Friday, August 7, 2015

Why I'd like to be in membership of a golf club

Most of us know the clich├ęs about being a member of a golf club – you don't join to improve your game, or because you necessarily enjoy playing it, but because it affords you the opportunity/excuse to spend significant time with business prospects/partners/customers away from the usual day-to-day contexts and pressures of the work place;

it's an opportunity to cement and maintain key strategic business relationships – and relationships are best nurtured where people can come together around a neutral or mutual interest, hence the rise of the golf clubs historically, and why most members of golf clubs today are 'professionals' not in golf, but in various fields of business;

and you know what – it's about time I got in on this act! I spend a lot of time impacting upon the world and supporting others through various networks and relationships, but there's a gap in how I do this that it's about time I addressed.

I want to take up membership of a golf club. But which one? As a reader of this blog, you'll know that I can be a little unconventional at times, and don't usually wear suits or ties – and that will likely mean I struggle to even been invited to discuss any application I make to many such clubs, but that won't deter me. I need to find a golf club where I can meet like-minded people, where I can be proud to invite people to meet me at and spend time together, and have the knowledge that whoever I'm entertaining as my guest, they'll enjoy themselves.

So there's really only one golf club that I'd like to be a member of – crazy golf!

Friday, July 17, 2015

are freelancers modern-day prophets?

over the last few years there's been increasing interest and excitement about the rise in the number of freelancers and the attractiveness of this way of working, but I'm wondering if there's a role that if freelancers accepted and adopted, might see them make a truly transformational impact upon our economy and society;

as a freelancer myself, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the implications that this has with regards to earnings, my family, etc, but I've also explored it within the context of leadership - inspiring and influencing others on both individual and corporate levels. And through this reflection have realised that freelancers have a considerable amount of political freedom to speak out and challenge accepted norms and the things that government and other businesses do in ways that non-freelancer's can't;

you see it's all to do with employment legislation - if I'm your employee then everything I do and say is a reflection of your company by default. That means that regardless of how I may feel about the way a company has behaved or a specific government policy or legislation, I can't easily speak out about, or challenge, it without risking embarrassing my employer and so finding myself in breach of the trust with them them underpins my contract of employment;

freelancers have no such 'limiters' - we're much more free and able to publicly decry or challenge the behaviour of institutions and the State than others: much in the way that the prophets of the Old Testament scriptures did. Read through the stories of their lives again, and you'll see that they were willing to not only speak out against injustice and wrong-doing by the powers that be/were, but also to do it when it made them unpopular or placed them at risk of sanction and prosecution from the authorities of the day because no-one else was willing or able to stand up say something wasn't fair or right;

and in my own experience as a freelancer there are times I've taken on this role: publicly speaking out against the CIC legislation at a time when everyone else would only say how great it was. This led to my receiving some unwelcome interest and attention from some quarters, but hushed whispers of encouragement from people who were employed in the same organisations who were publicly praising it, and subsequently led to the legislation being changed!

Which brings me back to my idea about freelancers and prophets - in not having contracts of employment we're incredibly liberated to speak out against injustices and bad management by the powers that be, and in doing so can start to bring about a fairer society and economy for all. But dare we risk doing so?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

is the universe trying to tell me something?

Many people who've shared some of my professional life will know that I seem to be able to engage quite well with most people, and either be able to offer the support they need (however obscure or technical) or know someone who does.

I've always glibly explained it's "because my brain is wired funny", but a couple of recent events are making me wonder if it's actually because I may have inadvertently become the answer to life, the universe, and everything...

Most people know of the famous 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' book, and that in it, the answer to life, the universe, and everything is revealed to be "42". Well, that same number seems to be starting to crop up in relation to me... the number of my twitter lists, my ranking on a delivery schedule - so this is where I turn to you, dear internet: should I consider taking up 'guru' status (something I've always tried to avoid in the past), or am I just suffering from too much 'Deep Thought'?

answers on a postcard, please (or failing that, the comments box below)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Guest Blog: Social Enterprise: on a stairway to heaven?

Well dear reader - after far too long, here's the first guest blog I've ever hosted!
If you'd like your name to appear here next, feel free to get in touch. But for now, it's over to Simon Lee of Hempsons Solicitors whom I first met in 2008 whilst trying to avoid being heretical in a theological college...

Social Enterprise: on a stairway to heaven?

A weighty task

With apologies to Led Zeppelin here but, fundamentally, is everything now set for social enterprises to grow and take centre stage?

