whole community by providing them with furniture etc.
– Needed: nowhere to store books (mud floor, palm roof). So sent out a load of metal cabinets. Quadrupled them number of books in Sierra Leone; and all are stored in metal cabinets by age group. 
– Also, back in the UK, have set up a fully computerised joinery workshop. Taken four years to get right. Because we are a warehousing business, not a manufacturing business. Finally turned into profit in the last 6 months.
– About the right people, the right partnerships and taking the opportunities
– Keep refining and revitalising the model…and to do all of that against the odds. And, to some extent, at times, against the opinions and advice of trustees + directors.
– Seeing the benefits of those two things has given me another level of energy for the future


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What is the collective noun for social entrepreneurs?

So I'm at Dartington Hall in Devon, in 1500 of the UK's finest leafy acres. But no time to enjoy the peace and quiet, or the view. Because I am here with 150 social entrepreneurs from across the UK: all the students who are currently on SSE programmes in the UK: that means from Fife, Cornwall, London, East Midlands, Liverpool, Yorkshire and Hampshire….and the new Devon SSE will be based right here as well.

Having taken over what seemed like most of the train from Paddington, everyone's got here safe and well, and last night got to know each other over dinner, an ice-breaking session (a bit of 'forum theatre' with SSE Fellow Claire Hodgson from Diverse City)…and possibly some drinking and dancing. Though obviously I was tucked up in bed.

Today is a witness session with Colin Crooks (blog post to follow) and Vaughn Lindsay (CEO of Dartington), followed by some reflection time and networking.

Very exciting times: about double the size of any previous SSE residential, and the energy and enthusiasm and passion is palpable in the room. And there are loads of them: the SSE residential effectively qualifies as one of the large social enterprise conferences now…..which leads me to my title and to my final question: what is the collective noun for social entrepreneurs?

Matthew Thomson (formerly of SSE, and now of LCRN) used to say that we were a school OF social entrepreneurs, as well as a school FOR them, which might give us one answer. Or we could go surreal, like murder of crows or parliament of owls. A gaggle? A storm? A generous helping?

Answers on a postcard / e-mail /blog comment /  tweet.

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Forces for Good: a brief review

Forces Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits
by Leslie Crutchfield & Heather McLeod Grant (Jossey-Bass)

[review originally in Social Enterprise Magazine with a strict word limit: hence the brevity…]

This book could not come more heavily garlanded with praise from the other side of the pond and, as the name might suggest, it is an American book written primarily for an American audience. And there is plenty to raise the hackles of a cynical Brit: from effusive acknowledgements (running to four pages) to occasionally alienating business school jargon (“bench strength” etc.). But if you can get past those, there is much here to inspire and inform.

The six practices are:
1) to serve and advocate;
2) to harness market forces;
3) to inspire evangelists;
4) to nurture nonprofit networks;
5) to master adaptation;
6) to share leadership.

Some of these may strike you as obvious, others as simplistic, but the book goes into each in depth, and draws out further useful principles and case studies under each heading. And there’s much else of interest on the way, as you would expect from a book based on four years of research. Such as the average length of tenure of the CEOs of these high-impact organisations (just under 21 years) and the average size of their boards (just under 24): a stark contrast to the turnover rate and size that is often recommended here.

Most crucially, the book focuses on the scale of impact, not scale of budget or scale of organisation, and on action. For those social entrepreneurs and social enterprises trying to achieve such impact in the current climate, the most relevant points are to cultivate a network mindset (partner, collaborate, share, empower) and to be adaptable. Then more of us might still be a force for good on the far side of the recession. 


[added today:]

Looking back, it's definitely the network mindset aspect of the book that has stayed with me, along with the length of tenure not necessarily being a bad thing (one feature of SSE at the moment is that a majority of the staff have been with the organisation for between 3 and 7 years). The network mindset seems so obvious, and yet inter-organisational competition is still a feature of many in the sector: genuine partnership based on trusted relationships is hard to find, but prospers wherever it does. But knowing that such successful organisations focus on a network mindset, and believe in a combined service + advocacy model (SSE remains delivery-centric but has increased its policy and advocacy work, again in partnership), definitely helps reinforce and affirm the approach we are taking.

Still worth a read…and, reading my own review, probably worth a revisit!

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Wednesday round-up: induction, investment, inspiration

SSE YH Launch 1
So much going on, and so little time. No time to stand around like these people smiling and joking (see left). Here is my attempt at a round-up of recent major news and events int he social entrepreneurship world etc.I have picked out some highlights but you can read more of what we've been reading on the Twitter feed as well: @SchSocEnt

– SSE has recently started work in Lewisham, in Yorkshire (official launch article, and photo above; massive thanks to Campbell Robb from OTS & Saeeda Ahmed, Social Enterprise Ambassador + SSE Fellow), and the Ontario feasibility study is motoring along…and we've hosted the induction of our new Australian CEO Benny Callaghan over the last fortnight, which has made for a busy, if enjoyable schedule…

.- Event-wise, it's a smorgasbord of choice for social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. The Social Enterprise World Forum is currently going on in Melbourne, complete with SSE Australia staff and students. Follow #sewf09 on Twitter for live updates (through the night….) or to catch up.

– Then there's some more crackers coming up, including Good Deals: the National Social Investment Conference , the Guardian-organised Social Enterprise conference (more of a commissioning / public services theme) and, of course, Voice 10 coming up in Wales….and the ClearlySo Social Business conference as well.

– Hopefully they will all take a leaf out of this year's amazing Shine unconference (yes, SSE is a co-founder of the event, along with Ashoka UK, the Hub and UnLtd); for a sense of this year's event in May, check out this recent video by BeInspired:

– On with the rest; the Times reports that the third sector is increasingly the choice for graduates; Peter Jones goes younger, aiming at schools: Children need to be taught entrepreneur skills
(to which, we would say, they can't be taught…but they can be learned and nurtured and developed)

– From one Social Enterprise Ambassador to anotherl Craig Dearden-Phillips welcomes Peter Holbrook as the new CEO at Social Enterprise Coalition

– Interesting article from Stephen Bubb on the need for capacity-building in the sector (and making the case for it in the current climate)

– Great piece on SSE in the Guardian's housing supplement: A School for Social Entrepreneurs: we're the boss

– Further Guardian piece on the first 'embedded' social entrepreneur in the NHS; not convinced they are one as such (more a facilitator, development officer) but it's an interesting experiment….

– Inspired to read about the Sheila McKechnie Award-winners (for campaigning) and especially delighted  that Lea Misan, current SSE student, was a winner; and that Sam Akpabio (SSE Fellow) was a finalist. Well done all.

– And finally, best recent headline was definitely Social Enterprise Skyscraper; congrats to all those at Coin Street for showing perseverance, vision, and many other entrepreneurial qualities to get this done.

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