Tuesday, October 10, 2017

crowdfunding grants for your project - the shape of things to come or a dystopian future?

I find myself talking a lot about crowdfunding these days - partly because I'm starting to deliver more training and learning programmes around strategic finance and managing accounts, but also because it seems to be a space where more grant makers are moving into...

I've always held that the main benefit you can derive from crowdfunding isn't about the money, but rather proving interest and demand, and building a tribe of supporters. I've also always argued that it's a lot of hard work to make a crowdfunding campaign a success (most fail to reach their targets, or come anywhere close to them...)

Recently though I've started to notice grant making bodies starting to increasingly move in the crowdfunding space - offering 'top up' grants to groups and projects who raise either a minimum amount, or who offer to match the amounts raised in this way (step forward Power to Change Community Shares Booster, Santander's changemakers, el al). And in some ways this makes sense: grant making bodies only have so much cash to go round, and want to make sure that their money makes the most impact where they spend it. So to have a project that shows it has high levels of public and community support from people already donating to it, would seem to be a good indication that it will do very well in having a body of people already wishing to support it and see it succeed.
And there are also calls from various national sector bodies that even if charities don't integrate crowdfunding into their income generating strategies, everyone should try it at least once... 


But... crowdfunding can be a fickle game. It takes a lot of time and skill to be successful at it. It's also a form of popularity contest in trying to get a community to support your project over someone else's. And what about those projects and activities which, while we all agree are worthy and needed, are also those which we might struggle to otherwise offer support to if they started crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding can generate all sorts of benefits and unexpected outcomes. It can also be a large waste of time and effort. But is a space that people and funders are increasingly interested in - and if we haven't tried it, how can we have any credibility when we try and subsequently argue that its not for us?

Like Oscar Wilde (or someone like him) famously may have once said - try everything once, apart from Morris dancing; but I'd say just make sure you go into it with your eyes open and don't believe all of the hype...

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

on being professionally referred to as a 'tool'...

Throughout my professional life, I've been referred to as being/likened to all sorts of things: Darth Vader, Derren Brown, Shakespeare, a Guru, the A-Team, and even a 'neo-liberal stormtrooper'!

However, my most recent public naming was as a 'tool' in front of 50+ students (and twitter!) at Salford University's launch of their enterprise support programme for students and graduates.

I was there as a long-standing supporter of the University's enterprise support programmes and initiatives (although for the sake of some of my other clients, I should probably highlight that I do also work in a similar role within other universities and educational bodies...). The idea of the evening was to inspire and encourage a new intake of students to consider how enterprise could enhance their future options and opportunities, and to that end there were inspiration speakers, details about grant funding available, and pizza. My task was to get those people attending to have some practical experience of what 'being enterprising' might look and feel like in practice through quick activities and games.

However, what was probably the most important part of the event was the Q&A from students to us speakers - in preparing for what we delivered we could only try and second guess what might be most important and relevant to such a large and diverse group; but having time in the programme for open questions helped us to better understand what people's motivations and priorities were. And it was as part of this part of the event that there was a question about the role and value of advisers to a growing business. Jamil Khalil, the founder of Wakelet and keynote inspirational speaker, suggested that he viewed such advisers as 'tools' - in response, I openly wondered if he meant that in the context of a toolbox, or if it was a reflection of poor business support he'd received in the past...

Thankfully he clarified that it was the former, but it created an opportunity to highlight the importance to any enterprise or startup of needing to take multiple approaches: building your own toolbox of resources including professional advice being only part of what you need - there's also value in some of the startup and business planning processes, and my 'games' highlighted the critical need for both a good network of contacts and self-confidence.

So to my fellow advisers and enterprise supporters out there - let's celebrate and revel in being seen as 'tools' ;-)



Monday, September 18, 2017

"ain't nothing like a Dame", forgotten legacies, and growing lettuces in space... (the future of the co-op movement from a regional perspective)



I was recently invited back to my old stomping ground of Cambridge to speak at the Regional Co-op Council's annual conference - as some may know, I spent several years turning around the fortunes a local co-op and social enterprise development agency there, and somehow initiating some ideas that have since become national flagships...



