Friday, November 13, 2020

can I be your (not so) secret Santa this year?


The Christmas season usually entails a lot of traditions and conventions, that this year are thrown into confusion by Covid - and the uncertainty about restrictions we'll be under as a country, region, town, college, business, and even household, on any given day.


I therefore want to try and do my bit in trying to bring some cheer and fun to people over the next few weeks, as we try and build some happiness around a time of year that most of us usually look forward to.



Now - to try and manage some expectations here: 

I'm a sole trader, so don't have access to a warehouse full of gin; 
despite what some people may think when we see our greyhound on her walks, we don't have any reindeer; 
and although feedback from clients and learners may indicate otherwise, I don't have any magic dust that means I can get to all of your homes and deliver that toy you've secretly wanted ever since you were 5 years old...



But what I can do, is make use of some of the toys and gifts that I usually throw at people as part of training courses I deliver, (but haven't able to this year, as all my sessions have been on zoom), by sending some of you an early Christmas treat in the post.


If you fancy being in with a chance of receiving one of my (not so) secret Santa gifts in this way:

- Each week starting Monday 23rd Nov, until Friday 18th Dec, I'll be watching my various social media channels (you can get find all of them from this page that links them all here: - https://about.me/adrianashton)

- All you have to do is re-share or do some kind of interaction with anything I post during that week (liking alone doesn't count).

- At the start and end of each week, I'll pick a comment or interaction that's brought a smile to my face in some way, and will send you direct message for a postal address where I'll send your gift to.

Hopefully you'll enjoy getting something through the post that isn't just another bland leaflet, bill, or circular, (and may even feel you can take a pic of yourself playing with it to share back out as a way to further spread some cheer and encouragement to others?).


So what are you waiting for? Go start stalking me on social media!



Thursday, October 15, 2020

celebrating #WorldValuesDay - by exposing that most values are bull!

Today is World Values Day - and typically I'd be using it as an excuse to (re)share the annual impact reports I publish on myself to encourage people to think about how their values affect how they approach their work.

But today, I've decided to be a bit different.

Today I want to call out the bullsh!t that most organisations espouse when they list their values on their websites and paint them into inspiration posters in hallways and meeting rooms.

And it's because of this widespread tokenism that we're not seeing values have their full transformative potential to help us start to all live and share in the sort of world that we'd all secretly quite like to see come about...


   

Monday, October 5, 2020

When video calls make you feel like a failure before you've even begun

2020 has brought in a new age where video calls have become the default norm for meetings.

But even before the pandemic and the first full national lock-down in the spring of this year, I had committed to seek to do more meetings remotely through this marvel of technology back in 2018, (and been annually reporting on how far I'd been able to achieve this within my impact reports on myself). So in some ways, I've had a head start, but the move to video over in-person seemed to be a trend that was already growing - Covid-19 has simply accelerated it to force us all to start doing it sooner than we might have done otherwise.

However, it strikes me that (as with many things), it's very easy to undermine ourselves in this new format - not just in front of our colleagues, but also damaging our own self-beliefs and sense of worth, in having not fully worked out and adopted what the 'unspoken rules' of this way of meeting are:


1) "you're still on mute" (the tag-line of 2020)

I don't know what the exact figure is, but most video calls would probably be about 10 minutes shorter if we weren't all muting and un-muting ourselves when we want to speak, and forgetting which setting we'd last toggled the mic to. 

I get that in some instances, there's good technical reason for having mics off (some people's laptop's have the mics next to the speakers, and so inspire ear-splitting feedback). But in the main, telling people to turn their microphones off if they're not speaking is akin to being back in school and told you have to raise your hand, and hope that the teacher decides you have something relevant to say. Hopefully we're all a little more adult now than we were in school, and can be trusted to act accordingly - after all, how many physical team meetings have you sat in, where the rule was you couldn't speak without raising your hand, and the chair granting you permission to open your mouth? It doesn't really instil a culture of openness, trust, and respect; and, if our hand waving doesn't get spotted by the person running the video call, we feel invisible and not important.


2) "where have you all gone?"

