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 

Monday, January 19, 2015

my alternative (social) entrepreneurs' A-Z

It’s all Chris Lee and Liam Black’s fault.
If they hadn’t started their ‘entrepreneur’s A to Z’s, I’d have happily sailed on, but something like that, to someone like me… well, you can see from Chris’ blog where he published his A-Z that I was compelled to offer some kind of ‘harsh truth’ alternative. And then he asked me nicely if I’d do my own social entrepreneurs’ A-Z, based on my own experiences of being a micro enterprise these last 9 years, and supporting countless others over the last 3 decades….
So here it is – a no-holds barred, ‘what they don’t tell you about what it’ll be like’ A-Z of being a (social) entrepreneur. And I’ll probably change my mind about most of these after Chris has posted them up, but nothing lasts forever, so here’s my alphabet for now:
A – anxiety; this is natural. Best to medicate symptoms with beer and cake.
B – bluster and bravado; people will take you more seriously the more confident you sound, so don’t be so British: be more American in how to present and promote yourself!
C – coffee; there’ll be many late nights. And even longer weekends, so make sure there’s always plenty in the kitchen.
D – denial; you’ll deal with a lot of this in your clients. Brush up on your diplomacy with them.
E – eggs; they’re good for you. Eat healthy. You’ll thank me for that later.
F – fooling around; don’t forget to try and have fun in what you do. It you wanted a boring job, you should have got that job stacking shelves in a supermarket.
G – goosebumps; there’ll be moments of such excitement when you realise you’ve pulled off what you thought wasn’t possible within the laws of this universe. Enjoy them, revel in them, and encourage others with stories about them.
H – hype and spin; there’s a lot from sector bodies and politicians. Learn how to spot it, and how to ignore it.
I – internet and social media; a wonderful source of faux companionship, and also of filling those odd bits of time between meetings and other things.
J – jumping through other people’s hoops; you can choose not to, but then you won’t get any paying work. Choose your hoops carefully…
K – kleptomania; keep your stationery supplies topped up by taking the free pens, etc from exhibitors and conferences
L – lies, damned lies, and statistics; you’ll start out wondering how anyone can behave apparently completely dishonestly in their dealings with you. If you’re not careful, you’ll eventually start to turn into them…
M – money; you can never have enough, and you often won’t have enough. As much as you wish you could get through this world on love and fresh air, someone’s got to pay to keep the lights on.
N – naughtiness; get into trouble – it’s the best way to get noticed and create impact (and you can always apologise later…)
O – opportunistic; grab chances where you see them – they’ll probably not come around again for some time…
P – pubs; you won’t see the inside of these as much as you used to/would like to.
Q – questions; people don’t asked enough of them, especially about (sometimes questionable) advice they’re offered from ‘expert advisers’
R – research; you can never do enough: keep learning about everything or you’ll quickly be surpassed by others.
S – stories; in the end we’re all stories. Make sure yours is a good one.
T – time travel; you’ll wish you had this to cope with shifting deadlines by clients.
U – universe; the universe is a big place – don’t forget that: it might help keep things in perspective.
V – values; know what you stand for, what you’re willing to compromise on, and where you’re not happy to go: once you’re out there, it’s easy to drift into ‘bad habits’ otherwise…
W – wives (and other types of spouse); you’ll spend less time with them, so make sure when you do, that they know they have your full attention.
X – xenophobia; don’t avoid outsiders – they’ll often be more interesting and challenging to your ideas (and therefore success) that you usual crowd of mates will be.
Y – yellow snow; never eat this. And never overlook the value of advice and support that also reflects common sense – it’s a rare commodity.
Z – zoos; sometimes you’ll be the zookeeper, sometimes the animal being expected to perform. Remember that both have their place, and neither can flourish without the other.
This post first appeared as a guest blog on enterpriseessentials blog on Dec 17 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

on being a (sector) fan boy!

As a freelance consultant who’s had his share of (mis)adventures, academically not shined when I was supposed to (but since made up for it), been embroiled in a few controversies over the years, and not really had anything resembling a traditional career path, I’m not afraid to admit that I do sometimes doubt if I’m really as good as everyone says I am.
And that sense of self-doubt is probably quite useful in stopping me getting complacent (or heaven forbid, even arrogant!), but it does lead me to have some unusual reactions from time to time... specifically when some of the sector leaders and ‘heavyweights’ make a direct beeline for me to find out what I know or think about various issues, and I’ve realised it’s the same feeling I had as a kid when I met Darth Vader after winning a competition in the local paper: I’m a fan boy!
So, should I take the next step as a true fan-boy and share an initial roll-call/apology to some of those sector leaders who’ve approached me over the last year and I’ve found myself blustering my way through initial conversations with them out of nerves/disbelief that they’d want to talk with me (but who’ve none the less had the good grace not to allow it to get in the way of our having what I hope were useful conversations)?
Comments, emails, tweets, please to see if you’d like to know whose made me go (professionally) weak at the knees this year...!
(and that also goes for you 'sector heavyweights too' - you hopefully know who you are, and I know at lease one of you reads this blog... ;-)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why I like hearing about social enterprises failing

