The importance of a citizen base

In my second full week with the SSE I’ve become increasingly aware of the many SSE Fellows who are out there, still keeping their projects sustainable and still causing positive change. On the tube this morning I was reading the Global Ideas Bank’s  "500 Ways to Change the World" and it really occurred to me how many different people have original solutions to various problems. While the book was edited and compiled by Nick Temple (Network Director at SSE) , the content was created by people who have recognized a fault  in  society and  have an idea  to fix it : ‘ordinary’ people suggesting social innovations.

The fact that so many want to help, and have such ideas, bodes well not only for the future of the SSE model, but also similar projects such as Ashoka’s much welcomed CBI Initiative. While not in Britain quite yet, (although on the way: it’s made it to France ) the Citizen Base Initiative seeks to alter "old funding strategies" and aims at helping citizen sector organisations to think differently about utilising resources, revenue streams etc, so that they can become more self-sufficient/more vibrant/less dependent on erratic funding. CBI tries to help the citizen sector break from traditional funding bodies and the state.

In essence, It’s about a wider view of stakeholders and how they (your organisation’s citizen base) can help access different types of resources, and help provide support. Very much in line with the view that social entrepreneurs create change through building networks, teams and movements, rather than as heroic individuals (see previous post on this subject)

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Corporate social responsibility and inflection points

At the CAF Companies and Communities awards event yesterday, there was some interesting debate and discussion about CSR, the way it is changing, and how there has been a shift over the last two years in the way that it is viewed by the corporate sector. John Humphrys hosted (and gave out the awards later on: congratulations to all the winners) and was endearing in his contrariness. The most interesting insights for me came from Mark Kramer from FSG in the US, and I particularly enjoyed one graph he showed that looked as follows:

[click to enlarge]

Profit (or probability of profit) is on the y-axis, and consumer awareness (over time) on the x-axis. The red line represents profit from ‘harm’, and the green line profit from ‘cure’ (see below). The circled area is the inflection point.

Basically, the graph shows how companies reach a point where their ability to make money whilst still ‘harming’ or creating a problem (eg polluting, deforesting) becomes superseded by their ability to make money from ‘curing’ or creating a solution. Recognising the point where this happens (for each product / service / activity) is a key challenge for companies….or at least for those where this way of thinking can be applied. It also got me thinking that you could apply a similar graph from the charity point of view, with social impact on the y-axis: and the inflection point would be where the charity’s ability to change things through campaigning against corporates is superseded by their ability to make change by working with them.

Obviously this isn’t true for all, but it’s an interesting lens to look at this issue through. Particularly if one considers that social enterprise and social entrepreneurship might be viewed as operating at those respective inflection points from their inception.

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Will the private sector discredit or absorb social enterprise?

These (discredit / absorb) are two opinions of the private sector: social enterprise relationship I’ve read recently.

The first was from Cliff Prior, CEO of UnLtd, who was reported (in this Third Sector article) as making the point that "social enterprises are in danger of being discredited by private sector imitators" (aka profit-making businesses adopting a social enterprise model). Nigel Kershaw (of Big Issue Invest) rebutted this with "if you are transforming society, it doesn’t matter what you are".

The second was from Julia Meek on Catalyst’s Social Business Blog (Social Businesses: Victims of their own success?). In this post, she discusses the trend for mainstream businesses to adopt the approaches of social businesses, and then adopt them wholesale at a much bigger scale. Or, as Julia puts it:

"These supermarkets, electricity suppliers, market leaders and others
have been able to watch the market and let social businesses prove the
effectiveness of their various approaches. On observing a successful
one the companies have been able to leverage their infrastructure,
human capital, market positioning etc. to adopt it quickly themselves,
marketing ’social’ products and services to the same target audience
and at a lower price than can feasibly be offered by smaller, social

This is partly a conversation about scale: can social businesses ever break the ‘ethical glass ceiling’, as Julia’s colleague puts it, and get the necessary investment to compete on more equal terms with the big boys? Does it mean that the best way for social businesses to make change is to pioneer/prove and hope for adaptation by the mainstream? (an approach often seen in the public sector and web 2.0 alike). She then posits 4 potential approaches, around quality, brand, partnerships and acquisitions. Well worth reading.

