Tuesday, March 19, 2019

a 10 year landmark



Not because I thought I had something to say, but because lots of other people kept encouraging me to do it - and that's what kept me coming back to keep posting here. 
The web is being increasingly littered with blogs that people start with good intentions, only to let them lapse, but if other people think I have something of value to share, then surely I should keep starting conversations, provoking others, and challenging 'accepted wisdom'?

And it's the comments people have made to posts, and the emails that they spark, that help reassure me that this is something that's still worth continuing (not the analytics - thanks to vooza, I've always been wary of 'big data' numbers...)

  • Over the last 10 years, I've posted about a number of things:
  • my apparent divinity
  • why pubs are better than community centres
  • how I changed company law
  • pornography, S&M clubs, and male strippers
  • my kids
  • libraries
  • my relationship with U2's Bono
  • the medieval internet
  • how I make clients faint
  • why people shouldn't trust me
  • sexism
  • making perfect cups of tea
  • gold clubs
  • disco balls
  • playing spin the bottle with Boards of Directors and Trustees
  • fezes
  • tap dancing in front of armed police in the House of Commons...


as to what might come in the next 10 years - who knows, but hopefully it'll remain as entertaining..!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

is 'responsible lending' starting to mean investing in private businesses more, and social enterprises less..?

Since what seems like forever, there has always been the provision of 'alternative finance' - people and communities coming together to support each other financially when either the banks said "no", or because they wanted better terms than mainstream lenders were offering them.

Over time, this has led to the creation of what's now named and recognised as 'alternative finance' - pioneered by early co-ops, community businesses, and charities through things like credit unions, the formation of the Charity Bank, and such like. And then attracting global interest through the rise and populism of 'micro finance'.

Instead, this is about my wondering if the recent performance of alternative finance providers, as reported by the sector body, Responsible Finance, is showing that social enterprises are increasingly moving away from such ethical alternatives, and that we're seeing private businesses making better use of these lenders designed to step in when mainstream banks and lenders said 'no'. And in doing so, are we also starting to see an evidence base emerging that shows private businesses are better at creating social impact than social enterprises...?


As readers of previous posts like this may recall, I don't claim to use any statistically significant variance analyses - I try and take a simple layman's approach: looking at the data as it's been published, and sticking it into some simple charts.

And to try and break the flow of this post, I've copied these charts below, with some summary observations further down:






Now, taking a 'layman's approach' - these charts seem to indicate some trends. Namely:
  • social enterprises have been more volatile ('bust and boom') in their performance in comparison with private businesses ('slow and steady')
  • the private sector offers better value for money in creating and sustaining jobs (but it's been argued elsewhere that this is because social enterprises tend to employ people with higher needs than a typical company would be willing to invest)
  • responsible/alternative lenders don't seem very keen to lend to start-ups if they're a social enterprise, but are far more willing to do so if it's a private business
Now I mentioned having also looked at another data source - Social Enterprise UK's mapping of the sector. In 2017 this reported that nearly 1 in 4 of all social enterprises were actively seeking to take on a loan of some type (with 83% who applied to do so, receiving an investment = approximately 14,000 enterprises), and those that did were able to secure a median amount of £60,000. But against the comparable year from the responsible lenders, the average amount was £391,185, against 363 borrowers. Which suggests that most social enterprises are NOT going to alternative and social lenders to raise investment, and those that are, are far larger than the typical social enterprise is.

All of which seems to paint a picture of responsible/alternative finance being a good thing if you're a small private business looking to start up. And for these lenders themselves, private businesses would also seem to offer a more stable client base to build on in the future too. These private businesses would also be good to show to policy makers to boot, with their offering better apparent value in helping to create and protect jobs in the wider economy.

But there's lots of other data in these annual publications too, which suggest that there's other things going on around responsible/alternative finance too, not just this dichotomy in performance between social enterprise and private businesses who take loans: 
  • the total number of borrowers has fallen by over 50% in the last 4 years 
  • the average loan to a private business is up by nearly 90%; whilst to social enterprise borrowers it's only up by 5% over the same period
All of which makes me wonder if alternative finance has gotten too good at being 'alternative' - in evidencing to the wider marketplace of mainstream lenders and high street banks, that those enterprises and people who they previously said "no" to, can now be said "yes" to?