And the invitation was too tempting to pass on: in 1997, The East of England was the first in the country to form a regional co-op forum (which became the regional Co-ops Council model today), and in doing so inspired every other region in the UK to not only form a corresponding Council model, but also informed every region to then go on to create a wider regional social enterprise partnership too! (and I was involved in the forming of both this first regional council, and the subsequent first regional social enterprise partnership too, so nice to go back and see how it was getting on)
The East of England was also the first to create a 10 year strategy for shaping the future of the co-operative movement from a regional perspective (which I still have a copy of!, although sadly just about everyone at the Coops East conference seemed to be unaware of just how influential they've been in shaping the wider movement and beyond through these things in its history...).
Therefore being able to return to remind them of their history and legacy seemed an important thing to do in encouraging the next wave of the 'co-operative revolution'.
(and it was also personally encouraging for me to be able to see some people I originally got to know 15 years ago still active and impacting the world through their roles - Austen and Sally: yes, that's you I'm referring to!)

While the day itself may have seemed to have had too many speakers for some people's comfort (8 main presentations, 2 facilitated round table planning activities, and a break for lunch - and all in the space of about 5 hours), my impression is that many also felt that they wanted more... and my overriding impression was that rather than blinding people with stats and policy headlines, all of the speakers more appropriately drew on stories and histories of their respective co-ops - its stories that capture our interest and imagination much more powerfully, and make it easier to share these ideas with other people, than any set of quantitative data and mapping reports ever can.

So to try and summarise what impressed upon me most from the day means I'll omit some things that others felt were the highlights for them, or focus on some aspects that others felt were more of an irrelevance. But that's part of the joy of blogging - encouraging you to subsequently read others' write ups and form your own view, and a reflection of the diversity of the co-operative movement itself. However, for me the 'highlights' I'd like to share are as follows:

  1. Co-ops were highlighted at being at the forefront of the next agricultural revolution with the workers co-op, Delta T Devices, sharing how their equipment is helping to grow lettuces on the international space station
  2. Dame Pauline Green passionately argued how co-ops have become the UK's greatest ever export, revealed how she's now a good mate of the Pope, and had people highlight that a musical about her work for the movement is already well know - "There is nothing like a Dame" from South Pacific
  3. Tweets that people were making on the day drew interest in what Coops East were doing from the co-operative movement internationally
  4. It's impossible for nearly any co-operative to fully cover all of the impact and ways in which they are contributing to making the world a better place in only 9 minutes
  5. While some co-ops may be accused of having too many aims for their own good, and people encourage them to therefore reduce them in number; if you were a parent with 'too many children', how could you choose which of them to give up?
  6. People's ideas for what a 'paradise region' might look like if the East of England were to be transformed by the co-op sector struck me as being reminiscent of the role that Co-op societies held in their communities at the start of the 20th century (community social events, everyone being aware about what co-ops are and using them as their preferred suppliers and shops, schools being explicitly linked with coops and teaching children about them, local businesses being encouraged and supported by them...)
  7. Some co-ops present (and who spoke) seemed unaware of the national programmes and influence they'd created over the years until I referred to some of these during the Q&A panels
  8. I also found myself being volunteered to chair the conference in lieu of my father who was too unwell to do so, and so naturally took the opportunity to do some table-top dancing as part of the official proceedings...


I think my overriding takeaway from the day was that as a movement we have a legacy (and future) that is far more impressive and powerful than most realise, but we risk losing it all if we forget our history and don't keep regularly sharing and reminding ourselves of our stories.

But the whole day was also tweeted and instagrammed about by various other people there - just check out the day's hashtag to see other's pictures and stories via #acoopregion; and Coops East have also uploaded all of the speakers notes and presentations to their website: http://www.cooperatives-east.coop/events/acooperativeregion/

Friday, September 8, 2017

Why I just did an 8-hour round trip to London by train for a 50 minute chat

I’m on my way back from London where I’ve just spent 50 minutes chatting with a medium sized charity about what I might be able to offer them if they took me on as a ‘critical friend’ to their senior management team. And I know that for most of the conversation, the charity was principally trying to figure out what a ‘critical friend’ might look like and do, rather than hearing how great I might be for them in that role… (they’ve been asked to recruit one by a one of their funders, but not had any guidance and not had any prior experience of what one is!).