That's a bit of a provocative title for this blog, but then, I've always tried to take an approach of 'poking a stick' at accepted wisdom and cherished institutions to get people fired up enough to start to ask questions they should be, and not meekly 'going with the flow'. If nothing else, I hope that in doing so I can encourage people to think more for themselves and seek out what the right options might be for their enterprises and ideas, rather than simply accepting what they're offered by 'a professional advisor'...
But back to the topic in hand - why I like hearing about social enterprises that fail (and there was one that was lost in Scotland recently, to much apparent wailing and gnashing of teeth locally...).
Social Enterprises are politically in vogue (and have been for some time - apparently, every year since 2001 has been 'the best time' for them, and the point when 'their time has come'...). And that means with such interest from the state and investing bodies, we need to make sure that we show a successful story and evidences of great things happening. Heaven forbid we should let slip that just like other businesses, we sometimes struggle, stumble, and fall, as that would run counter to the messages that sector bodies and funders are keen to project...
And as a result we hear a lot of case studies showing how great it can be, and hear a lot about 'good/best practice' in the sector. But I've never been a fan of 'best practice' as it's usually based on specific people being in a specific place at a specific time. And that's very hard to replicate elsewhere. 'Bad practice' by contrast, tends to be a reflection of more common mistakes and erroneous assumptions - and as a result is much more applicable universally in the learning we can gain from it.
Only talking about successes can also create false and unrealistic expectations amongst communities, individuals and investors/funders. And so when they fail to deliver, this wider ecosystem of support and encouragement gets dented and becomes less supportive and interested in working with us.
So, lets be more honest about the realities of social enterprise: just like any business, they can sometimes fail. And in being more open and honest about that, we can better learn how to make them stronger in the future, and how better-grounded relationships with others we engage with.
Let's celebrate social enterprises and the success stories that exist, but lets also celebrate the learning to be had from when they stumble - it's nothing to be ashamed of, and in the times when we've not succeeded, through the sharing of our stories we may paradoxically better support others in their journeys that if we had succeeded...

Monday, October 20, 2014

is the honeymoon for CICs over?

I’ll begin by outing myself (again) on the subject of Community Interest Companies (CICs) – I’ve personally never been a big fan of them for all sorts of reasons that include:
  • their not offering any features that are truly unique,
  • are generally not advantageous in securing income,
  • usually allow very weak governance to emerge,
  • offer little security for their Members and Directors in light of their regulators’ powers to overrule them...
(all of which are detailed in previous blog posts), BUT I have supported some clients to gain this ‘hallowed status’ and am always pleased (really!) when an enterprise proves me wrong on why it’s the best form for them to adopt.
However, I’m wondering of the wider world may be catching up with me now in light of trending data published by the CIC Regulator themselves that suggests CICs may be increasingly seen as a ‘bad apple’ by those who set them up, and those they engage with...
You see, I’m a geek in oh, so many things, but particularly in the governance of organisations of all types, and as a result, find the annual reports from regulatory bodies fascinating reading. And despite my personal misgivings about the CIC form, I’ve always said that the CIC Regulator published perhaps the best designed and most accessible annual report of all the regulators. And this year I decided to dig into some of the stats they publish in a little more detail –
I looked at the period 2011/12 to 2013/14 (3 years) to see what trends there might be amongst CICs that are emerging and it’s not an encouraging picture:
  • as context, over the last 3 years, the total numbers of CICs have increased by 44%;
  • but last year, over 10% of all CICs on the register were wound up – a figure that’s also growing year on year (and has floated around the 9% mark in previous years);
  • and the biggest reason (70%) for CICs being wound up is that they’ve been struck off the public register by Companies House for failing to meet their associated statutory legal duties! - which amongst other things means that the Directors of them may subsequently face difficulties with being able to act as Directors or Trustees of other organisations as well as against their own personal credit ratings;
  • and the number of formal complaints being made about CICs to the CIC regulator has also been doubling year on year as a proportion of all CICs on the register
So – is all well in the land of CICs? More are currently registered every year than are being wound up, but the trends in each suggest that most CICs currently don’t make it past 5 years. And with a growing trend of CICs failing to fulfil their basic statutory legal responsibilities, it’s perhaps illustrative that many are adopting this legal form on the basis of poorly informed advice and guidance. It also perhaps suggests that CICs are approaching a plateau in terms of their prevalence, and are not in fact the ‘magic bullet’ to solving the sectors’ woes and concerns that many have presented them as being? (but as with all things, I’m open to being proved wrong of this...) 

UPDATE - 6th Nov
after sharing a link to this post with the CIC Association, there's been a clear response offered against my closing invitation to 'be proved wrong about this':