But this is a layman's take on annual reports published by industry bodies. As with my previous posts like this, my hope is that rather than start a revolution and change the system completely, is will instead provoke some further reflections and conversations, and help contribute to making sure that the support and services we offer to businesses (be they private or social), can remain most relevant and current in meeting their changing needs, and by association, the people they employ and the communities they serve.

All I've done here is what I don't see happening that often amongst policy makers and sector bodies - looking at trends over time, and starting to cross-reference other data sources to try and better understand the picture.

Monday, January 7, 2019

are community businesses starting to fail, or are we simply becoming more honest about the true nature of them..?

A few years ago, there was a jamboree around 'community businesses' - enterprises that are led by the community they're based in; operate and trade to meet the (social and health) needs of those local areas; and generally make that area a better place for everyone to live and work in it.
This was precipitated by the formation of Power to Change - a charitable trust whose remit is to nurture, encourage, and support the growth and impact of this sector of businesses.

Over the last 5 years since it's creation, Power to Change has initiated a range of programmes and support, which have, in turn (and to me at least), seemed to also catalyse a range of other good things starting to happen through other support bodies to the sector.

However, one of the things about Power to Change that's impressed me most, is its commitment to research, data, and openly sharing it's findings. I've drawn on some of these published findings in previous blog posts, in exploring what they can add to other researches and data from other bodies in seeking to better understand specific themes, but this time thought I'd look at their own data on the community businesses they exist to support, from a longitudinal perspective.
I've always thought that having more than a "this year vs. last year findings" is important in any context as it means you can better start to identify trends, blips, and other happenstance events (last time I did this it was on complaints received by the CIC Regulators against individual Community Interest Companies, the findings of which still cause shock amongst people I share it with...)

And when I look at the 4 years worth of 'State of the Community Business Market' reports that have been collated and published to date, I can't help but wonder if we shouldn't be making more noise about the general state of community businesses, and in particular, how the sector appears to be worsening...

As some who've read previous blogs of mine may recall, I don't claim that analyses like these are based on sophisticated or technical regression techniques and other sensitivity analyses in data sets, but merely what a regular lay-person might find if they were to apply some basic maths to the headline figures reported.

In this instance, I took the figures from the last 4 years of reports, and worked out the average (mean) figures of what a typical community business looks like from the headline figures in each - the charts highlight the story, but in summary:

1) there seems to be a general overall increase in the numbers of community businesses (up 2,000 over the last 4 years), but...
2) the average income of community businesses has fallen by nearly £20,000 (roughly 10%) over the same period;
3) the average value of assets they hold each has fallen by over £150,000 (roughly 60%);
4) they're employing 20% less people, and, before anyone points out that that's because they're making greater use of volunteers - the number of volunteers has also fallen too (by around 50%)...
5) they're also becoming more reliant upon grants over trading to help sustain themselves, and continue their activities into the future






Now, it may be that this is all easily explainable: in the reports themselves, Power to Change are very clear and open that each year the methodologies used to research and generate the data are changing - so there's a strong argument to debunk the above on the basis that I'm not comparing like-for-like. Except... for the figure about the overall number of community businesses which seems to be on an upward trend - if anything, this would suggest that the methodologies are actually getting more effective and precise in identifying and profiling community businesses. 
And if this is the case, then that surely means that a combination of things may be going on:

1) the strength and scope of community businesses, upon which national policy and investment programmes have been based, have been over-estimated, which means that the support now available isn't actually what's most needed...

2) Power to Change has been 'too successful' in inspiring a faster than historic growth in the sector of new community business start-ups, whose financial and operational standings will be far more immature (weaker) than their more established counterparts, and this is skewing the overall averages - although the age of community businesses isn't something that's closely monitored in these reports, parallel mapping by Social Enterprise UK highlights that most of the wider social enterprise sector (of which community businesses form a part), are disproportionately 'young' in comparison with private businesses).


So - all in all, a false alarm for community businesses after all?