For people not used to there being options whereby the arrangement of how people's faces are laid out on your screen changes, it's easy to accidently minimise or change the whole view so that while the rest of us can still see and hear the person, they're desperately panicking that they've lost us all and can't find how to 'get us back'.


Once we've done a few calls, and had this mishap ourselves, its easy to avoid, but for the un-initiated, making what feels like a novice mistake can be a serious dent to our confidence in ourselves: after all, if we can't manage to keep a window open on our laptops, how can we be trusted with anything more involved?

 

3) "please ignore my laundry"

Working from home is a mixed bag - I video blogged about this recently, whilst laid under my duvet... not everyone has the luxury of a space in their homes where they can easily set up an office, or have a wall that isn't covered in their kids drawings, or has an airing rack in front of it.



As part of instilling confidence in others, we strive to create a professional image for ourselves (after all, we wouldn't have normally turned up to work in our dressing gowns, would we?). Having to apologise for what people are seeing of our lives, before we can even start to address the topic of conversation for the call puts us on a back foot in questioning our own value and importance (especially when we see how beautiful some other's people's kitchens appear to be...).


4) "I'm sorry about my kids"

Even physical meetings were never completely immune from occasional interruptions (people confusing room numbers, lunch or drinks being delivered, and such like). And most of us also had our phones on in case our kids' schools needed to contact us in an emergency. So why do we feel we have to apologise for our kids now, when they're not doing anything they wouldn't normally do, and neither are we? 

If I'm leading any call where someone's kids wander by, or try and get their parents attention, I'll either invite them into the call, or use it as a prompt for a short break for the rest of us. Treat kids like human beings, and they'll have a better chance of growing up like ones we can respect and be proud of.

Parents shouldn't be made to feel guilty for having their children in their lives.

 

5) "try turning your camera off"

Just because everyone is now doing video calls, doesn't mean that everyone lives in an area where there's sufficient internet bandwidth to handle it smoothly (only 12% of the UK has access to fibre broadband). Similarly, not all video conferencing software is the same - there can be notable differences between things like Zoom and MS Teams as to how much internet speed you need to be able to hold a call.

And there's also other factors, like what sort of magic computer chips live inside your computer, if your home Wi-Fi router shares its signal between how many people are on-line at once, and such like - all of which means that in any given group call, there's usually always at least one person who can't be visible because to turn their camera on would mean that everything freezes for them. And to be the only person in a meeting that's essentially 'hidden' in this way, when everyone else has managed to remain visible, means that they can be easily forgotten and overlooked. And they'll usually feel it's their fault for having chosen to live in a poorly digitally-connected community, or not having been able to buy a laptop that's able to handle streaming video calls.



All of which point to video calls being potentially very damaging to our belief in ourselves as being able to be taken seriously as a 'working professional', before we've even opened our mouths to say hello and introduce ourselves. And this only further damages our belief in our own competence, and undermines how we build (or maintain) working relationships with other people.  

So perhaps the next time you're on a call and someone's background looks a little cluttered, they're struggling to be able to share their video, or they need to find how to re-size the window on their screen, you can remember how it was for you when you started doing video calls. And you can offer them some encouragement and validation that they're not the failure they think they are, just because no-one thought to explain to them where all the buttons are?

 

Monday, September 14, 2020

an awkward question about how we're making sense of the pandemic...

As some people may know, I was quite active during the national lock-down earlier this year - supporting a range of colleges, businesses, social enterprise support bodies, and others to consider, plan, and then enact their respective responses to the first wave of the pandemic.

And as part of my own practice of 'professional reflection', rather than another 'pithy blog' or twitter snippets about what I'd done and thought about during this time, I thought I'd do something a little more in-depth, and draft a white paper. This paper is still available on-line (just share and confirm your email and it should automatically get sent to you). And I was surprised at not just how many people downloaded it within the first week of it going out but also the sheer variety of roles and sectors they represented.

Many who read it also kindly offered some thoughts as to how the paper had prompted them to think further on their own respective responses and current thinking about the coming 6 months. And in the spirit of trying to openly keep encouraging conversation and discussion, I elected to share the themes of these comments in a Facebook Live.


The Facebook live also served another purpose - to act as an addendum to the white paper: after all, a lot can happen in a few weeks during a pandemic, and more data is coming out all the time about how different communities and ways of working are being affected.

