Friday, September 3, 2021

Is the growth in CICs actually damaging the wider social enterprise movement?

Some people may be aware that I've always questioned and challenged the Community Interest Company (CIC) legal form (see previous blog posts here) - largely because I've found that most social enterprises who've incorporated with this form have subsequently learnt that it wasn't actually the 'best fit' for them and their business model, and because what they're usually presented/'sold' as it being, doesn't actually stand up to scrutiny when looked at by evidence and research...

However, there are several social enterprises out there that I've supported to gain this status - I've always seen my role as an adviser to help people make better informed choices, not to tell they what decisions they should be making.

And it's in that vein, that I come to be typing this latest blog - prompted in part by a recent article by Pioneers Post on the 'explosion' of CICs during the pandemic: and CIC regulator wind up extent and causes

My concern about this sudden 'blossoming' of CICs is that rather than being a good thing in showing the growth of social enterprise in general, it may actually be more damaging to the sector in the long run...

Let me walk through through my thinking here, so as to try and help clarify and explain this rather bold assertion - and as always in my blog posts, you can leave comments to refute or challenge any of these:

1) Social Enterprises should be trading businesses, but most CICs aren't

In the absence of an overarching legal definition of what absolutely defines a social enterprise, the sector bodies have reached a consensus on what their defining characteristics should be (interestingly, none of which specify particular legal forms). Front and centre in these is that a social enterprise should be (or be clearly moving towards) generating most of its income from trading activities - but there is no requirement for CICs to need to trade, in order to generate their income or achieve their social mission! 

  • when you apply to be a CIC, the application asks "if" you make a profit, not "when" - so the CIC Regulators' assumption is that most CICs' default business model will be that they expect to them lose money each year and/or will be reliant on grant funding to achieve their social purpose (you can't make a profit/surplus from grants);
  • according to the CIC Regulator in their own published annual reports, most of the CICs they register will be wound up within 18 months - usually because they were unable to access the grant funding that they thought this legal form would enable then to be awarded.

2) Why are social entrepreneurs being encouraged to set up social enterprises in ways that mean they don't need to trade? 

As this legal form seems to be oft promoted to start-up social enterprises and social entrepreneurs as being the 'best form' for them, but it doesn't actually require them to act in ways that facilitate them to better meet the qualifying criteria of being what they say they want to be - how do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

3) Are the public now seeing CICs as another form of charity, creating confusion about what social enterprise really 'is'?

If the most feted legal form for social enterprises to adopt therefore doesn't encourage the 'social enterprises' using it to act as social enterprises (with some evidences finding that CICs are actually more reliant on grants than charities are!) - it's going to cause confusion amongst others (who are already confused about what social enterprise is from the lack of a legal definition). If CICs are seen as not trading to achieve their social purpose - how will this not confuse people as to the need for social enterprises to trade: are social enterprises therefore just another type of charity, rather than a revolutionary/innovative/transformative way of doing business?. And this confusion will surely mean its harder to create more consistent messages about what social enterprise is and can do, in order for the sector to realise its full transformative potential.

However, as will all things, there are exceptions to the above - there are social enterprises out there who've never taken a penny in grant funding; who have found clever ways to harness what many feel to be 'too risky' elements of the CIC form with regards to the powers of the CIC Regulator over them; and who are trailblazing for the wider sector as a result.

My interest here isn't to decry this specific legal form wholesale, but rather to try and contribute to a wider ongoing discussion that means as a sector we can be more coherent, and ultimately make it easier to achieve the things we aspire to.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

What every business and charity can learn from my pelvis

As background and context: several years ago, after a surprise ride in an ambulance following my falling over and finding I couldn't stand back up, I was diagnosed with a 'wonky pelvis' - usually, not a problem, but every once in a while, it doesn't 'sit' in my overall skeleton as it should. In turn, that causes everything else to be pulled out of alignment too, which causes issues for the muscles in my back and legs, and in turn also sees my sciatic nerve 'gripe'.

A few weeks ago, I woke up to find that in my sleep I'd managed to rotate my pelvis. Which in turn, meant that my spine had decided to twist itself into more of a snake shape rather than the traditional straight line owing to a kink in it, and my whole upper torso was then twisted as if I'd become a zombie that had fallen down several flights of stairs, but was still compelled to try and chase people in pursuit of their brains...

But despite this being absolutely painful and involving regular trips to the medicine box several times a day, it didn't actually stop me being able to any of the things I'd normally do - it just meant that I had to approach them in (literally) different ways, and that they took longer than usual.

I also know that it's not a forever thing when it happens - thanks to a combination of what appears to be me wresting with myself as I enact physio-prescribed stretches and Pilates/yoga style moves, everything is usually back where it's supposed to be within a few days. But while I'm doing these, I'm also regularly checking to see if I'm able to put my socks on while standing up - my usual dressing routine, which, when my pelvis is 'out', means I have to revert to sitting on the edge of the bed to do.

