Voice 09: investment, interest and igloos

Quite a couple of days up in Birmingham at Voice 09. I don't think I've ever know a conference where quite so many people wanted to talk to SSE and come and learn about us, which was great to be a part of. Massive kudos to the wonderful Liverpool SSE (Sylvia, Stephanie, Lisa, Jo, and all the students and Fellows) for manning the igloo throughout and keeping their energy up with all the enquiries and interest. And everyone seemed genuinely pleased for us given the announcment in the action plan, which was re-emphasised by Liam Byrne and Kevin Brennan in their speeches. As one person said to me (in jest), "when you look behind you, are you seeing spit on the floor?"….but, thankfully, the floor was refreshingly free of any such nastiness. Just lots of interest and lots of exciting conversations.

I thought the venue was streets ahead of last year (being finished and everything helped…), and the sounds / technical stuff all seemed perfect. The exhibition space also had more buzz as everything was a bit closer and less cavernous than before. Despite not making many sessions myself (bar the opening and closing plenaries), I heard good things about several of the breakout seminars, especially the one on scale (with the irrepressible Nigel Kershaw from Big Invest) and the one on new frontiers for business. From the plenary sessions, I enjoyed Duncan Goose of One Water taking us on his journey and taking a sideswipe at unnamed bottled water companies that (he contended) have never made a profit, so never invested any profits in projects. Although he got off fairly lightly with no environmental challenge to the bottled water paradigm, or his instant celebrity and advertising connections. As he said, useful to have; bit easier when they are your sister. But you can't argue with his impact or his ambition.

In the battle of the politicians, I think David Cameron was largely thought to be a little disappointing. His presence was arguably more significant than anything he said, given that there were no new announcements for the sector. He warmed up under questioning, though, with a neat-ish soundbite about this being the "first sector" ("I hate the phrase third sector…") and showing a decent grasp of this area's specificities and particular challenges.

Liam Byrne, meanwhile, did have new things to say, with a drive to create 25,000 jobs in social enterprises and a summit with DBERR (which will have pleased those who felt social enterprise has rather lost its connections with that department). I liked his emphasis on trust in the speech, and also heard that he'd brought local social enterprise practitioners he'd been working with in his constituency to a breakfast meeting with some more established social enterprise leaders. Which is a nice touch and shows that he also knows the sector well from the inside.

Of course, most of the talk in the bars and restaurants (there was something of a run on Ibuprofen on the Wednesday morning) was about the recession, and to what degree it was a challenge and to what degree an opportunity. The final plenary session seemed slightly torn on this, which reflected the views of the delegates, I found. On the one hand, there were those pushing for changing the whole paradigm (Andrea Westall) and aggressive growth (Nigel K), whilst others talked of the need for survival and the need to not make the same mistakes pursuing growth in an unsustainable way (Sophi Tranchell, and Matthew Thomson). That debate, I think, is set to continue, but we may hear more of survival and hatch-battening in the months ahead, rather than growth strategies.

All in all, congrats to the whole SEC team, especially events queen Mamoona Shah, and new recruit Pauline Milligan (for the Ibuprofen especially). Slightly fewer plenary speeches (not every sponsor needs a slot!) would be the only recommendation…other than that, the networking was great. And a final note of thanks to SEC and the Mid-Counties Co-operative for the bursaries which allowed some current SSE students to be able to come to the event. As you can see from the photo, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves (the SSE student, Richard Leighton, is on the left….).

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4 thoughts on “Voice 09: investment, interest and igloos

  1. Do you have any reservations about appearing to be closer to government and politicians than to the community that the sector seeks to serve?
    Are the risks in becoming a delivery arm for goverment policy worth taking? Are the big cheques on offer buying the soul of the sector?

  2. Hi Mike – I’m not sure if you’re talking about Voice generally, or the SSE funding specifically. On the latter:
    Well, 4/5ths of the money we’re receiving will be going into direct delivery in the regions, supporting grassroots social entrepreneurs in communities across England. The other 1/5th will be going into capacity to ensure a) those regional schools sustain and b) we can provide more support to social entrepreneurs once they’ve finished our programme. So this is all about delivering to (and with) communities and individuals on the ground.
    It’s also absolutely bang on for our strategic plans + delivery priorities: SSE policy, if you like; if we got £500k from the corporate sector, a foundation, a philanthropist or other contracts, we’d use it in exactly the same way. We’ll also try and maximise it by using it (as far as possible) to attract money from those other types of sources, to ensure it is not just government money that sustains the work moving forward. This is something we’ve done pretty successfully over recent years, because being over-reliant on any one area is not a sustainable strategy.
    I guess you would have to ask others (maybe our students and Fellows) about the ‘soul’ question; but SSE has been doing the same thing for over a decade with the same mission, ethos and approach (though refined, improved and hopefully better than ever now). I think that will still be true in a year, 5 years and 10 years. But hopefully we will be doing more of it, giving more people the opportunities we provide, and doing that in places where we are currently not.
    I’m not sure if that answers your question, Mike, but hope that makes sense.

  3. Nick
    As you know, I really have substantial reservations. We have become very dependent on the Government, as a sector–and some organisations moreso than most. Its OK I guess if you are selling services but quite another thing if it is important that you remain independent and critical as an advocate. I also think that if we continue to be so dependent we are never truly sustainable and thus hardly enterprising, in that sense of the word. We have written at some length about this (see our social business blog) or go directly to http://www.socialinvestments.com/sbblog/?p=163 .
    Regards, rod

  4. Yep – I know your reservations, Rod. And you’ll also know that we’ve been critical at times of government policies (not least CICs and an (over)emphasis on public service procurement and legal structures) in the past. It is a fair thing to say re. being sustainable / enterprising, but I would hope a decade-long track record (with remarkably little government money involved), a proven franchise model, international expansion and the establishment of new regional schools will, by the end of the next financial year, have answered some of those fair questions.
    I can’t promise we’ll get it right all the time but, at the very least, I can promise that we’ll always be open to answering questions and having the debate here and in person.