And just as the original white paper has attracted more interest than a dared to hope, the Facebook Live had more people watching the broadcast as it happened than I thought might have , and continues to be shared by others and the watch count keeps going up...! (If you missed it, here's the link to catch it again).

Now don't worry - there is a point to my regurgitating this precis of my new life as a one-man policy think-tank.

And it's this - based on how people engaged with the white paper, and the comments and ongoing interest to my Facebook Live, it seems to suggest that we're not satisfied in seeking answers from within our own usual circles. We're starting to realise the benefit of going 'outside' our own marketplaces, industries, and sectors in seeking perspectives and understandings. And when we do, what we find seems to generally help assure and better inform us about the ways in which we're now making decisions about the future.

So my closing challenge to you, dear reader, is this - who can you talk with, or what can you read, that is outside of your usual daily work or life in offering you a fresh perspective in helping you make your own sense of the ever-changing world we now find ourselves (trying to) live and work in?  

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

zoom-ing from our beds

At the start of lock-down, I started do video calls from the toilet, then in my dressing gown, and now from under the duvet - for many people forced to work from home, the space to create a home office anywhere other than their bedroom may be a luxury they don't enjoy; and whilst doing zoom calls from our beds can be helpful, there's also a hidden risk in doing it that no-one seems to be talking about... 



Tuesday, August 4, 2020

introducing... a pole dancing lion tamer!

As always, it was supposed to be straightforward.
But, as always, it's turned out to be by turns shocking, touching, encouraging, worrying, and more...

And no, it's nothing to do with Covid-19, but my biennial 360 degree feedback, that I introduced 7 years ago as part of the CPD* framework I've created for myself.

Every 2 years (or so) I invite a selection of collaborators, clients, contacts, and other non-carefully selected characters to tell me what they really think about me. 
But rather than open the flood gates to emails and messages that will leave me in need of therapy and extended counselling (as often seems to be the case in 360 degree appraisal processes), I only ask 1 question.

This single question approach has always seemed to go down well with people in the past - asking what my 'super power', and 'niche' is; what picture comes to mind when people think of me; and this time: how would people introduce me?

There's always a reason behind my choice of questions, and this one about introductions is based on a university enterprise start-up session I ran a little while back. 
In the run up to the starting time, the course leader asked me how I'd liked to be introduced? To which I glibly replied - well, they don't know anything about me, so you can say whatever you'd like. Which they took as a challenge, and promptly cued me in as a 'pole dancing lion tamer'. (I don't know what it says about either their students, or what type of other speakers they usually get in, but no-one batted an eyelid or looked surprised at this).
As an immediate learning point, I then started to use this approach at meetings I'm invited to - at the start when everyone goes around the table to say who they are (which is usually understood by at least 1 person as a demand for them to recount their life story and impress everyone with all the great responsibilities they now have in their role), when it comes to me, I ask someone who's there who knows me (in some capacity) to cue me in. And it's not for laziness, but actually an easy way to test my branding and understand how I'm being perceived and understood by different people in different places.

So this time, the survey question to people was "how would you introduce me? (at either a networking event, parliamentary reception, cocktail party, or bail hearing...)"

And as in previous cycles, some people re-interpreted the question (which I'd always encourage), to include new hashtags about me (which now brings the total number of tags other people have created to describe on social media to 4!); stylistic delivery of how they'd deliver the introduction; and a range of short and sweet (9 words) to rousing speeches (142 words).


In trying to make sense of what messages seemed to come out of this about m
e, I tried a word cloud approach. 
Interestingly this showed not only the sorts of things I do that people like to talk about:

- business
- advice
- charity
- enterprise
- knowledge
- strategy


but also the way in which I act and conduct myself when I'm working with people:

- values
- can
- will
- always
- expect
- help
- social
- talk
- underpinned

But a word cloud doesn't do well at pulling out the recurring sentiments that people are sharing.

All of the responses are recreated in full are below (and just as in previous cycles, anonymised to protect people's embarrassment). And I think that reading through them, the messages that come about about my 'brand' and why people like working with me are:

1) I'm not 'traditional' - people like my being unconventional, and bringing new approaches and ideas. Not all of which may always be comfortable, but they will mean there's a better result at the end of the work.

