Friday, January 17, 2020

having your accounts audited doesn't prove they're correct - so why do we keep thinking it does?

Lets get one thing clear from the start here - there are a lot of accountants who will be upset with me for writing this.
But at the same time, there are hopefully a lot of groups and businesses who'll now start to save a lot of money and stress after reading it...

There's a commonly held belief that I want to correct with this post - namely that an awful lot of people (including commissioners, grant making bodies, government officials, and the like) all think that if you have your accounts audited it proves that they're accurate.

It doesn't.

The process of auditing is simply someone giving an opinion that the way you've approached adding up your receipts and invoices (based on what you choose to reveal to them) is sound. 

An audit does not guarantee that the accounts are fully correct, or that you're a sound business proposition - and if you don't believe me, just go back and read what it says on the certificate that you pay an auditor to give you (the below extracts are from the auditors certification to the 2019 accounts for Arrandco Business Services):

  • "Our objectives are to obtain reasonable assurance about whether the financial statements as a whole are free from material misstatement...  Reasonable not a guarantee that an audit...will always detect a material misstatement when it exists."

  • "We do not accept or assume responsibility to any party... to any body, for our work, for this report, or the opinions we have formed"

So if the audit process doesn't guarantee it will spot mistakes in your accounts, and if there is subsequently found to be an issue that the auditor missed, then the auditor isn't responsible for that - so what do we pay for..?

And to add to this question on the validity of the audit process, let's also remind ourselves of a few recent 'audit failures' - 

Patissie Valleirie - when asked why the auditors to this high street retail chain didn't spot the £40m fraud that spanned several years, their auditors said they don't look for fraud as part of their audit process... 

Carillion - not just one, but two firms of auditors missed the signs of a greater than £1bn hole in the accounts of this national construction firm that was a one-time darling of government commissioners, as well as ongoing signs of insolvent trading...

Kids Company - the flagship charity that suddenly seemed to run out of cash in 2015, was having serious concerns raised about apparent financial reporting and management irregularities to its Trustees as far back as 2002, yet still had accounts signed off every year...

RSM Tenon - one of the leading accountancy and audit firms found that it wasn't even getting its own accounts right after they were signed off...

the Charity Commission - last year openly said that about half of the accounts filed with it aren't being properly examined or checked by the auditors who are being paid to do so, which calls into question how far we can trust the accounts of any charity in general...

So - back to my opening question: if the process of auditing accounts doesn't guarantee that they're correct, and the auditor has no responsibility if its subsequently found that they didn't do their job properly:
(1) why do we pay for our accounts to be audited?

(2) and in light of the above quick example from across different sectors, why do we still keep asking for accounts to be audited as proof of assurance that the organisation is trading legally and is not insolvent?

Thursday, January 2, 2020

If you're not prepared to 'burn out', maybe you shouldn't be a social entrepreneur...

With the start of a new decade, resolutions abound - and they're usually to do with trying to be healthier and taking greater care of ourselves. Indeed, there seems to be a growing trend in many Facebook and LinkedIN groups that I'm part of to encourage more open and honest conversations about our mental health and well-being.

And this doesn't seem to be a passing fad - the imperative to do so seems to be increasingly supported by evidences and research, highlighting the cost of 'burn out', particularly for/to social entrepreneurs...

But I can't help but want to 'poke this with a stick' a little bit, and suggest that actually, burning out may be exactly what a social entrepreneur needs to do, if they're to fully achieve their vision.

You see, to my mind, "social entrepreneurship" isn't about creating the next big social enterprise that will magically create hundreds of jobs for people who otherwise wouldn't be able to work, or managing to somehow stop all plastic pollution by itself (as they're often envisaged and encouraged to be by policy makers and similar). 
I have an idea that a social entrepreneur's biggest impact is actually more through how they influence others, and contribute to changes in others' practices and understanding more widely - and in doing so, can have a far greater reach and generate far more change than a single venture could ever hope to.

And in that regard, they're a bit like artists - many of whom seek to re-imagine the world as it is, or could be; to offer us a critical and fresh perspective that gives us pause to reexamine what we think we know and understand; and in doing so, become a fuller and more complete person.

