Consumerism gone mad

Recently, after coming back to SSE as an intern for a few months (info at the bottom), I came across The Story of Stuff, a 20 minute web documentary hosted by "American critic of excessive consumerism" Annie Leonard. In the video Leonard goes through the process of consumption in five steps from extraction, production, distribution, consumption and then disposal. Though the video at times seems meant for younger age groups, perhaps a straightforward approach is what we all need; mixed in between the jaw dropping statistics Annie's message is clear and obvious: ever-growing consumption has become a dangerous force in human society.

As Leonard explains, this didn't just happen. In the 1955, economist Victor Lebow prophesied a version similar to our contemporary environment: "Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption
our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into
rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction,
in consumption…. we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and
discarded at an ever-accelerating rate."

What does this have to do with social entrepreneurship and our current financial environment?
As Leonard amply points out, environmentalism affects us all, in all sectors. It is a timely reminder that while 'going green' has become a fad of its own, there is still much to be done. Here SSE Fellows like Becky Barrett at Love Eco and Dave Miller at Bikeworks play crucial roles. That being said, they are continuously dependent on you, the consumer, to purchase products strategically. It is no longer about finding the cheapest price, but rather the locally produced, environmentally friendly, and sustainable product.

That's easier said than done, particularly with the economy down the tank. Thus, we must not only buy smart, but also defy Victor Lebow and his theory of an ever-accelerating rate. Here is where the economic crisis may help us all, by forcibly slowing down our rate of purchasing. However, as we have seen such a change will lead to a slow-down in production, higher unemployment, higher prices. So what do we do? Leonard is brilliant in her analysis, but not so much in her aim. Next time I would like to see a video where she debates and convinces a parent who is fighting to keep his or her job, to shop more sustainably. Until then I won't hold my breath for a new type of consumerism.

Thor Steinhovden currently interns with the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Bethnal Green, London. He recently finished a BA in Political Science and History at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. This fall he will embark on a MSc in Comparative Politics (Nationalism and Ethnicity) at the London School of Economics.


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The transparency of social entrepreneurship

A little while back, I blogged about why the (increasingly tedious) political expenses scandal in the UK was relevant to the realm of social entrepreneurship [see What the expenses scandal means for social entrepreneurs]. My point, largely, was about the importance of trust and legitimacy to the work of social entrepreneurs, and the associated importance of honesty and transparency to achieving and maintaining that trust.

I think the same applies to the agencies operating in the sector to support social entrepreneurs and social enterprises as well, though. If we spin, overegg, over-heroicise and overplay the success of the people we work with, there is a risk of not giving the full picture. Particularly when, particularly in the start-up space, success can look very different for different people. Indeed, my stock answer when we are asked the question "What is success for SSE?" is to say exactly that: success looks different for different people coming through the programme. For some, the journey is primarily a personal one in which, it could be argued, the project or organisation forms a vehicle for learning and development; for others, the organisation flies and grows; still more thrive in the months immediately following the programme, whilst others find new employment or civic roles they wouldn't have accessed before.

[Or as NEF put it in their evaluation of our work, “For some, the SSE acts as a [place for] fine-tuning, giving them the
ability to move forward with their project in a variety of ways and to
create a greater impact than they would have otherwise. For others, the
SSE is nothing less than the difference between existence and
non-existence of their organisation and profound change within their
own lives"

But we have to be open that there are myriad and multiple outcomes, few of which can be "guaranteed" for each social entrepreneur. Not all create jobs and not all establish organisations, and some decide, ultimately, that this world is not for them. Others find they prefer to use their new skills + networks to work in (more secure) employment. Others fall out of contact or self-select out of being communicated with about where they are at. And the more honest and open we are about those in our communications and measurement work, the more people will trust the positives and successes we also talk about. That needs to be done sensitively, of course, but it's crucial to not set unrealistic expectations with the students, our funders and supporters and, indeed, ourselves. That's something I'm emphasising as we look forward to forthcoming research and evaluation projects.

We can get better at this, no doubt, and so can others. I attended a social entrepreneurship seminar at London Business School the other evening, hosted by Professor Michael Hay, and organised by Teach First for their ambassadors (I got a few SSE students a free place). It was an interesting case study, in the MBA style, of a South African organisation called CIDA, which I remembered from the Skoll Awards a few years back. Professor Hay was involved personally in the organisation, and (what turned out to be) the turnaround of it, so had great knowledge and insight of what had happened.