2) I make things easier for people: be it understanding what might seem an overwhelmingly complex issue, or helping them see there's a different (easier) way of coming at it.

But so what? Well, this all helps reassure me that how I'm putting myself out there to do what I do is still largely working (in that people enjoy it and want to talk about it - either that, or they think people should be warned about me...?). And it also cements something that came out of a similar '1 question' in a previous cycle of this, which is that people find I can help them simplify things to a point where they're comfortable to take it on.




*CPD: not what you think it means... see https://twitter.com/AdrianAshton2/status/689882882928680960


All responses received in full:

"When I was founding XXXXX, 23 years ago, a Chief Executive #Founder of another social enterprise said to me "Forget about mission, objectives and plan - what are the values of this new organisation - they'll last longer" They lasted quite a while. Today, I'd like to introduce you to someone who is not only a multi-award-winning business adviser and facilitator but someone who measures his impact daily against his values. Adrian's values will last forever. He can be zany, funny, creative and always deeply thoughtful but you'll buy his services, particularly as a social enterprise or charity, for his total professionalism underpinned by these values. It makes the buying decision easy, what you see is what you get and that is why Adrian is always in demand - top advice, training and facilitation underpinned by values you can see and touch.

"Here's a guy you can go to for looking at problems or issues from a perspective you may not have thought of or from" #AlternativeAdrian

“A gifted genius who turns complexity into simplicity. “

"This is Adrian. He will ask you awkward yet very useful questions".

“This is Adrian, he is our mentor and a great source of knowledge. He is helping us on a wide range of business strategy and governance support as we transition from a community group into a charity and alter our focus. He can be a little bit ‘out there’ at times but because he really listens and considers his advice before imparting his wisdom to you – you feel re-assured and that he is trustworthy. I’m really enjoying working with him and feel like he is a member of our team. He is incredibly patient and tries to make work more fun. I think you’ll like him.”

“This is Adrian Ashton, you have come here today to hear a talk which will help you with your business. Be prepared! It is not what you expect, or the way you expect this sort of a talk. But I am sure that it will help you!!”  

“Entertaining and charismatic fountain of knowledge, about organisational structure and strategy. Mainly academic, public bodies and not for profit.”

 



Thursday, July 23, 2020

why do we theorise in isolation from each other?

Over the last few years, there's been growing encouragement for the charity and social enterprise world to uptake the 'theory of change' approach more.

For many who approach this model of thinking and presenting how you work for the first time, it appears daunting with a lot of jargon, technical diagrammes, and an apparent infinite number of ways to 'do it'...

But ultimately, it boils down to what (finally) got me through my maths exam - showing your workings out: laying out in a (hopefully simple and logical manner) why you're doing what you're doing so that anyone can understand it, and (hopefully) get behind it (and you) more.

As I've alluded to above, there are lots of examples and models out there - but as sometime who delivers training and learning around this, as starting points I usually recommend 2 templates to start:

1) The 'DIY' toolkit approach, developed by NESTA, and profiled by Innovation for Change:


 2) and this framework developed and agreed with The Treasury and DCLG as part of a national programme:



And the reason I suggest using these, rather than come up with something from scratch, is:
(a) it's easier to get started by using an existing template, and 
(b) the provenance of these frameworks is pretty 'sound', and as such, it means that whomever you share your Theory with subsequently will find it easier to take it more seriously.


But it strikes me that there's a huge problem with all of the guidance, training, consultancy, and such like, that all of the websites, sector bodies, and expert consultancies seem to have missed - and in doing so, means that the Theories created will always be stunted and never really have the transformative impact they're seeking to realise.

And the thing that seems to be missing is recognising that whichever charity, social enterprise, or other creating their Theory, isn't operating or exists in a bubble - they're co-located, work closely with other groups and services, and the people they support will be being impacted and engaged with by other organisations in parallel to themselves... and this is also something which the principles of reporting social impact and value already recognise: do not over claim - the people we support will also be being supported by other services, groups, and activities.