Maybe, but as I pointed out earlier, I've done this rough analysis on the basis of how someone taking the headline figures from these annual reports might look at them (and perhaps be unwitting misled?)
And given that other national support initiatives, investment, support, and funding programmes usually take a year or two to 'roll out', in light of them being potentially based on flawed assumptions and data, will this mean that they 'miss their mark', unless they regularly pause to reflect on findings such as these about the wider sector that they're working in, and respond accordingly..?

Monday, December 31, 2018

what I did in 2018 that got me noticed (in trouble?) the most...

It's that time of the year when a lot of people are starting to share their retrospectives of the last 12 months - greatest hits type profiles of their biggest 'wins', most exciting adventure, and such like.

And it struck me that although I'm now entering my 14th year of being self-employed, I've never actually done one on myself. So, in the spirit of the season, and in keeping with the adage of "try everything once apart from morriss dancing* and incest", here goes:



As this is my first one, I thought I'd try and start with something relatively straightforward and simple - what did I write/post about over the year that caught people's interest and imagination the most?
As some may know, I don't place much stock in social media analytics, so don't have fancy dashboards that track my activity across all my social media channels (and there's rather a lot of it!). So what I've done in the 'keep in simple and quick/easy to start' philosophy is to use the dashboards that are built into my blog site, and on twitter, to try and spot which post on each got the most impressions (people coming across it and reading it), as this seems to me to be the 'right' count for the sake of consistency and continuity? 

But enough already, you cry! What's the result - what did I post about this year that got the most people talking, thinking, and otherwise pausing for a brief moment because it chimed with what they're thinking about or trying to work on more (cue drum roll...):

On my blog - it was my post reflecting on my latest social impact report on myself, and how I'm now aligning it to the UN's Global Development Goals:

On twitter - it was celebrating my being named as the most innovative in the UK in developing new csr models: 

At first glance, this might seem a bit narcissistic (something it's been suggested I am in the past by Liam Black), but I'd like to think there's something more encouraging to be taken from this - because to me, what ties both of these posts together is something about being a responsible business: not just in a 'tick box', "we'll help raise some money for a local charity" kind of way, but something deeper about how people are wanting businesses to keep stepping up to the mark and do the right thing by everyone (not just their owners).

This idea also fits with recent national surveys highlighting that public trust in businesses is at an all-time high, while it's at an all-time low in charities, and I'd rather not go into how people are feeling about the government...

So, 2018 - the year that businesses not only heard the rallying call to be the leaders and supporters of society and local communities that we the people are needing, but have also started to try and figure out how they best answer it..?




* sadly I recently came across a photo my mum took of me as a young child dressed in morris dancing attire, but I'm determined to never do a 'luke skywalker'...

Monday, December 10, 2018

6 hours, 5 people, a lot of coffee, and truffle honey.


A couple of years ago, I tried a networking experiment: booking myself to be in London for 48 hours, and asking people to invite me to meet them in places of their choosing. Lots of people engaged with it, and others followed the adventure on social media with interest.

And it got me thinking that I should try and do something like it again. But finding 48 hours in the midst of various client projects, and family responsibilities isn’t that easy… so I took the most of the opportunity of being in the capital to deliver a bookkeeping workshop for Unltd to come down a little earlier than I might have otherwise, and put word out that I’d be around for an afternoon (6 hours) to see what serendipity LinkedIN might magic up…

And what an enjoyable 6-hour stint it turned out to be:


  • Finally meeting Andrea Gamson properly in person (after we’ve missed each other at conferences ad festivals we’ve both spoken at in the past, had several phone calls, and generally stalked each other in social media over the years), and being confused for my namesake, Robert Ashton (although to be fair, our respective beads are probably quite similar to each others’ at the moment…)

  • Learning of Roxanne Persaud’s muse, the Maid of Fail, and how a Phd thesis can become like Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy;

  • Receiving my first Christmas card of the year from Richard Hull, and over the magic of coffee, creating a new model and format for guest lectures on social enterprise and social entrepreneurship education (although we’ll have to wait until spring 2020 to release it on the world!)