We live in challenging times: the economy (so we hear) is improving with more people in employment, but those improvements are not seen by all. The significant rise in demand at food banks, for instance, shows that under the surface remains great need.

We have already lived through a number of years of ‘austerity’ and the expectation is that we will have to live through at least a further four years or so:  the current budget deficit – the difference between what Government gets in and is spending - sits at around £60bn, whilst the national debt (what we owe in total) is around the £1.36 trillion mark. However, even if public sector savings return us to budget surplus from budget deficit, it seems unlikely that we will return to a wealth of grant-funding options for third sector organisations. In such circumstances there are, I think, four possible responses (beyond getting on the phone to Bill Gates to see if he’s got a few quid he could send us) –
  • ·         getting overwhelmed by the enormity of it all and doing nothing;
  • ·         ignoring the issues and financial realities of this situation and doing nothing;
  • ·         seeking to deal with the situation with an economic head dominating; or
  • ·         seeking to deal with the situation in some way taking account of the human picture.

And this last one is where social enterprises come in. Perhaps I’m idealistic here but in times of doom and gloom and misery, the social entrepreneurs are the ones saying “Yes, but what if we could just do this or that – that would at least start to help.” “What if we could do some social good whilst all still getting paid at the end of the day?” Of course, this is not to say that only social entrepreneurs are able to make a contribution in this way but simply that they are obvious candidates for doing so.

Some of this is borne out by the growth of social enterprises despite the economic ‘downturn’. The last published RBS SE 100 (the 2014 edition) also included a useful 5 year overview of the picture since 2009. This showed that “over the past five years the social enterprises on the RBS SE100 Index have achieved phenomenal growth.” Backing this up further, a recent Pioneer’s Post article quoted initial data from the SEUK ‘State of Social Enterprise 2015’ report as showing that (in the last year) 52% of UK social enterprises have increased their turnover, 39% have expanded geographically, and 59% have developed new products and services.

All of this tells us where we have been and where we are, but what about what’s coming up in the years ahead? Everyone knows that past behaviour is no guarantee of future performance and only a fool would try to predict the future, but here goes anyway…

Public Service Transformation

It is almost certain that the future holds further cuts to and changes in what are currently seen as public services. It seems unlikely that Government will be willing to pump billions of extra pounds into public services, at least for those outside the NHS.

It follows from this that the policy of creating new social enterprises from those currently working in the public sector will continue to be a serious option to consider for challenged public sector services. This is not least the case because we know that both past Labour and Conservative-led governments have actively supported the idea. Of course, simply turning something in to a ‘mutual’ is no more a guarantee of a successful organisation than choosing to paint the walls a different colour but there is increasing evidence available – both academic and anecdotal - that this kind of model can bring genuine benefits to both staff and beneficiaries alike.

We know that many social enterprises rely to at least some extent on public service contracts and it follows that these particular services may have their funding reduced or even be cut all together. If councils are forced to scale back on non-statutory services, and those services are the bread and butter of social enterprises, then there is a clear challenge there: those social enterprises will need to find other buyers of their services or adapt to deliver new services instead.

The Challenge to Scale Up

Where there have been public sector opportunities to bid for in recent years, often it has been necessary for organisations to group together and submit some form of collaborative bid. It is difficult to see this trend changing (not least because a smaller, lot-based, approach places a greater burden on the public body managing the contract) and so it will continue to be important for organisations to understand the different models of collaboration and their relative merits.

The Public Service (Social Value) Act has had a slow but steady start with a number of local authorities choosing to go further than the legal minimum thresholds because they see the advantages of doing so. The recent review of the Act called for a greater push in other areas of public services, such as the NHS but this is really a slow burn change based, for the time being at least, on anecdotal evidence of others’ success stories.

The reporting and demonstration of the added, social, value beyond the core requirements of the contract will continue to be important and, whilst social enterprises should score well here, the challenge is still there for social enterprises to show their distinctiveness in some way. Some fear, though, that private-sector business might simply learn to report better on their own social value and so nullify the potential advantages of social enterprises in procurement processes which take that in to account. The truth is, I think, that private sector businesses may well do this and so social enterprises need to be aware of this and react accordingly.

Whilst, in some ways, it would be great if social enterprises could have ‘carve outs’ where certain work is guaranteed to come to the sector, this is perhaps a sign that the market needs to mature further. Surely, an indication that the social enterprise sector has truly ‘made it’ is where there is no fear of competing on an equal basis with the private sector because the offer is both confident and assured.