So if recognising that our creation of impact and benefit to people in need is co- and inter- dependant upon others, why aren't we encouraged to develop our Theories with them (or at the very least, do a 'sanity check' of them, by sharing them with our key audiences and partners)..?

Monday, July 6, 2020

in search of an opening 'cue'...


As you may know, I have an usual approach to my CPD, part of which is an adapted 360 degree feedback that I try and do every couple of years - and this is the year that it's due to run again.

But don't worry, dear reader! I'm not asking you to fill out a long survey, or agree with statements on a web-page - instead, as with previous times I've done this, I'm only interested in your answer to 1 single question.

And it's this: "how would you introduce me?".
(This can be in any context - at a networking event, as a speaker, at a parliamentary reception, whatever takes your fancy.)


I appreciate this may seem a little usual of an ask, so won't be upset if you feel you can't offer anything in return to help me with this exercise. However, as someone who's aware of me and what I do (if only by virtue of occasionally seeing what I'm blogging about next), I'd be grateful for a few moments of your time of you can help me out with this.


And as always, if there's anything going on in your world that you think a chat might help you better reflect on, or benefit from having a rummage in my head around, all you have to do is ask.

I'll be reflecting on what comes back over the coming few weeks, so watch out for another post with the results of how I'm introduced to unsuspecting audiences...

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

the Hobo consultant

After 15 years of doing what I do as a sole trader, part of which has included offering mentoring, advice, and coaching to a variety of people in a multitude of roles across different sectors, marketplaces, and types of organisations, I've finally taken the plunge... and got myself a business coach!

As a trained and qualified business coach myself, engaging with one feels a bit like a bus-man's holiday, but I've always maintained that part of my having kept my enterprise going this long (and through the various challenges the universe has thrown at me/it during that time), has been my interest and commitment to always seeking to try new things in how I work.

The reason for doing so now has been catalysed by the current pandemic, and it's forced/enabled me to (finally) actually start to think properly about a few ideas I've been having about my practice, but somehow never gotten around to properly working through and trialling. 
Principle of which is how I best present myself and what I do to the world - some readers will know that I seem to be something of an 'A-team': able to turn my hand to nearly any scenario or client need, and work comfortably with heads of government departments in the Cabinet Office, through to people who want to work out if their 'half an idea' is any good over a pint in the pub...
As such, depending on who you ask about me, you'll hear a different story (hopefully equally intriguing and adventurous) - but writing this through makes me realise that I've become a hobo: always drifting through adventures with no apparent core target destination nor intention to become 'professional' by other people's standards.

Having a business Coach is giving me a more robust structure and accountability to start to work through if that's OK for me to carry on as such, or if I should try and aim for specific train carriages if I'm able, rather than simply knock on each door that I come across...


(and as a heads-up - part of this process also weaves into my ongoing CPD, and specifically the 360 degree question I ask of a sample of clients, collaborators, and other types of people who know me in different ways - so watch your inboxes over the coming weeks for what I'll ask this time; in the past it's been about super-powers, and pictures, so expect something equally non-traditional when people ask you for professional feedback!)

Monday, June 1, 2020

to everyone who forgot to turn up to their meetings with me last year - can I have my £4,500 back, please?

We all know the feeling of frustration of having arranged to meet with someone, only for them to not turn up when agreed; and after waiting the polite 5-10 minutes before calling them, only learn that they'd forgotten.

At the best of times, this can make us feel like they don't think we have any importance or value (or else they'd have remembered we were in their diary), but as a sole trader, it also represents a painful loss of cash as well - because I'm not salaried.

Unlike others in paid employment, who have a guaranteed income each month - against which they decide how to best allocate their time to justify receiving it; I have a fixed amount of time each month - against which I have to maximise my opportunities to generate an income. 
So if you're not a client of mine and I offer to share some of my time with you, then that's me saying that I think who you are and what you're trying to achieve is more important than my earning cash to help pay the rent, or keep the fridge stocked up.
But it goes beyond that - because it's not just the need to generate an income that's the sole determinate of how I use my time, but the importance of being with my girlfriend, and kids. And beyond that, having opportunity to hang out with parents, siblings, friends - and indulge in personal interests (reading, whiskey, walking, classic movies, galleries and museums, gardening,...).

