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...?