On the first, I partly agree with Cliff, in that just adopting a model / particular legal structure proves nothing, and this is a problem. This is as true for PCT’s hiving half of themselves off into a CIC (excuse acronym-itis) and then commissioning that ‘new’ half, as it is true for the private sector. Unless the primary mission of an organisation is a social one and the initiative is driven by a social entrepreneur / team of socially entrepreneurial leaders, then its motivation can always be called into question. But we see social entrepreneurs operating across all sectors, and that is where I agree with Nigel: ultimately, moving forward, there will be this increasing blurring of boundaries, and what will matter, as I’ve posted before, is:

– the quality of the work/activity/product
(reputation / measurement / evaluation / provenance etc)
– how well this is communicated
(brand / voice / connections to stakeholders etc)
– the transparency with which the organisation operates
(mission / finances / governance etc)

Regardless of the legal structure chosen, these will be key things for all organisations operating across this field; from enterprising charities through to socially-responsible companies.

It’s interesting to relate the second post to the ‘six practices of high-impact non-profits’ (which I mentioned here), in that one of those practices was to ‘serve and advocate’. If the pioneering role of social business in getting ethical / fair / green / social practices adopted by the mainstream is seen through this lens of advocacy, then maybe that helps place it in a slightly different context. Also, as I am bound to say in this context, the assumption is also there that social enterprises and the like want to scale up. As the Small Business Blog posted the other day, "69 percent of small business owners said that they prefer to have their business remain small.” If that is true in the private sector, surely the same can be said of the third sector / social enterprise movement as well? (If not more so, as ‘small and beautiful’ is a mantra to some).

And surely the movement should be proud to be influencing and changing the mainstream in the way that it has: how satisfying, however imperfectly done, to see big supermarkets pushing fairtrade coffee, to see Fiji water pushing its carbon neutrality, to see M&S put out its Plan A…none of which would have been achieved without hundreds of activists, campaigners and social entrepreneurs, and none of which we could have said even one, two, three years ago. Where we are strongest is in demonstrating, through quality practice and delivery, that things can be done differently….and that they are better done that way.

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Friday round-up: microcredit, RED, leadership, Harvard et al

Friday round-up, and there’s a fair bit after inactivity this week:

– good Worldchanging post on microcredit and the ongoing debate about how effective it is; the argument seemed to be saying that entrepreneurship and enterprising people were needed to change things: access to finance alone was not enough (which is undoubtedly an argument we’d hold to over here as well); well worth a read, and a topic that is not likely to go away…

Intelligent Giving follow up on the RED campaign (after it got a kicking in the press); not sure I totally agree with their take, but difficult to disagree with: "If you like RED products, buy them, but don’t pretend you’re giving to charity. We’re talking pennies here….." and they have some interesting information about the charity that benefits too….

– the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference has been happening; someone kindly rounded up those who were blogging from the event, though they did miss one or two other interesting posts. Both of which see progress or "the ball" moving forward….

– we attended the Third Sector Leadership Centre Provider Forum on Monday; we’re in their directory and they have an interesting interim report on action learning sets for third sector leaders (free registration needed); obviously we’ve been at that for a decade… ;0)

Yunus saves the world with yoghurt….

– …and We Are What We Do with a bag

On that bombshell, we bid you farewell for this week.

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Fair trading, fair tracing

As a brutally strong coffee sits before me, I cannot let fairtrade fortnight pass without mention. There’ve been plenty of supplements and recipes and articles flying around the media this week. Most interesting for me was probably this morning’s interview with Penny Newman, the CEO of CafeDirect (in the Guardian). Interesting for the insight it gives into how the company has grown and evolved, and for their plans for diversification (international, new products, not-at-home market). This suggests that the direct retail in supermarkets is not where they see fast growth lying…although their new branding and products look more like Nestle and Kenco than the more aspirational, high-end brand of old (Machu Picchu and the rest). Like the logo though.

Penny also mentions towards the end of the article that she would like to mentor more social entrepreneurs. Certainly, the SSE Fellows mentored by her have benefited enormously from her experience, so we hope we can broker more such relationships in the future.

A final, related note on an idea that I ran across via the Doors of Perception conference taking place in Delhi: Fair tracing. The core of the concept is to use digital tracing technology to enhance the credibility fo the fair trade model. It’s a brief glimpse into the future of supply chains:

"At each stage of the product’s journey, information may be added and/or
edited and, if the information is stored digitally on the internet, may
be of various multimedia types. The ability to access this rich
information at the point-of-sale will empower the consumer to make an
informed comparison between competing products before finalising
his/her purchase."

[Worldchanging has commented on the idea as well, which is worth a read.]

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