Wednesday, December 6, 2017

working until the end of my days..?

So I'm now of an age where I no longer think myself invincible, but thankfully still have all my teeth and a bit of hair...
And strange things happen when you get to this point in your life, especially with regards to thinking about your future - you find yourself not just concerned with worrying about if/how you'll take your next holiday, but also that thing called 'retirement'...

There have been studies, articles, and blogs published over the last few months around the internet that suggest we're all going to need to keep working for longer into our twilight years than previous generations have, and that when we finally can officially retire from the need to be an economic contributor to society and the economy, we'll have a lot less to live on.
But these all tend to relate to the 'traditional' worker - people who are employed, with an employer contributing to a pension pot on their behalf, to supplement what will be left of the state pension when we get to that milestone in our lives.

I, and quite a few others, are self-employed. We don't have an employer who's making contributions into a pension fund on our behalf. And most of us struggle to be able to afford or justify making any monthly contributions to a fund out of our own earnings judging by trends in freelancing and self-employment which shows we earn less than our employed counterparts (while at the same time somehow paying more tax!):

To redress this, some of us will be looking to use our homes as our pension fund - hoping to pay off a mortgage, and then when the time comes, sell the house and live off the proceeds. But many of us don't have a mortgage or the security of owning our own home (and may never be able to). And even if we did, we may have children who we want to offer some legacy and support to for their own futures, and so we don't want to blow whatever we might be able to raise from selling our home to make sure we can leave something for for them...

All of which, is why I'll be following the current initiative on thinking from TheRSA into how retirement security for the growing numbers of people who are self-employed can be strengthened ('cos the current options don't really work!)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

and the least sustainable legal form of social enterprise is...

Anyone who's ever asked me for (professional) advice or guidance will know that I always try refer to what published research has to say about your question - I'd much rather offer option and direction on the basis of objective evidenced knowledge, rather than any personal preference or other bias.

And many know that I also seem to be able to make sense of all the options around legal forms for social enterprises here in the UK (at my last count, 14 options that fall under 7 regulatory bodies depending on which you pick) - something which has led me to be invited to develop and deliver training courses throughout the wider sector, be interviewed for webinars, and also offer some of my famous beer/cake mentoring in relation to as well...

Historically, when helping people navigate these choices as to their legal form, I've always referred to the legal powers of the respective regulators, what published research shows about their apparent success in being awarded grants, and their relative 'popularity' based on sector mapping studies.

But today I add another dimension to this referencing and research about social enterprise legal forms - how they affect your future financial performance!

Given the complexities around understanding and mapping the wider world of social enterprise, there's scant research or monitoring around how any enterprises' chosen legal form may impact on its future potential for success in financial terms - and while there are lots of other contributory factors which means that we can never look at the legal form as the sole indicator of this performance outcome, I felt it might be useful to take an initial look at what the studies that are starting to be published might be suggesting.

To this end, I'm indebted to Power to Change's research team, who have started to track and publish bench-marking data for social and community enterprises around a number of themes, but also a couple of other bodies too. There's not many sector mapping studies that look at the performance of an enterprise correlated to its legal form, but the initial ones I've been able to draw on are:

And yes, the data from these will be subjective - for example, Power to Change will only be reporting on data from social/community enterprises that it has directly engaged with and supported; but as I said already, this is a first go at seeing what might be gleaned and identified from cross-referencing what these studies and mappings appear to be finding.

And what they seem to show is:

  1. Charities are consistently the best performing legal structures with average turnovers having the least variance of all legal forms between the different studies (£450k - £650k); they also seem to generate the highest profit ratios from trading activities (averaging 11%)
  2. Companies limited by guarantee have the lowest reliance on grant funding (averaging 48%), but also a lower profit ratio of 4% of income
  3. Co-op Societies seem to struggle to generate profits (2% of turnover), but in having the largest average turnover of all the legal forms (£7.2m), this equates to far larger cash amounts than the other options do
The biggest surprises though, come in relation to CICs - the Power to Change study shows them to have an average turnover of nearly £2m, but the CIC Associations own mapping found the vast majority generate less than £10,000 a year. This clearly shows that there's HUGE variances between individual CICs that are trading: there are a few 'unicorns' out there, but most are 'zombies'. 

And I use the phrase 'trading' loosely, as these various studies also highlight that CICs are the most grant reliant and dependant of all the legal forms (58% of all income is grants - for comparison, it's 53% for charities; and grants are used as the main route by the majority of CICs for raising any investment). Worryingly, they are also the only legal form whose average enterprise seems to be generating a loss - Power to Change's mapping found that the average CIC makes a loss every year of -1.5% against its income...

I've blogged before about how the 'honeymoon' for CICs may be waning, so does this add further weight to my concerns about the viability of this legal form to best enable social entrepreneurs to achieve their vision? (especially when 1/3 of all CICs also report that this legal form has been a hindrance to them doing so...).

I don't know, and I don't think that this quick snapshot across a handful of others' published data can offer any real answers. But what it hopefully does is to help further add to our knowledge about the best routes through which social enterprises can best realise and fulfil their potential. Hopefully it will also generate more and more useful questions for those undertaking future studies into this wider sector.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

if you want support for your startup, you'll likely need to ignore your ethics...

I find myself in an unusual conundrum as an enterprise advisor who also has a pretty explicit set of values and ethics in how I approach the way I work:

Over the last few years, government has consistently reduced the amount of resource and support available to people who want to start up different types of businesses as a route to employment, generating jobs, changing the world in new ways, and such like. This has meant that the support that so many entrepreneurs of all types need and value is increasingly scarce.
At the same time, high street banks and financial services bodies seem to be moving into this business support space through creating startup grant funds, developing (free) incubators and workspace, and sponsoring national thematic enterprise support initiatives.

All seems pretty straightforward? And economists would probably point to this as an example of how market forces are creating responses that people and enterprises need, without the need for state intervention.

But here's the rub - a recent survey of the 'ethical-ness' of high street banks seems to suggest that those who are scored as 'most unethical' are the ones doing the most around these startup and social enterprise support initiatives. A case of 'buying your way out of a guilty conscience'? (

And for the entrepreneurs accessing this support - some won't care where the money's coming from, but I see that people increasingly are interested in how that money has come to be on the basis of choices about where they choose to invest their own savings, suppliers they choose to procure from, and the places they try and recruit their staff from.
Market forces are all well and good, but remember that the market isn't a person - it doesn't have ethics or values like you or I. And that likely means that entrepreneurs' difficult choices will only be added to in the future when they start to weigh up the ethics of accepting the support that they know that their enterprise needs, but comes at a cost of having been raised from investing and trading in practices that they'd otherwise be very uncomfortable with...

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:

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?