Partnerships 2: should social enterprises date, co-habit or marry?

Goteam Typically, two days after I write a long post about partnership (and thanks for those who've commented, tweeted etc positively), a great podcast comes up on my commute in to work on….partnership. So I'll keep this brief: this podcast, Strategic Restructuring by David La Piana, is brilliant. On mergers, on partnerships (of different types), on what role funders and practitioners can play, and much much more. Some quick highlights:

– great comparison of non-profit partnerships to relationships: know whether you are dating, living together, or getting married for ever…

– effortless demolition of the "there are too many charities and social enterprises" argument

– realism on mergers: they normally don't save money, culture is most important, it needs to start with mission, economies of scale (or lack of therein) etc, etc

Highly, highly recommended for social entrepreneurs, funders, policymakers and all in the sector (+ check out all the various materials at the bottom of the page for more). I've also added it to our list of recommended podcasts, and you can find more sense-making stuff from David La Piana at

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Is a Social App Store just Toolkits 2.0?

AppstoreI was inspired to write by the latest issue of Third Sector magazine this week. Not a sentence I've written too often, perhaps, (tend to rely on it for news, rather than inspiration…) but there were three thought-provoking pieces in the current issue.

The first was what is probably the best interview I've read with Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, on the Conservative approach to the sector. There are some good challenges  here for naysayers and cut-watchers alike, and a good summary 'progress report'.

The second was by John Kingston of Venturesome asking "How can we increase supply of capital to the third sector?' I'll cover that in a forthcoming post on Big Society Bank / social investment

And the third was a great challenge from Craig Dearden-Phillips to move away from just complaining politely about cuts (and doing so ever more loudly) and to think radically about how to react, survive, thrive and reconfigure in the current context. To be constructive about the Big Society agenda.


To that end, I've been reading up on one initiative bubbling away in the affiliations of the Big Society Network: the concept of a Social App Store. David Wilcox, arch social reporter, suggested this as an idea and it has begun to be shaped and formed online by the contributions of others. His outline of it is here, and you can read the subsequent discussions here. The concept is summarised as follows:

It will aim to offer online users simple navigation to easy-to-use
content and tools for social action – some free, some paid-for. It will
offer developers of how-to materials for social action the opportunity
to showcase their existing work, and work with others to develop new
offerings. By creating a substantial market place it will provide
developers with an incentive to develop or re-purpose materials in
formats easy to use by those new to social action.

In principle, I like a lot about this: making ideas accessible, thinking radically about how we can scale up their take-up, a commitment to openness, the potential largeness of reach, democratising design / co-production, utilising new tech to connect, providing a real product (or even 'shopfront') to what big society is and means, financial transaction / trading element and so on. Much to build on and work with here.

My constructive questions or concerns are: is the language alienating (does it smack of metropolitan smart-phone-owning tech-savvy people etc)? Others, including David, have noted this already though, and suggested alternatives. More substantively, it is the communicated sense that this type of social action can be 'downloaded and installed' (to borrow the terminology) so simply. Implementation of such work is not one-click and instant, but, often, achieved with hard slog and determination over the long haul. And it is often challenging and difficult and messy. Where I can get up and running with an app or MySociety website cleanly and instantly, other social projects and tools need support, capacity, confidence and persistence to put into action.

The associated risk, therefore, is that this is just toolkits 2.0: everyone in this sector knows there is a toolkit or a resource for everything from community planning to social impact measurement, and also that creating the content after the project (because you wrote it in the bid) is often the easy bit. An online store of these won't change that. (see Richard's recent post on SE Toolbelt for a similar take). Materials, by definition, are only the substances out of which things are made.

So my suggestion is to think and proffer questions about what offline support might look like: who the store workers or shop assistants might be, and where they might be located. Are they voluntary, app-ointees, connected to existing local networks? Are they located in actual stores (as David Barrie suggests in his response in the group discussion)? Where are the learning loops or support networks for those 'downloading' from the store, and what might those look like? Or is there a phone hotline to talk through problems? (the equivalent of e-mailing the app developer?) Will there be any quality control or measurement of success (app-raisals?), or is it genuinely radical in its devolving of trust and, possibly, resource?