So when you say 'sorry, I forgot' - that's akin to your saying to me "You've chosen to sacrifice a lot to spend this time with me, but I don't think your ability to retain a home, spend time with family, or any of the other things that enrich our lives, are worth bothering to even recognise."
But I'll never say that to you. 

I'll never say it because I try and live by a set of values that inform who I am, how I think about things, how I approach my work, and how I try and build relationships with different groups of people.
So instead, because of the value of 'grace', I'll politely and demurely brush it off and offer to reschedule with you.

These values are something that I've always tried to keep front and centre in my day to day life, and part of the way I do this is through my annual impact report, the measures in which reflect these values.
And over the last year, I've been thinking about how to capture this value of 'grace'... It seems that the easiest way might be to measure the number of times the above scenario has played out over the year.
And to subsequently help me understand the true extent of what this value of 'grace' costs me (and how it can be recognised by other people), I've monetised it in the same way I have my pro bono activity.

The first reading on this new indicator is a bit of a shock: £4,560.

The financial value of the time I've lost because people acted in a way that suggested: "You've chosen to sacrifice a lot to spend this time with me, but I don't think your ability to retain a home, spend time with family, or any of the other things that enrich our lives, are worth bothering to even recognise.", is in excess of £4,000.

Averaged out over the year, that's getting on for £100 a week - for comparison, that's akin to the cost of taking my family out for a meal together; the cost of renewing one of my professional memberships; or the cost of a basic portable hearing loop (for when I'm working with people who experience deafness).

And it's more than half of what I gave in pro bono support over the same period.


So the next time you ask or agree to meet with me, or someone else who's not salaried, please try and make the effort to check your diary or let us know if you know you're going to be running late...

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

how the law is perversely stopping charities and social enterprises from being able to 'trade they way out' of the crisis (unlike private businesses...)

I blogged recently about why we need to stop using the word 'pivot' - but we should keep encouraging everyone to think about how they might make changes to what they do and how they do it (one thing most people seem to agree on is that whatever world we emerge into from this pandemic, it won't be the one we were in when it started...).

And for private businesses, this is fine - they're designed to be orientated to changing marketplaces, and their legal forms mean that they can diversify (relatively) easily.
But this isn't necessarily the case for charities, and social and community enterprises - many of whom are on the 'second line' behind the NHS in supporting communities and people in need.

Now, just as there have been lobbies on government to widen the eligibility of business support schemes that have been introduced, and to introduce new ones, so there have been attempts to get the State to also develop support packages for social and community businesses to help them get through these crisis months.

But there's something else that this all brings up that no-one seems to be talking about (or maybe doesn't want to, because it's too uncomfortable?) - MANY CHARITIES AND SOCIAL ENTERPRISES ARE NOT ALLOWED BY LAW TO CHANGE HOW THEY TRADE. 

Let me explain: 
- private businesses are usually incorporated with governing documents that say they can trade however they want (as long as it's legal).
- charities have to prove to the Charity Commission when they form, that what they are being set up to do (and how they will achieve this) is in keeping with charity law. And there are clear and strict rules about how they can approach undertaking or developing trading activities within these. Even if they think they will be able to make a change within these, then they need to get the agreement of the Charity Commission first. If they fail on either of these points, then what they're doing will be technically illegal - I don't know of any grant making bodies who would be happy to fund a charity that was doing something illegal. The same also goes for insurance policies: if you needed to make a claim and its discovered that you weren't supposed to be doing that activity because of charity law, then the policy becomes void and the charity is left exposed to its Trustees carrying unlimited personal liability...
- But this doesn't just apply to charities - Community Interest Companies (CICs: the much hyped and promoted legal form for social enterprises) has similar restraints as set out and enforced by the CIC Regulator (albeit with much less clear guidance).

* The Charity Commission shows that there are over 150,000 charities in the UK
* Social Enterprise UK says that of the nearly half a million social enterprises in the UK, nearly 1 in 4 are CICs (so roughly another 170,000)

That means that of the organisations who are stepping up the most in this global emergency to support local communities, roughly 320,000 of them are constrained by law from being able to easily adapt to introduce new trading services or to best respond to meeting the changing needs of people.