And just like social entrepreneurs, artists struggle too - with many never seeming to manage to achieve their 'break through moment'. But sometimes, one does, and in doing so, creates a piece of art, the legacy of which completely changes the way everyone around the world who sees it, is challenged to revisit their assumptions and prejudices about a subject matter.
One famous example of this, is Edward Munch's "the Scream"  

This painting that has subsequently inspired so much other media and cultures, has also enabled us to have more open conversations about pain and well-being, and even allows us to communicate with future generations who are likely to loose the language we use today. It has become one of the most iconic images in the art world ever.
As such, it's ongoing legacy surely symbolises what social entrepreneurs strive for themselves.
But we rarely talk about what it cost Munch to create: a crippling anxiety attack, likely brought on from being burnt out...

So, my question for all would-be social entrepreneurs is this: what price would you be willing to pay in order to create a legacy that will touch people's lives around the planet for generations to come...?

Thursday, November 21, 2019

reporting social impact - 150 years in, and 8,000 to go...

If you're getting involved with starting to report social value/impact, and find yourself confused about all the different models, standards, bodies, and approaches, then don't panic - you're right where you should expect to be!

Preparing 'social accounts' is often likened to the preparation of a set of financial accounts - tracking what resources have been used, and what's changed (good or bad) at the end of a period.

However - as a species, we've been collectively agreeing how to 'do' financial accounts for about 8 millennia (the earliest reference I can find dates back to about 8,000BC in ancient Sumeria...). But we've only really been doing 'social' accounts for about 150 (the earliest references I'm aware of are co-operative societies in the mid nineteen century sharing how they were impacting on their members and communities).

So if we've been working on agreeing consistent standards and approaches for financial accounts for this long, why is there the sense of urgency and panic to nail the way in which we report the social value and impact alongside the financial stuff?

And just to add to the complication, financial accounting had only a few key audiences who were interested that it was gotten 'right' (investors, regulators, government), whereas social value and impact has far wider groups that it needs to satisfy (providers, commissioners, communities, employees, beneficiaries, customers, grant making bodies, policy makers, and so on and so on...)

So isn't it about time we stopped panicking that we've not yet reached a global consensus on the measures we should all be using when we talk about our value and impact..?

Monday, November 11, 2019

the problems with prioritising social value maybe aren't that straightforward...

Having worked in the 'social value' arena for about 20 years now in guises ranging from developing reporting toolkits for national sector bodies, supporting national programmes from the likes of nef and Social Investment Business, and delivering masterclasses with commissioners and individual groups, there seems to remain a widespread frustration as to why more charities, social enterprises, businesses, and others simply aren't getting on with just (fukcing) doing it...

And I have an idea (well, several in fact) as to why despite the rhetoric and good intentions, it's proving so hard for so many to start with even the first steps of starting to think about how they capture and report the impact they're already making, let alone start to grow it to benefit more people and communities in need:

1) most groups and businesses face a daily trade-off between investing in systems and processes, and being able to 'keep the lights on' - until we can find better ways of presenting the imperative of social value reporting in the context of their current operating pressures and immediate consequences, then it'll always be being put off to the next month...

2) despite social value now being a compliance thing for charities, companies, and even societies (public benefit reporting requirements, legal responsibilities of company directors, and such like), there's little by way of enforcement by these respective regulatory bodies - so if there's no stick, then what's the motivation..?

3) the introduction of the social value act in 2012 was going to herald a new era of social value in public procurement - except it's not that obvious or widespread yet (with most contracts only giving a 5% weighing to social value)

4) we see grant making trusts and bodies seemingly at odds with each other in how they're prioritising social value and impact, with some being so vague as to leave the applying groups more confused, and others contradicting each other, so is it any wonder that charities applying to them are focusing more on outputs and budgets than outcomes..?

5) and the 'professionalisation' of reporting our social value (despite it originating within the social enterprise sector) is starting to see our own people becoming disenfranchised and demotivated when they're asked to start to report and manage it, according to recent research papers...

So is it any wonder why despite the efforts of nationally funded programmes, sector bodies, and rhetoric of others, that 2 decades in, we're still seeing so many groups struggling to begin to even engage with social value, let alone report, manage, and develop it..?

Maybe we need to create more carrots to incentivise and nudge behaviours and thinking, rather than relying on an approach of 'tell people why it's so important, and they're bound to come round...' (after all - how many of us actually manage our recommended '5-a-day' of fruit and vegetables, or religiously floss after every meal, despite knowing how important both are...?)

Monday, October 21, 2019

why I don't go to awards ceremonies (despite winning them!)