I get the strong impression from some passing references made by the charity’s executive team during the chat that I’ve a relatively low chance of success in getting this work; the contract value means that I won’t really make any money on the work if I’m awarded it; and it’s quite a travel distance from my usual patch around the North West, Pennines, and Yorkshire -  so why did I even consider spending time on drafting the initial proposal and then committing to the cost and time of such apparently excessive travel?

  1. They approached me direct. This wasn’t an open or advertised call for consultants to bid, but rather they did some pre-selection and research against the sorts of backgrounds that they knew they wanted their new ‘critical friend’ to have. It only seemed polite to reciprocate (and it was very flattering…)
  2. The role of ‘critical friend’ to charities and other organisations is one that’s only just starting to be explored and introduced here in the UK, so it was a clear opportunity to be in the inside of this emergent trend and model to keep myself best informed, and also share some of my own experiences and insights (including likening the ‘critical friend’ to that of the historic ‘court jester’) that I’d otherwise struggle to do in not being a published academic or writer of books…
  3. It was an opportunity to reflect on my experiences and skills within a different context and framework to that I usually find myself in – a valuable CPD opportunity in keeping myself ‘fresh’ and trying to avoid becoming ‘professionally complacent’
  4. I had the time and resource to follow up their invitation: one of the things I think has meant that I’ve been able to develop and keep a successful and profitable freelance consultancy practice going for 13 years is having an inquisitive nature – if someone shows me a door that’s ajar and says they think it might be interesting for me to have a peek inside, I’ll always try to…

So – a mixture of good manners, the opportunity for business and professional development, and personal values, meant that I’ve just done something that I suspect most of my counterparts would have passed on without a second thought. Perhaps another reason why I’m labelled as being ‘not your typical consultant’ in the worlds of facebook and Instagram?

Monday, August 7, 2017

the Korean perspective... (I may be funnier than I think I am?)

I had the opportunity this summer to spend a week mentoring a cohort of South Korean social entrepreneurs as part of the UK leg of their international MBA. And while pictures have been shared on instagram, twitter, and such like, as to the various adventures and activities that people got up to, I thought it might be useful to reflect on what I think that South Korea can teach us about how we do social enterprise in the UK, having spent a week thinking about it from their perspective;


at the end of the week, all the entrepreneurs shared what we mentors had offered and challenged them over which has caused them to rethink either their business models and assumptions, or how they'll launch and scale their enterprises in the future. This was though all giving short presentations to us as the mentors, as well as to their fellow student entrepreneurs, and university professors. And while all agreed that they greatly valued the time we had been able to offer them as mentors, and shared something different in relation to their own specific enterprises, there seemed to be some common themes around:

  • the benefits of mentoring in getting 'back to basics' - its good to have assumptions challenged, and start to simplify things to make them more manageable
  • testing enterprise ideas with a wider group of mentors, all of whom have different backgrounds and perspectives, is valuable in identifying new options and opportunities
  • having a range of mentors to draw upon (rather than a single mentor as many other enterprise support initiatives offer), allows access to a far wider range and number of contacts and other models and initiatives of direct relevance and benefit
  • there's also a cultural difference as to what constitutes a 'social need' in South Korea that the UK would struggle to recognise as being relevant for a social enterprise to have as its mission, but perhaps this echoes some of the confusion we still have here in the UK as to the different ways in which we define and recognise a 'legitimate' social enterprise by the forms it can adopt?
  • Many also seemed to espouse a new mantra that we mentors think may be attributable to their session with Nick Temple of Social EnterpriseUK - J.F.D.I.
  • (and there were also some nice comments that students directly made about me as part of their presentations:
    • "As we all came to realise, Adrian is very humorous"
    • "Adrian was a great encouragement to my self-esteem as I realised that this enterprise will be the hardest thing I ever do in my life")


I also reflected on some of the themes that seemed to regularly come up as part of the mentoring sessions I was delivering. It's telling that these seem closely related to issues that are also particularly pertinent and relevant to all (social) enterprises in the UK today?:

  1. Mapping and reporting the impact we create offers a range of benefits that we don't usually recognise it for:
    1. it helps prioritise service and product development
    2. it contributes to marketing activity
    3. it helps to identify potential future customers who benefit from what we do, but aren't paying us!
  2. Branding is an often undervalued and underused 'tool' in helping us to not only differentiate ourselves from the competition, but also between the services we offer were they are targeted at different customers and beneficiaries, to mitigate possible confusion about us in our marketplaces

so perhaps as a sector, social enterprise has more 'common currency' globally that it might think it has - but how can we encourage and support that? Initiatives such as this that are hosted by Sheffield University are by far the exception, but all involved recognise the immense value it offers to everyone who was a part of it.