And that's why there needs to be more explicit and dedicated support to the sector from the State.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Why I think Ed Mayo got it right (but mostly wrong) about co-ops and charities

Ed Mayo blogged recently about how he saw charities and co-ops being able to learn more from each other than is traditionally thought (after all: charities are based on philanthropic gifts and a desire to help out other people, whereas co-ops are based on an ethos of mutual self-help through economic trading).

And I was interested in what he had to say because I've also often thought that many other movements and sectors are more aligned to co-ops than might appear at first glance (for example - trade unions; but more on that later...).

But as much as I like Ed (after all, he did buy me a round of whiskey after I called him out at a conference he was chairing!), I can't help but feel he only scratched the surface - and I think that co-ops and charities are much more aligned with each other in more fundamental ways that he argued in his piece.

Ed pointed to 3 areas that related to how many charities are seeking to encourage more open memberships and participatory governance (both principle tenants of co-ops), and exploring 'social investment'. But these could equally apply to many other types of organisations within the wider and broader social enterprise movement.

Sorry Ed, but I have an idea that co-ops and charities are much more closely related, and at fundamental levels:

Firstly, lets look in general terms, starting with the values that define co-ops

  • self-help, self-responsibility - internal to co-ops and their members, these are both things that charities would agree that they try to encourage and nurture within the people they support
  • democracy - as Ed highlights in his blog, participatory governance is something that's a growing trend amongst charities
  • equality and equity - are both enshrined in charity law to ensure that charities support people and communities in a transparent and fair way, regardless of circumstance
  • solidarity - it's extremely rate to find a charity that isn't working collaboratively with other charities, or part of bodies such as the ncvo (the charities' counterpart to CooperativesUK)
And going on from that, lets then look at the principles through which co-ops enact these values
  • voluntary and open membership - charities offer support without any condition of a person being a member, in much the same way as many co-ops
  • democratic member control - membership charities have AGMs and other governance functions that mean their Trustees remain accountable to the members
  • member economic participation - OK, so you got me on this one. This is pretty much co-ops only (although I do know of lots of co-ops where members aren't engaged economically with what their co-op does...)
  • autonomy and independence - just like co-ops, charities are required by law to be free from any undue control or influence over them by means of corporate membership or private ownership
  • education, training, and information - just as co-ops need to ensure their members are supported to be able to fully discharge their responsibilities of being such, so charities also need to be offering the same 
  • Concern for community - a principle of co-ops, this is a mandatory expectation on charities through the public benefit reporting requirements that they're subject to
But the correlations don't stop there:
  1. There are examples of recognised co-ops also being registered charities (for example the Co-op College)
  2. The development and support needs of co-ops and charities are often the same 
  3. Co-ops and charities are both recognised as being pillars of the wider social enterprise/Third/social sector (as typified by the mapping undertaken by the likes of Social Enterprise UK, and ncvo grouping them together)
  4. In manifesting and managing their values and principles, some co-ops have created separate charities
  5. Just as charities can trade, many co-ops can also access and be awarded grant funding 
So - charities and co-ops are closer bed-fellows that some might care to admit. And that means that when we think about who we should look to for inspiration and models of practice to learn from, each shouldn't automatically dismiss the other.

And to end where I began - co-ops and unions are closer than many might think in many ways, and this is being recognised and furthered through memorandums of understanding being created between some of the federal bodies of each sector. So might we see similar agreements and commitments starting to appear between the bodies that represent, support, and advocate for charities and co-ops in the future..?  

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

becoming deaf, dumb, and blind, during the lock-down

Nearly all of us are currently subject to a national 'lock-down' during an unprecedented pandemic.
And all of us are responding in different ways to the challenges that this 'new world' we now find ourselves living and working in present.

After the initial panic, patterns seem to be starting to stabilise: we're getting used to having to que for an hour (or longer) to get into the supermarket, and then once we're inside for it to take 2-3 times as long to get around as we used to be able to do our shop in, in order to practice social distancing and limiting contact with fellow shoppers and store staff.