You might be thinking that this is all very well, but we all know that there are relatively few social enterprises operating at significant scale (the RBS SE 100 2014 index noted that only 14% have turnovers greater than £5m). How can the sector possibly compete with the ‘big boys’? The challenge is for the sector itself to scale up.

There has been talk for years of various models of ‘social franchising’ but relatively little talk of ‘mergers and acquisitions’ in the social enterprise world (charities do engage in this to a certain extent). I appreciate that this language commonly lives at the heart of the private sector but the concept is nevertheless one that needs to be considered and learning adopted from both the private sector and from charities. As with other aspects of the world of social enterprise there is nothing wrong in taking a concept from the private sector and turning it in to something slightly different (and more positive) in the social sector. Mergers and acquisitions in the social enterprise world needn’t have the connotations of profit over person (Kraft taking over Cadbury’s, for instance) and could instead be a genuine nurturing relationship,  where skills and abilities available in one part of the business complement existing ones, extend the offering, and help both to grow.

Mergers and Acquisitions in the Social Enterprise World

There are already examples of charities and social enterprises creating group structures in this kind of way: Stoke’s PM Training (part of the Aspire housing association group) and Stockport-based Pure Innovations are just two. This kind of approach has a number of potential advantages – a stronger group balance sheet, the potential to draw on skills across the group to aid greater diversification, and a sharing of back-office functions. For younger organisations or start-ups, there can be the comfort of access to experience of those who have simply been around for longer.

This links too to access social finance – the message from social funders is not that there is no money to invest but rather that there is still a shortage of what they see as investable propositions. Adding the financial weight and experience of others helps to reduce the risk and so make an initial investment that bit easier to achieve. An organisation which is an investable proposition would, of course, not be limited to accessing only social finance: more traditional bank loans and investment could be on the table too.

Another potential advantage of this model of scaling up is succession – many social enterprises, and particularly those who have come out of the public sector, are relatively young organisations and have the same (or very similar) core leadership team that they have always had. But what happens when the chief executive retires, is ill, or just would like a new challenge elsewhere? These moments of transition are potentially momentous in the life of an organisation and so need to be carefully planned and managed wherever possible – having the wider comfort and ‘safety net’ of a wider group structure could be a crucial factor in continued success.

The recent changes to procurement law also mean that it is generally harder to be able to justify a direct award of contract without some form of procurement exercise. A nascent start-up organisation would certainly stand a better chance of success in such competitions if backed in some way by social enterprises already carrying ‘real world’ experience and a balance sheet to go with it.


Over the next few years many social enterprises will need to continue to adapt to survive in what will almost certainly be a world of continued austerity and increased cuts to public sector budgets. Growth by seeking out ‘mergers’ with existing third sector players, and so moving beyond simple joint working or collaboration, will certainly be a challenge.

It is, though, a challenge well worth taking.

Simon Lee is an associate at Hempsons. 
He is a solicitor specialising in support to social enterprises and charities and has over 10 years’ experience of working with the sector.

Tel. 0207 484 7629 

Friday, May 15, 2015

I came, I saw, I (possibly) embarrassed myself...

So I was there (as were lots of other people) - the first 5-day festivalof Social Enterprise hosted by Greenwich University (and pulled together by Harsha Patel who we can't thank enough for doing so!). And what's even more exciting was that I wasn't just there to heckle from the back seats and prop up the networking bar, I'd been invited to be part of the headline acts alongside some of social enterprise's rockstars.

And while others can tell you far better (and honestly) how I really was, and how useful and engaging my activities and support offered were, it strikes me that I may have been either very foolish or incredibly brilliant in my contributions as a keynote speaker to the closing debate - 'should all entrepreneurs be social entrepreneurs?'.

You see, many people I have the privilege to walk alongside for a time in encouraging and supporting them to realise their visions (both as individual entrepreneurs and sector bodies) regard me as a fine example of a 'social entrepreneur'. Except I don't think that I am one - a social entrepreneur is motivated by wanting to change the world for the better, and to earn some money along the way to keep the lights on and the cats fed. A 'traditional' entrepreneur has an idea for how to earn some money to keep the lights on and the cats fed... And I fall into the latter camp - following some questionable behaviour just over 10 years ago by a very large regional business in the sector, I'd relocated to the other end of the country and found myself without employment and a young family to support.