(And I'm also indebted and grateful to Darren Chouings for pulling it all together, and also my fellow expert mentors - none of whom I'll share the embarrassing pics I took of you here...



Wednesday, July 26, 2017

the best national business support policy may be no policy at all...?


I recently found myself on an 'expert panel' at a forum convened by ISBE (the Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship) on the future of business support policy in the UK, as part of their ongoing conversation into informing and shaping what a new national policy should be.







(OK - to clarify, I was technically there as Leigh Sear of SFEDI and the IOEE, but as he'd been called away overseas, he asked me to fill in for him, hence the confusion of my having 2 names at the forum.)



And while I shared various stories and approaches to business support with those present, I thought it might also be useful to capture here some of the other speakers' arguments and discussions with those in the room that stuck with me, as well as some of what I took away that I'm still mulling over, and that will likely also inform my own ongoing activity in this field:






The definitions debate
With the almost fetishism of high growth in business support policy, it seems that the definition of what constitutes 'high growth' may be too exclusive in excluding many businesses who are seeing significant increases in revenues, but aren't matching this with creating lots of direct employment opportunities (such as software firms, and something that will be be increasingly the norm with the rise of the 'gig economy').
As a result, many businesses who have the potential to contribute greatly to our economy are being sidelined and overlooked - surely to our cost...?

Not a 'bottomless well' (of growth)
It also seems that business growth isn't something that can be sustained - various data sets shared by the ERC(https://www.enterpriseresearch.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/ERC-InsightPap-HartDanes.pdf) all indicate that firms can only experience grow for about their first 5 years, and then all mature and plateau; so if policy is to prioritise support for growth, we need to be more open and honest in recognising that businesses are only able to do so for a time limited period.

Measures of success
There seemed to be a general consensus that we need to use more that just financial measures to consider success in business growth - and that these should reflect the aspirations and motivations of the entrepreneurs and owners behind the businesses.
However, I've an idea that whatever these measures are should share the same characteristics as metrics in financial accounts: that they can be bench-marked externally to help us better consider how we compare and contrast with others to fully appreciate just how successful we really are, and that they can be aggregated to form data sets and evidence bases to allow us to better represent and lobby on their behalf.

Whose benefit is policy actually for?
Discussions around the different players active in the business support arena raised a question about who business support should be for, and who should be paying for it. Public policy should take a utilitarian approach, facilitating and enabling the most benefit for the most people, and in the real world, this means that the State can't appease everyone, or provide for all business types and needs (hence it's prioritising of high growth over sole traders as it believes this will create the most impact for more people).
However, we're seeing private firms starting to offer accelerator and incubator programmes, and also sponsor others' enterprise development and growth initiatives. So rather than try and create a single public policy that will encompass everyone, should we rather be taking an approach that uses simpler policy frameworks around different themes and types of enterprise/entrepreneur; better recognising that in some instances the private sector is better placed, and should be leading on elements of support?

The rationale (and risks) for enterprise education to be a recognised part of business support
There seemed to be agreement that any role Universities hold in delivering any policy around business support needs to include elements of enterprise education, and while there are good reasons for this, there are also some risks too - 
  • teaching and encouraging entrepreneurship amongst students increases their future employability by developing skills that employers value
  • degree apprenticeships creates opportunities for universities to capitalise on their role as a provider of learning, but there's no clear models for how Universities might best harness this new model (yet...)
  • there's a risk that in some universities having linked their offer of enterprise support to that of national policy, many student startups are being 'lost' or 'fail to launch' as the University is too focused on encouraging high growth and Intellectual Property-based ventures
  • with the rise of corporates taking active roles in offering business support (including where there may not be an immediately obvious business case for them to do so), there's a need for Universities to better co-ordinate their offer with these to capitalise on knowledge and expertise that both are developing - but tellingly, there was no presence from any such corporates at the Forum...