I think, largely, he doesn't want all the details spread around / broadcast widely and I want to honour that, but suffice to say that the original founder of CIDA is no longer with the organisation, and is now running the Maharishi Invincibility School of Management, and that the new board / executive team of CIDA has now developed personal development programmes for students that don't relate to transcendental meditation, consciousness-based education ™ and so on. Draw your own conclusions etc…

What surprised me is that I hadn't heard about this at all. Whilst acknowledging that this is a very high profile initiative (particularly in South Africa), there is an enormous amount of learning to be had frmo this example. Ironically, enough, transparency is a massive part of it (it wasn't clear what lay behind / what the ultimate motivations were), as is a blurring of the social entrepreneur with the organisation. The people present the other evening felt that this was forgivable in the early stages (when the social entrepreneur, after all, pretty much is the organisation), but that there needed to be proper governance, management processes, structures for stakeholder involvement etc when the organisation grew. Perhaps there are reasons why the full story can't be openly shared (I don't know), but the learning for the sector could be significant.

What a great session this would make at an event or conference, from one of the funders or support agencies who backed CIDA in its previous incarnation. It's now back on the rails on its original mission and is set, by all accounts, to continue to thrive….but would be fascinating to hear about a 'failure', be that a failure of due diligence, of governance, of blurring of individual with organisation, or of something different. After all, there's entrepreneurship in social entrepreneurship, so there's risk…and it's about being risk-aware, not risk-averse. But that awareness only comes from a willingness to be open and share examples, not through a head-in-the-sand approach.

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Thursday round-up: inclusivity, iPhone, impact investing

OK, round-up of recent news + links of interest time….

– Couple of great posts on PopTech about the inclusivity (or lack of) and MBA-focused shape of social entrepreneurship, particularly in the US. See Who's in the Social Entrepreneurship Club, and who isn't? and the following post, Coaxing ghost social entrepreneurs out of the woodwork. The posts were partly in response to Business Week's "Bull market for social entrepreneurs" piece, which was very MBA-centric, and led to a further piece on called Can Social Entrepreneur Groups be more inclusive?

Worth reading them all (and comments), and good to see that this debate is making it to the US, where our long-tail approach has often seemed anathema.

– Beyond Sport is an interesting initiative connecting sport and social entrepreneurs. You can vote for the London Legacy award, and we would strongly recommend a vote for SSE Fellow Ros Spearing's organisation, Ebony Horse Club

– Government-wise, there's a new central funding website called…er…Funding Central which will be an important place, given that it aggregates lots of funding opportunities. The Modernisation Fund is also open to bursaries of £1k and grants of £10k for small charities / orgs that need it most.There's also a new Cabinet committee on third sector:public service delivery which is important policy-wise….Did I mention we have a new minister as well?

– I met Linda Butcher, the great CEO of Sheila McKechnie Foundation at a meeting this week, and she was discussing both their new website CampaignCentral, and the fact that the deadline for the awards is the end of June. If you're a campaigner, check out the details and apply!

– We're beavering away on a re-brand / re-design of the Ambassadors. In the meantime, there's some good new blog posts up from Matt Stevenson-Dodd (75% want definition) and Daniel Heery (Digital Britain + Social Enterprise NW conference) which are well worth checking out.

– The CIC consultation about dividends and caps has ended: most people seem to think there will be changes, as this article recommends .More on this soon, no doubt.

– Social Edge has done a list of the top Tweeps (that's people who Twitter) in Social Entrepreneurship to follow. Delighted to find that yours truly (@SchSocEnt) is not only included but is essential. *blushes* etc. Great place to start if you're interested in this world and are thinking of entering the Twitter-verse, or whatever it's called.

– While we're in tech-ville, interesting fundraising app has come out on the iPhone that encourages you to Givabit

– The shortlist for the Bank of Scotland Social Entrepreneur Awards is announced. Winner finds out tonight. List best described as eclectic….

– Good q&a on impact investing with Kevin Jones

Echoing Green announced their 2009 Fellows. The best round-up of this was probably on, so check out Nat's post on the Fellows, which includes several videos of the winners

– Alan Sugar as enterprise Tsar; too many jokes etc…Rob Greenland dissects what this means for us all on the Guardian blog

– Couple of decent recent podcasts on Social Innovation Conversations: Premal Shah of Kiva and Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen Fund.

That's all for now; will leave you with the video of my favourite from thenew  Echoing Green Fellows, Dhruv Lakra of Mirakle Couriers:

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Downing Street, Future Jobs and the realities of delivery

SSE did something unusual this morning: attended a 7.30am breakfast meeting. Not renowned as early risers, Alastair and myself nevertheless made the exception to go to 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister, along with James Purnell, Hazel Blears, Liam Byrne and John Healey, was launching the Future Jobs Fund and, specifically, discussing how the third sector / social enterprise could contribute to it.