Much to ponder, but also much to build.

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Partnerships: are you the Bono and Frank Sinatra of social enterprise?

PartnershipBeen giving much thought to partnership of late. Whether this is due to celebrating my second wedding anniversary (gifts to SSE towers please…), I'm not sure. I think it was more from listening to the NPR All Songs Considered podcast recently about the oddest musical pairings. There were some great throwbacks (Aerosmith + Run DMC, Nick Cave + Kylie etc), but also some absolute clunkers. And even worse than Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat (oh yes), was Frank Sinatra and Bono's version of I've Got You Under My Skin. It is an object exercise in how to achieve less than the sum of your parts….

So what makes for successful partnerships? How can two (or more organisations) create additional value together? Or, to put it another way, how can you ensure you create Walk This Way and not Opposites Attract?

I revisited part of a slideshow I did a little while back on partnership.

Some key questions there, and some thoughts about the nature of the partnership (its formality, its structure, its level of capacity and resource needed and so on) you might be thinking about. And how form should follow function.

Other questions to think about might include:

– what are you hoping to achieve?
– who proposed the idea? (and why?)

– does it fit with mission, vision, values, strategy etc?

– will it add value?

– are the activities complementary or competing? (NB Bono is not complementary to Sinatra)

– who will lead? (and in what areas…)

– is the scope of ambition and timescale realistic?

– are the verbal commitments above and beyond the possible?

– are the right mix of skills on board?

– are the cultures similar? (culture clash is a common barrier)

– is the size and experience similar?
– how do you avoid over-bureaucratisation, over-administration, countless meetings etc? but still have good governance?
– what should be captured in writing? (how formally? MoU, SLA, HoA etc); don't forget the money; don't overcomplicate…

…and so on. All other questions welcome (feel free to add in the comments below).

From an SSE perspective, we are in lots of partnerships (indeed, our franchise network is a network of long-term partnerships) for all sorts of different purposes. Our experience is that success comes down to people: trust, openness, candour, shared ethos, and positive intent. Without those, even the most compelling proposition on paper is destined to fail. Which can damage one or both of the organisations involved.

After all, where is MC Skat Kat now?

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Will a new toolbelt help social entrepreneurs?

Setoolbelt The SE Toolbelt is an online information platform aiming to provide social entrepreneurs with practical resources that have been developed by their peers. It boasts 1000 or so items of various shapes and sizes on its data base, and these are grouped broadly by business topics and sectors.
From the School’s point of view, you can imagine an ideal scenario where someone with a fledgling project could find a precedent, capitalise on pre-existing market research and a functioning business model, and adapt them to a new enterprise. More developed organisations could research approaches to scaling best practice or SROI in a format that is, in principle, an extension of, or addition to, the peer learning process.

Thumbing through the available materials, however, I’m sceptical of the claim that SE Toolbelt “brings a grassroots practitioner perspective to the fore”. The site is a library of business school-esque articles on topics from Marketing and External Communications to Risk Management – interesting in themselves, but part of the top-down academic approach that the site is hoping to challenge.
It is easier to see a way for a collection of case studies to find their way into the SSE programme, supplementing live witness sessions with further examples.

At the moment though, most studies are based in North America, or hot beds of social enterprise in the developing world, particularly India. There is relatively little based in, or coming from the UK, which means students will always be dealing with a different legal system, funding structure, cultural and social context etc. But this doesn’t stop entrepreneurs in the UK getting involved, and it may be that as the site grows it will become increasingly relevant. Like any online platform, Toolbelt will be useful if it’s used.

[Richard is currently interning with SSE, helping on a wide variety of projects. You can also follow @SEToolbelt on Twitter]

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Social enterprise + entrepreneurship links from July

AlarmclocktimeCurrently, on my return to work, I am somewhere between B and C in the image to the left. Cleared the inbox (almost) yesterday, and now catching up on everything that's happened since I've been away.

To which the short answer is "far too much to put in one post". So I'm taking the easy / sensible way out, and posting up a load of the most interesting and relevant links during the last month that have passed through the inbox / twitter / etc Hopefully they are for you too.

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