The reason why I try and put my socks on whilst standing up during times like these isn't because I'm a masochist. It's because I'm trying to figure out which of my usual ways of living and being I might be able to re-adopt (as they were how my body was originally intended to work), and which of my 'work around' practices I should maintain for the foreseeable future (because circumstances have interrupted my usual way of life).

Given how we're all now exiting the pandemic, this 'pelvic episode' of mine seems quite timely: at the start of last year, without apparent warning, we were thrown into turmoil because we suddenly couldn't work or deliver our services and activities in the way that our organisations had always been designed to be.

We found ourselves having to figure out work-arounds and new ways of doing things - all the while whilst also living with pain and discomfort.

But we largely managed this - we kept things mostly going and found ways to live and cope with the upset.

Now: my idea about why my pelvis is so important for businesses, charities, and everyone else right now - just as I found new ways of getting on with a skeleton that was out of kilter, I knew that not all of those new ways of doing things I'd adopted would be good for me in the long run. I needed to regularly check if the things I could before, I was able to do again - because that's how my body was intended to work. 

Since the start of this year, I've found myself supporting lots of charities, social enterprises, businesses, and others reflect on how they've been impacted not by the pandemic but how they've been affected by the new working practices they've introduced to be able to continue through it. While many seem to be intending to retain these new practices, I can't help but wonder if it would be useful to occasionally trial some of our pre-pandemic workplace routines and systems - just to check if now is the time that they might be able to be re-introduced, or its still appropriate to continue working in the ways we've come to.

For some, the new practices they've adopted will be vital to their being able to continue, because the pandemic has seen them fundamentally redesign how their organisations work - but for those who were trying to keep going 'on the fly', it may be helpful to take inspiration from my pelvis and see if you're able to get back to 'business as was usual' now, or if you may still need to use the new practices you've figured all to mean things can keep going for a little while longer?

You won't know until you try - and although we've all tired of having been trying different things over the last couple of years, if we don't keep trying new/old things, we'll never know what we might have found or we could yet become/or regained...  

(for the sake of decency, and to protect people's eyes, I decided not to include any images of my pelvis, spine, or torso in this blog post)

Thursday, August 12, 2021

aping Spock - why you see me go 'Star Trek' when I leave zoom calls

It struck me recently that I've developed an unusual habit on zoom calls (you may have noticed it if you've shared a screen of postage-stamp sized faces with me) - which involves me usually 'doing a Spock' from Star Trek when we say goodbye.

But before I explain what it's all about (other than a love of Trek), it may be useful to rewind a little bit to before the start of the zoom calls - all the way back to the end of 2019, when few of us had used zoom for meetings at all, before they became our new norm.

When this great transition began, I wondered about how such a dramatic shift in how we (professionally) interact with each other, and the loss of usual physical cues and customs we practice together, might impact on our shared working relationships - so as far as possible, I've tried to introduce models and habits when I'm on zoom that mimic the prompts and sensations people may have otherwise experienced, had we all be sitting in the same room together.

Now all those practices will probably form the basis for other blog posts in the future (assuming people might be interested to learn a bit more about them) - but for now I wanted to focus on Spock.

Most people who know Star Trek will know about the character of Spock - and how his species are famous for not only revering logic above all else, but also trying to avoid having direct physical contact with others unless absolutely necessary (which offers them a clear advantage in pandemics!).

When distancing began in the spring of 2020, there were lots of ideas floating around as to how we might introduce a new custom to replace the handshakes we now could now no longer engage in with other people we met with. Ultimately, the 'elbow bump' became the norm, but many made concerted efforts for it to have been the Vulcan hand gesture.

Traditionally, when we end spending time with each other, we enact some ritual to mark the closure of the conversation or activity - with friends and family, that's been a hug; and with professional colleagues it's a handshake (but these can sometimes be reversed!),

Zoom robs us of the ability to maintain many of these physical practices we used to rely on to signify to each other than we'd satisfactorily concluded our conversations (a handshake), so I wanted to try and introduce something other than a cursory "see you, then!" before hitting the big red button to end the call.

And that's where Spock comes in.

At the end of each encounter or episode, when Spock was leaving a meeting or parting company with someone, he usually raised his hand and intoned "live long and prosper": a wish for the future of the person or people he'd gotten to know a little better as a mark of respect.

And that's the wish that most people know - but given our precarious economies and changing shifts in employment, it might seem almost insensitive to wish that someone would prosper in the apparent face of diminishing opportunities, and the ongoing shrinking of the welfare state to offer us security.