  • And finally, making an entrance with Eddie Capstick without having to enter the room (I phoned him from the other side of the window he was sitting in). But his choice of last venue came well equipped for his being the last name on my ‘dance card’ for this 6-hour speed networking dash around Kings Cross.





So – thank you all for the creativity, insight, new experiences, and shared laughs. Hopefully I can find an excuse to do it again before another whole year passes, and also not just in London…


Thursday, November 22, 2018

too prudish or too offensive?

As a freelancer, I have a lot more freedom than my employed counterparts (something that I've used over the years to challenge and change national policy and legislation, openly argue with some of the direction that sector bodies suggest their members should be taking, and so on - in effect, being a 'modern day prophet').

But while this may sound quite exciting and glamorous, there is also an associated risk - in not being part of an ongoing team, having a line manager, and such like, there's a risk that I may start to believe my own hype, and end up 'going off on one'... which is something I've always sought to avoid through how I've designed part of my business model.

And this usually plays out ok - but sometimes it may mean that I go a step 'too far'.


I recently tweeted whilst on my way to deliver a workshop for a client that would be being attended by a range of people thinking about starting up their own business in the future. I glibly referred to the fact that I was looking forward to busting some of the myths and hype that surround business plans and included a picture of some of my 'learning aides' that any who's ever been in one of my courses will recognise.



For 14 years no-one has ever had an issue with any of these types of toys/gimmicks/props (with the exception of one person who suffered from the diagnosed medical condition pediophobia), but on this occasion, my client phoned me within minutes to ask me to delete it as they felt some people may find some of the content offensive.
Now - I'm not their employee, and neither did our contracted terms relate to anything which said they could direct what I could or couldn't say in my own right, so I could easily have said 'no'. 
But I've always had the approach that if someone's not happy with something that's happened, my first response isn't to find excuses or dodge potential blame, but rather find the quickest way to fix things so everyone can keep on getting along.
So I deleted it.

But, being me, I surreptitiously sought a view from the people attending the workshop about the items in the picture - asking if any of them were offended by any of them (some of which have also featured in national prime-time tv shows). They all said that they couldn't see any problem with any of them.

Which leaves me wondering - are clients sometimes too prudish in what they think others might think, rather than asking those same people, before acting on imagined fears; or am I starting to push the boundaries a little too far...?


(...and even though I've anonymised details so no-one will know who I'm referring to, will the client recognise themselves, and get even more upset with me?)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

member only content

there seems to be an increasing trend on the internet towards content being hosted behind paywalls - the number of emails I now receive with links to research, features, and articles which are increasingly marked as 'member only content' when I try to read them, is starting to annoy me...

I fully appreciate that in an increasingly fragmented economy, people need to find novel and clever ways of being able to earn a living (or something approximating one), and so the potential to earn 'micro payments' of a few pence from people clicking to read your blog post or news feature may seem innocuous enough. But I'm concerned it may herald the dawn of a new net age of digital inequality - not from access to the technology which is the current digital divide, but from not being able to access information or learning when you do.

When the internet was created, it was intended to be as freely open and available to as many people as possible. A principle that chimes with the declaration of human rights, whose Article 26 states that everyone has the right to education [to be able to access learning], and that this should be free; and Article 27 which says that we should all be able to freely participate in the cultural life of our [on-line] community. 

Image result for medium member only content
If we start putting up charges to access content, then we start to limit the sharing our learning and experiences with each other - we start to segregate our communities into those who can afford to 'play with us' and those who can't. Which means that potentially increasingly large numbers of people will lose access to articles and research that could help to further understanding, constructively challenge prejudice and bias, and generally create a more consistent experience for us all on-line and in our lives.

I also appreciate the argument that we only truly value things we've paid for, but if the established norm in the marketplace of internet blogs and articles was that they were freely shared, then surely we need to be having a wider and deeper conversation about the effects that our use of 'member only content' may be creating in exacerbating inequality, stopping prejudice and bias from being able to be challenged as they could/should be, and generally increasingly p!ssing people off who are trying to contribute to the overall pool of knowledge and learning at the cost of our own time, in keeping with the original spirit of the internet, only to see others seemingly starting to exploit it for selfish gains...?