But having been raised the way I have, rather than sign on at the job centre (only 2 streets away), I began knocking on doors to find work (and have been hustling ever since). So you see, my motivation is about supporting my family - and part of that is not just keeping the lights on, but also trying to help leave the world is a slightly better place for my kids as they start to make their way into it. And part of how I try and live my life is also trying to manifest certain values and principles in how I work. All of which apparently make me indistinguishable from a social entrepreneur by my actions and impacts.

But what does it matter if people label me as something I don't think I am? If it doesn't get in the way of what I'm trying to achieve for myself and others, am I just having an existential mid-life crisis? Is it more important to consider how we act, and the impact we have on others, rather than what we call ourselves?

And I bared all of this publicly on stage at a national event in front of media, sector leaders, and hundreds of people who were also wondering of social enterprise is the right thing for them.

So - what do you think, was I incredibly clever, disruptive, and have moved the debate on to its next paradigm (never thought I'd use that word in a non-satirical context!), or have I just ruined any professional reputation and credibility I may have had...?

Initial reaction in the room and on twitter seems to be positive - but I think my duck may have had a lot to do with that ;-)

Monday, April 13, 2015

a(nother) new era in social impact/value reporting...

It's that time of year again - the end of most groups' financial reporting period and the start of their thinking about collating all their records into the annual accounts for filing with various bodies. It's also the time of year when I also start to collate my records to produce my 'social accounts' (social impact/value report) on myself (and to my knowledge, am still the only freelance consultant globally to do so...see here for last years':

This will be the 9th year I've produced and published this perspective on my performance in openly reflecting on how far I've been able to enact my personal values in approaching and delivering the support I offer to various groups. And just as with previous years, I'm keen not to rest on my laurels, but to keep refining the framework and methodology, to make it even more useful and relevant as a document.

This year's evolution was prompted by my role in delivering the financial management module for a programme with Anglia Ruskin University that supports managers of charities and social enterprises better lead their respective ventures. I was reflecting with the current cohort of learners on the stories that accounts tell, and how frustrating it is that accounts only show a very narrow period: the last 2 financial years. It's hard to gauge if what's being reported is the 'norm' or has been subject to 'blips' - especially as the supporting notes to financial accounts are usually very brief and don't tell everything they could.
And that prompted me to think about how I present my own social accounts (and how all other organisations I know who also produce social accounts report theirs): many of the measures I report against I've been using for several years, so can easily start to spot trends and norms within them, but what of the casual reader of them who's not been following them with me for the last 9 years? I've always reported the results of the last year against the previous for comparison, but will now be including a 3rd column - the long-term average of each indicator to make it easier to see if my impact/value is improving or waning...

And what do they show for this year? Well, I've already generated the report, but you'll have to wait until next month when I'll be releasing it as part of the first Social Enterprise Festival in Greenwich where I've been invited to speak on the theme of reporting social impact and value. So you'll either have to book a (free) ticket to the session, or wait with baited breath until afterwards... 
However, as with previous years I'll also be publishing it via twitter using the tag #AAimpact15 as well. Some may recall that last year this led to an 'interesting' twitter debate between myself and Liam Black as to the validity of any accounts (social or financial) that aren't independently audited. Am looking forward to what the twittersphere makes of my latest results...

Monday, March 16, 2015

the truth about LinkedIN recommendations and cake

So - most people use LinkedIn to a lesser or greater extent; I'm a fan it it myself, having been around long enough to have had a 'magic rolodex' of people's business cards back in the day that were heavily annotated, only to swear when I'd call one of them up and find that they'd moved job - without their new business card I'd lost them as a contact. 
Until LinkedIn...

Now, over the years, LinkedIn has added various features, and the one that seems very popular is "skills endorsements" where you can 'one-click' on a contact to share what you think they're good at. And people seem to have been very generous in using this to highlight that a lot of them think I'm pretty hot at social enterprise, entrepreneurship, strategy, policy, and governance. But I also know that LinkedIn automates a lot of its site and that people will be offered the option to 'endorse click' me whenever they log in - so how do I know people really mean it?

Well, I had an idea that I've just started to test - I've created a new skillset for my list of 'one click endorsements': "eating cake". And you know what? I've just been endorsed for it by the lovely Michelle Rigby (who I've not had opportunity to share cake with yet, but who has obviously heard of my legendary abilities in this regard!).

So - LinkedIn recommendations: take them with a pinch of salt, but don't be afraid to have some fun with them :-D