So instead, I prefer to use the response to "live long and prosper" - "peace, and long life": in this chaotic and turbulent world, being able to find peace is perhaps the most desired state for most of us; and the fear of pandemic and shortening of our lives because of it (which has already started to happen with average life expectancies now going backwards), is an equally potent hope that we might have as much time as possible to keep finding ways to achieve and enjoy that peace in our lives and with each other. 

So until next time, keep on Trekking, and...


Thursday, July 15, 2021

be kind, above all else in your professional life

As a consultant-type (of sorts), I'm often seen as someone who is clever, knowledgeable, experienced, etc. Most other consultants you see will probably present themselves as being these things as part of assuring you that they're worth your spending your money on them.

But I've often wondered how far these things really matter when businesses, co-ops, charities, social enterprises, universities, government bodies, and others who invite me to work with them, are really wanting and valuing these attributes.

And my wondering about this has, over the years, seen me introduce some unusual practices (such as asking people what they think my superpower is, and not being overt about the various qualifications I've come to hold ), and subsequently also make changes to how I work as a result of what I learn about how I'm seen, and how people value what it is I'm able to do with/for them.

So why am I sharing this with you here? If you're someone who's kindly offered me feedback about my working practices in the past, you'll know this already. If you're someone else, you may be thinking that this may be sound vaguely interesting, but it's all very personal, and are struggling to see the relevance of why I'm reflecting on it so openly?

Well - wonder no more, because I now have an empirical data set (of sorts) to help me validate these ideas!

I recently came across Google's Ngram viewer, which is a nifty little site that allows you to track how frequently any given words have been used across all books published. So I thought I'd pop in a few keywords about how as consultants we think we're supposed to portray ourselves, and a few about how people seem to value the way that I work with them (click on the image to open the original google page and graph):

All those words about how the support consultants and advisers are supposed to 'be' and the attributes they're valued for, all pale against the approach to how we work with you.

Fortunately, kindness is one of the KPIs that I track within my annual impact report (listed as 'grace' and 'pro bono'), along with knowledge; so I know that I'm making sure I try and keep this at the forefront of how I work with people (following the adage that "we manage what we measure").

As consultants or advisers we're often initially commissioned on the basis of expertise or specific skill, but as the Ngram and my experience suggest, those things become far less important in the working relationship that we subsequently form when delivering on the agreed project. 

But I wonder how far others might agree with this?

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

So how do you actually start a social enterprise?

'Social enterprise' is a phrase that seems to be increasingly commonplace, and something that we're all being encouraged to start-up to if we think we have an idea for a new project or a business that might do some good in some way.

There's also a lot of 'stuff' about them out there: mapping by Social Enterprise UK; webinars on how they can best report their impact and how they're changing the world for the better by Social Value UK; offers of funding for how they can support local communities continue to recover from the impact of the pandemic; and such like...

social enterprise start-up course
But I'm often approached by people who want to know the answer to a much more basic question about social enterprises - how do I actually set one up?

Well, the good news if that I've been running seminars, boot camps, and webinars covering this for about the last 20 years, and hopefully will be able to distil them down into a few pithy bullet points in this blog to help you start to chart your adventure into the lands of social enterprise...

1) You'll already have a (social) idea, but is there actually the potential for a trading enterprise in it? 

Have you identified people or organisations who might be willing to pay you money (which is different to offering you philanthropic grants) for what you're going to be doing? 

2) How are you going to raise the money you need to get it started?

It's very rare than a start-up enterprise of any kind will have customers who line up in advance of it officially opening for business, to pay for the services and goods before they've even seen them. So have you thought about not only how you'll raise the cash you need for those early bills, but also where you'd be happy to seek it from?

3) Do you see yourself as a lone hero, or part of a 'Scooby gang'?

Creating any new enterprise is hard work and risky. Social enterprises even more so, because of the additional dimensions they have (balancing social mission with need to generate cash; trying to keep a set of values and ethics central in every decision made; feeling a responsibility to try and save the world...). So do you feel you can take it all on by yourself, or are you looking to recruit others to work with you in developing, leading, and managing it (and how will you ideally structure these relationships between you all)? 

And what measures can you think about putting in place to support yourself (after all, if you're supporting the birth of this exciting new social enterprise, whose looking out for you in return)?

The next steps in starting up a social enterprise flow from these, and may seem far more mundane in comparison, but are true for any enterprise thinking about starting up:

- create some budgets to help you manage costs and make sure you're going to be charging the right prices;

- pick a legal structure that will help you manifest and protect all of the above;

- register the enterprise with HMRC and whichever regulator is responsible for the legal structure you've picked, and open a bank account;

- do some marketing;

- Oh yes: and get out there to tell people you're now 'here' and so some selling!

Once these are in place, then everything else you come across out there about how social enterprises can thrive and prosper should start to make more sense.