I seem to be developing a reputation for winning awards (and as with most of my other reputations, is not something I purposefully set out to achieve...); but thought it might be time to reveal why I'm usually pictured in my office with all the paperweights and wall hangings that I seem to be amassing, rather than being suited up at official awards ceremonies:

  1. they're usually in London or major cities that aren't that easy for me to get to (I live in the Pennines where the quality of views, walking, and beer are offset by years of under-investment in public transport links...)
  2. Despite all my bravado and pomp, I think that my factory default setting is far more introvert than extrovert, so if it's all the same, you can post me the paperweight and I'll stay at home to watch TV with my girlfriend and a glass of wine;
  3. But perhaps most importantly, not going in person creates an opportunity for me to be able to help other people get a 'leg up' as they're starting their careers and adventures - at the IOEE awards where I was named 'member of the year', I orchestrated it so Harsha Patel would be 'me' at the House of Commons to accept the accolade on my behalf: she was in the process of founding Doing Social at the time, so this meant she had opportunity to network with people and agencies more quickly and easily than she might have otherwise, meaning she could get her new venture 'out there' more powerfully than she might have otherwise. (She also looked better in a dress than I could ever hope to when on the podium giving the acceptance speech...)

So that's the reasoning behind why, in my business model, I seem to be once again going against conventional wisdom that says I should be revelling the in the validation that having awards bestowed on me offers..,

Friday, October 11, 2019

why ducks are better than dolphins

Anyone familiar with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will know that since time immemorial, it's been dolphins (not us) who are the most intelligent life form on our planet.

But I've started to wonder recently if they've only gotten this position thanks to some crafty PR on the part of the late Douglas Adams, and it's actually the ducks that are the ones we should all be looking to... 

- It's ducks who are favoured by surrealists

- It's ducks who helped me convey to a national festival my identity as being NOT that of a social enterprise/entrepreneur

- It's ducks who avoided becoming weaponised in warfare (unlike their porpoise counterparts)

- and it's ducks who can best help us get fully to grips with themes of equality and diversity... 

But is there a hidden moral or meaning in this seemingly random and off-beat post... well, I think there is, and I think it's this - 
in the words of Public Enemy, "don't believe the hype": just because something seems insignificant and commonplace doesn't mean it doesn't have the potential to usurp the leading authorities on any given matter.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

how the CIC Regulator protects people's trust in social enterprises by not telling anyone anything about the complaints or concerns we make to them...

If the title of this post sounds counter-intuitive, that's because I'm still struggling to reconcile the inspiration for it: a statement by the CIC Regulator in their latest annual report about how they strive to help protect the CIC brand:

"our approach is to neither confirm nor deny whether an investigation is taking protect the integrity of the CIC." (p.12)

and if you follow this through to the CIC Regulator's published guidance on making complaints about CICs, you'll find that if you do raise a concern, you'll find that this opaqueness goes ever further in that they won't "publish or tell the complainant about the outcome." (p4)

This seems to be a little odd at best for a number of reasons:
1) all other regulators are usually transparent about investigations they opened and reached a decision on (unless there are over-riding legal reasons or concerns);

2) a 'back of the envelope' study I did into CIC complaints a while ago found that we, the general public, were increasingly raising concerns about them to the Regulator, year on year - and...

3) most complaints received by the Regulator relate to a CICs governance, then why not share some of the details of these with us all, so we can better structure and manage CICs to avoid common pitfalls and mistakes in better protecting the shared brand and respective integrity of the wider CIC community..?

Worryingly, the CIC Regulator also reveals in this latest annual report, that for the first time since CICs were introduced (14 years ago) they've actually acted on a complaint to investigate the affairs of a CIC. (Although they don't disclose any details of this, so we can't learn from other's mistakes in strengthening our own respective understandings and practices).

There's a relationship between trustworthiness and transparency, and if the CIC Regulator isn't being transparent about how they're handling the concerns people are raising about individual CICs, then there's a limit to how far we'll not only be able to feel we can trust them to protect the reputation of the social enterprises they're responsible for, but also how much faith individual CICs will have in them to act with any integrity themselves as their regulator.

All of this isn't meant as another CIC-bashing post (goodness knows, I seem to make enough of those already!), but part of my questioning aloud about some of the wider practices in the social enterprise sector that more of us should surely be aware of and asking about, if we're to make sure that as a movement, we're as credible and impact-ful as we have the potential to be.