The Fund is, as people keep saying about the recession more generally, both an opportunity and a challenge for the sector. On the one hand, what an opportunity: if 10% of the £1bn fund can be pushed through social enterprises and charities on the ground, that could be potentially transformatory. On the other, it also requires, say, delivery of 10% of the outcomes (150,000 jobs, of which 100,000 for 18-24 year old, and of which 50,000 in the most disadvantaged areas) against fairly short-ish timelines. In the words of the mighty Adam Ant, very much time to stand and deliver.

Much of the talk round the table this morning was also about how it can be ensured that this opportunity is accessible to smaller players and, from an SSE point of view, to allow for the innovation  / risk / time that start-up job creation brings (aka new social entrepreneurs from these kinds of backgrounds / areas / age groups). We'll certainly be following up on this with other organisational partners.

Great to see the breakfast prepared and served by Hoxton Apprentice trainees (congrats to them, and especially Leon who's a fantastic advocate for their work). Also good to see so many social enterprise ambassadors (Peter Holbrook, Dai Powell, Karen Lowthrop, Claudine Reid, Penny Newman, John Bird and SSE Fellow Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa) round the table: it was a good mix, I think, of such credible, experienced practitioners with second tier orgs such as ourselves, Social Firms, Social Enterprise Coalition, DTA etc

What is particularly encouraging is to see government departments working together in this way: DCLG, DWP and Cabinet Office, acknowledging that social enterprise and entrepreneurship is delivering outcomes across their departments, and seeking to make a breakthrough push of acceptance, awareness and resourcing.

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Wednesday round-up: divide, diffusion, diversity… and DBERR

Innocent A quick round-up of posts, links, tweets (oh yes) and information, before heading up to Leeds this morning.

– First up, SSE Chair Charlotte Young has been awarded the Queen's Award for Enterprise Promotion for 2009. Charlotte has been involved in SSE since its inception, helping design the original make-up of the programme that has lasted till this day. Congratulations from all here.

– And, to further get the SSE news out the way, SSE is the lead partner in a social entrepreneurship consortium that has been awarded £500k from the Department of Communities and Local Government's Empowerment Fund over the next three years. Other partners involved in the delivery are CAN, Changemakers, Training for Life and UnLtd, with Ashoka UK as advisory partner. All power to the network mindset…and congratulations also to Social Firms, Bassac, Operation Black Vote, Urban Forum and the Young Foundation

– The social enterprise summit announced at Voice 09, between Peter Mandelson (of DBERR) and Liam Byrne (of Cabinet Office) and assorted social enterprise luminaries, is happening on May 12th, with four regional roadshows beforehand for people/organisations to feed into; here's to concrete outcomes!

– Other aspects of the OTS Recession Action Plan are coming to fruition also; the Modernisation Fund website is now up and running for interested orgs (in partnership / merger / collaboration): check it out here

– Third Sector reports on the ongoing divide between Liam Black and Jonathan Bland / Social Enterprise Coalition. Interesting article and interesting quotes from other commentators also, which summarise many of the debates in this field in microcosm; SSE naturally sits on the, to quote Matthew Thomson, "social enterprise is a state of mind, not a legal form" side of things, but welcome the (public) debate

– Business Week agrees with Liam, anyway; it's selected some leading US social entrepreneurs, and every one of them has a for-profit structure….some great organisations here, regardless of your viewpoint

– I met Margaret Moran MP yesterday, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on social enterprise, and we discussed the need for diversity in the movement; see this article in the Times, Race to diversify social enterprise, for more

– Some good conversations about scale and replication been happening on a couple of US blogs. Nat Whittemore has an excellent round-up: Scale vs. Diffusion redux

What return do philanthropists look for in a recession

– Nice interview with social enterprise ambassador Tim Campbell in the FT

– It had to happen….Twitter goes mainstream: should your non-profit jump on board? (though there is something a little stalkerish still about "x is now following you" appearing in your inbox….)

– The financial crisis is killing philanthropy in Ireland, apparently….with some notable exceptions

– Great post on the inequalities of internship by Jamie Veitch at New Start

– And finally, along the line of stories that say "ethical businesses sell out to scale up" (cf Body Shop, Green & Blacks, Ben & Jerrys), Innocent smoothies have sold a stake to Coca-Cola; read the founders' letter here; it was interesting to read on Rob Greenland's blog that one of them had recently said that, as Rob reports, "they're more innocent-like than they've ever been –
because they now have to work hard at making the values mean something.
 When they were small, it just happened.  Now they have to work at it."
Which is an excellent point, I think; presumably that working hard just got a whole lot harder as well (check the 348 comments to date on this post). Although their transparency / response is still impressive (see Innocent Investment video Q + A).

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