But if you'd like to explore these steps in more detail, chat about how to tell if your idea really does have sufficient potential to be a trading enterprise, or would like to know about any other aspect of social enterprises, feel free to get in touch: I'm always happy to have an initial conversation by phone or video without charge or obligation.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

how I managed to gain a doctorate during lockdown

Several years ago, I argued why impressive sounding qualifications can sometimes be a dangerous thing in offering a false sense of security that someone may be more knowledgeable and experienced than they actually are...

And I've always stood by this - including up to the point of actively hiding the 'alphabet soup' of letters that I've someone managed to amass that appear after my full professional name.

But then 2020 happened - and many of us found that we more time on our hands than we had before that needing occupying, and we started to hear in our Facebook feeds and Instagram stories how our friends and colleagues were all learning new languages, starting to paint, and other life enhancing things that made us wonder if we weren't wasting our lives by binge watching Netflix box sets while counting the days until we could next legitimately go to the shops...

I for one, found myself being quite 'active' professionally in various ways (see for some of the 'highlights' of what I got up to during lockdowns). But I also started to wonder if I shouldn't somehow also try and structure these experiences around some form of recognised learning (or at least have something to show for when people ask me in years to come "how did you make the most of the extra time you had during lockdown?", now that we're starting to emerge from it).

Now, I've always known that some of what I do (professionally) gets me noticed in countries outside of England - and I've always been encouraged by that, even if I've never had the aspiration to pack a bag and accept contracts I've been offered on other continents.

And it seems that some of this 'being noticed' has seen a University in America decide that it was about time that some form of academic recognition be bestowed on me - and following a short exchange of emails, I've received an honorary doctorate! (But not of a medical type, and not of the definitive article).

So I'm now technically: Dr h.c. Adrian Ashton of Business Counselling, (CCU/USA)

And this puts me in a bit of a quandary: I've maintained for years that professional qualifications and academic recognitions are not only something that I'm actually not that bothered about, but can also be dangerous things to 'flaunt' - but now I'm in the camp where I've a doctorate.

So what to do? 

Should I completely revisit my whole thinking about having the letters to bookend my name with, or just add this latest addition to the shelf with all the other paperweights and doorstops that I've amassed over the nearly 17 years I've been freelancing to date?

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

death and the entrepreneur

There's a famous adage that goes along the lines of "there are only 2 certainties in life: death and taxes".

And whilst there seems to be a constant flow of articles, conversations, arguments, and such like around tax and business, it seems no-one wants to talk about death and business.

Specifically - what happens to your business when you die.

My reasons for such apparent morbidity in starting to explore this theme are multiple - I was asked to support a Board of Directors work out what to do with the business that they were responsible for after its founder and chief exec unexpectedly passed in their sleep (not that easy when they kept all the passwords and security details for the bank, Companies House, HMRC, etc in their head, and for various reasons it wasn't possible for me to obtain a copy of their death certificate from their grieving spouse...); and I'm also occasionally approached by founders of social enterprises who've recently received terminal diagnoses and are keen to try and ensure that their efforts in this life will have a worthwhile legacy.

And there's a clear business case for trying to get us to talk about death more openly too - research shows that most business continue to struggle for years after their founders death.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to succession - whilst we may be very good at planning for all sorts of risks and contingencies in our enterprises, charities, and others, we rarely (if ever) plan for us not to be a part of it, and think about what sort of future it should (or could) have without us being involved with it.

We seem to have also fetishised entrepreneurs - tech entrepreneurs and hailed and presented as saviours of our economy; health ones will save us from suffering illness of all types; and social ones will fix all the problems in our local communities; with nothing but the magical power of their will and without the need to rely on others to get there. That's a lot of expectation to heap on someone who's just trying to see how far their idea will go... 

As entrepreneurs, we're already more likely to suffer mental ill health (which seems to be repeatedly quietly glossed over); have our relationships with friends and family suffer; and be more likely to be victims of targeted crime.

So if we die unexpectedly, then the venture that we've gambled all of the above on, will likely crumble and be messily wound up. It will leave people upset and angry, and mean that all of the above we suffered was for nothing, as it's likely that there'll be no legacy to what we were trying to build up (because we never thought we could die because we're the ones who are supposed to be saving everything and everyone else).

In those rare instances where entrepreneurs do dally with thoughts about the grim reaper, it's usually a conversation with their accountants who direct them as to the ways in which they can get the most money out of the business they've built to date to enjoy their final months with - or can soften the loss on their immediate family.

It seems to me that as entrepreneurs we don't talk about our own mortality enough in ensuring that the visions which have driven us to risk everything we have to realise them, will have a good chance of continuing to impact the world and change communities for the better, even if we're not around to celebrate that as it happens.

Death is already far too taboo a subject, and as such, creates lots of unnecessary problems for those around us when we leave this life.

So - what's your plan for your enterprise (be it social, charitable, co-operative, private or other) if you were to suddenly not wake up, or receive the news from your Doctor that none of us ever want to hear?