The holy grail: creating a pipeline of support for startup to high growth
Within any national policy that emerges, there will need be a recognition that encouraging new startups is just as important as supporting growth in existing businesses - but that its also difficult to ensure that this progression is smooth or able to be well managed. This is largely because of not only the sheer diversity of different business types and motivations, but also the plethora of support available to them at different stages and in different sectors.
In theory, Local Economic Partnerships should be well placed to better co-ordinate these support offers to maximise their potential for wider benefit, but the experience of many seems to be that owing to the governance models of LEPs not being inclusive or transparent enough, that such knowledge and co-ordination which could unlock the potential of many firms, isn't happening.


If we can only do one thing...

As a closing to the panel debate, a few straw polls were taken of people in the room, asking for shows of hands to gauge what the focus of national policy should be if it could only focus on one thing: more start-ups, or more scale-ups.

(Personally, I'm in favour of more start-ups: they create and encourage more diversity and choice in an ever-changing society; help us develop more resilience; and research shows that the larger firms tend not to stick around that long anyway - the FTSE100 has a churn rate of about 10% each year!)


Overwhelming the room voted in favour of more start-ups.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

social value - more impact or more talk? (reflections from Social Value 17)

Part of my approach to my CPD is to tweet from events I attend to capture my thoughts and reflections from them, and then subsequently turn to my blog to try and crystallise my learning from them, and what difference it will subsequently make in how I support clients in the future - and my attending Social Value 17 is no exception...

The conference is one of a series of events that Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humber stage throughout the year, in response to interests expressed by its member social enterprises in the region. It was designed to look at how social value is being introduced into the sector and public commissioning, and subsequently, how social enterprises might better approach identifying and reporting their impact to aid in their winning public sector contracts.
And against that agenda, I personally found it to be something of a mixed bag (as anyone who was following my tweets on the day would have likely already surmised...)

Having now 'slept on it', I think my overall impressions remain what I left with on the day:

  • probably a bit too much of being 'talked at', rather than sharing stories and facilitated networking (if you do a picture search on twitter for the events' hashtag, all the images are of people holding a microphone and standing in front of a powerpoint screen)
  • there wasn't really much given by way of reason as to why as a sector we should be getting more serious about reporting our impact, beyond the fact that some public sector commissioners are starting to write it into their tender specifications - but in my experience, this is usually the weakest (and least relevant for most) reason...
  • given that the main focus of the event was on how social value strengthens the commissioning of public services, a conspicuous absence of anyone from any health bodies
  • a lot of gaps with regards to practicalities for attending enterprises and charities to be able to follow up on to support themselves with identifying and starting to report their social impact (Social Value UK's free webinar series, the Global Value Exchange set of standardised outcome indicators, and the Inspiring Impact self-help resources to name but 3 that no one made any references to...)
but there were also some moments that were encouraging:
  • the open recognition that most private companies are shaming the sector in being able to better report impact than many local social enterprises and charities can
  • in the workshop, hearing local commissioners share some of their frustrations and hopes for social value commissioning, (and being open to learning from previous strategies and directives from the last 15 years that I shared with them)
What I also noticed is that despite this being an event about social value, there were very few examples of impact reports on show (with the exception of the 3 social investment bodies present - Key Fund, Charity Bank, and Unity Bank) - but I also took a handful of copies of mine and left out on the tables, and all of which were taken with interest and enthusiasm when people realised what they were...


So - overall, a disappointing day in terms of being able to learn anything new that I didn't already know (and in fact, it turning out that I knew more than some of the keynote speakers during opportunities for questions I put to them, and the number of people subsequently approaching me after the formal event to the conference...), but also encouraging to see that commissioners are becoming more open and wanting to progress the debate and discussion. And also useful in helping me better understand the messages that clients I work with are being exposed to, in being able to better structure and direct my support for their future benefit.

What I also took away from the day was that there's also more appetite to be open in taking about when we make mistakes, recognising that there's great value in the learning we can all benefit from through such openness (however embarrassing and fearful we might feel in admitting it...)