But for many, the revelation that they can now work from home using video conferencing and remote access, and which people seem to already be developing habits around, seems to suggest that many will struggle to want to go back to the drudgery of commuting once we're out of the other side of this (whenever that may be).
But there's something about working from home, and also the wider implications of how as enterprises and business we fumble our way forwards through this, that no-one really wants to seem to talk about:

1) what it your internet connection goes down? I've heard of several people and small businesses who have been essentially excluded from the world completely after routine line installs and upgrades fell foul of 'human error', leaving them deaf, dumb, and blind to the world...

2) and what it your tech dies? My laptop's hard drive failed at the start of this week - and it's unlikely that I'll be able to get it anywhere for repair for months, so in the face of having already had nearly all my earning work cancelled by clients already, and an uncertain wait to find out if I'll be able to access the self-employed income support scheme, I've had to pay out several hundreds of pounds unexpectedly to order to buy a new one, and hope that it can be delivered sometime in the next 2 weeks... (in the meantime, my girlfriend has very kindly offered me the use of hers, from which I'm typing this).

3) Gurus and experts all seem to be extolling the virtues of 'pivoting' our business models - but encouraging us to do so in ways that assume that it's only our current market place or customers that are being disrupted - this is nothing like any of us have lived through before, and nothing that was ever conceived of by the academics and speakers who developed these models and frameworks. So for us businesses and enterprises already facing an immediate uncertain future because of cash shortfalls, our longer term planning is also compromised by the models we're being presented with to reinvent ourselves through having been developed for different times...

4) And finally, what happens after the summer for education bodies?
Universities and Colleges quickly moved to continue to offer teaching and classes using on-line platforms, and replace exams with assignments. But within a few months, these will become the norm for many students, who must surely then begin to wonder why they need to raise the money to live on or near a campus to be able to engage with their further and higher education in the future, when they can access it equally from wherever they find themselves living now?


Like many, I can't see that we're ever going to fully return to living and working as we were at the start of 2020, but I wonder how many waves of shock, panic, and fear this pandemic will successively unleash on us before we can all feel its over - and what these will do in turn to our work, learning, and relationships as societies, communities, and economies.


Hopefully the time that the lockdown offers us to start to carefully think about these things will mean that we don't emerge from the pandemic only to fall into the next global panic... 


Thursday, March 19, 2020

why I go quiet on social media in times of pandemic

Unless you've been a contestant in a Big Brother House, everyone in the world is currently united in fear about the Corona-virus and Covid-19.

In the UK we've been seeing swift, sweeping actions and measures announced by the government - but in light of the unprecedented nature of what we're now (hopefully) living through, information about how our businesses, livelihoods, and homes can be protected in light of most trading and employment of all types suddenly ceasing (with no indication of when they may return), is scant.

Scant information in times of panic means that we worry and panic more - that's why we see explosions of fake news, contradictory guidance, confusing stories and such like. And our brave new world of social media that we've all been building over the last decade or so means it's scarily easy for all of us to be posting, re-posting, and sharing others' posts like spam-bots. that only exponentially makes the situation worse for all of us and our mental well-being and health.

Which brings me to the title of this post - some of you reading this will now I'm usually relatively prolific across multiple social media channels on an ongoing basis. But I also try and live in a way that's 'authentic' (modelling behaviours in myself that I think are important for us all) - and that means that rather than accidentally 'fanning the flames of social (media) panic', I'm watching what's being posted and shared more than I'm posting myself; and I'm only posting or re-posting content where I think it will offer immediate, tangible, and direct assurance and benefit to groups with whom I closely identify and work with:

- fellow freelancers and the self-employed (all 5 million of us!)
- people who live in rented homes (equivalent to roughly 13 million households)
- co-operatives, social enterprises, and charities 
- micro and local businesses 

As to when I'll resume 'normal service on social media' (insofar as I have a 'normal service') - I'm currently looking to start to ramp back up my traditional provocations, encouragements, and randomness in line with how we as a society start to feel we're coming to terms with this 'new normal'... 

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 assurance...is 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... https://uk.reuters.com/article/entrepreneurs-social-mentalhealth/doing-good-found-to-take-its-toll-as-more-social-entrepreneurs-report-burnout-idUKL5N2715KT

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...?