Monday, December 20, 2010

'tis the season...

Best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral, winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most joyous traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, but with respect for the religious persuasion of others who choose to practice their own religion as well as those who choose not to practice a religion at all; plus, a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the generally accepted calendar year 2011, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of the other cultures whose contributions have helped make our society great, without regards to the race, creed, colour, religious, or sexual preferences of the wishes.

Disclaimer: This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for him/herself or others and no responsibility for any unintended emotional stress these greetings may bring to those not caught up in the holiday spirit.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The time of my life?

The work I do, the way I do it, and the people I do it with, are often exhilarating and purposeful – I recognise that I’m fortunate in often finding meaning and fulfilment in my work.

And with the advent of social media there are ever-increasing opportunities and invitations for me to meet with like-minded people, immerse myself in new thinking, reflect on ideas and experiences; I should be having the time of my life but the time of my life demands that I find myself increasingly having to say no, makes excuses, leave early...

You see, I’m blessed with 2 great young boys who I want to spend time with; I also want to support my wife as she develops her career as a textile artist, and in her expanding role as a community leader through her being part of the school PTA, a member of the local church’s leadership team, developing collaborations between local businesses and so on.

A few people have commented on my work as evidence of a successful career; I see that I do well in spinning a lot of plates in my professional and personal life while trying to get, and keep, the right balance both in and between them.

So, this isn’t meant as a “woe is me, life’s tough...” lament, but hopefully as encourage to some of you who are in similar times of your lives, and explanation to others who may be feeling upset at my apparent snubbing of your kind invitations.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Half of social enterprises will be lost in the next 5 years – and it’s our fault!

About a year ago, I argued the pressing and urgent need for social enterprises to value their people more or risk losing them.

Sadly the latest national salary and careers survey seems to suggest that these warnings have fallen on deaf ears:

• More people expect to be working in the public sector or private enterprise than in social enterprise in 5 years time...

• There will be fewer career opportunities in social enterprise next year than in the private sector

• We pay our staff at least a grade less than their counterparts in the private and public sectors

• Social enterprises are worse at training and developing their people than charities, private companies and local authorities and public bodies are

All of this means that we’re likely to see a growing exodus of people and talent from the sector – indeed I’ve started to see more practitioners leaving their social enterprise employers to join or set up private practices (like I did myself 6 years ago – but that was out of necessity rather than a deliberate career choice, and a story for another time...).

But what of the next generation of social entrepreneurs I hear you cry? All of these new up and coming starlets being born out of the teaching in schools and colleges, who’ve been learning about the wonders of social enterprise? Well, if people have any sense, then they look at employers carefully before committing themselves – and if you had to choose between an employer who paid you less, invested in you less and offered you fewer development opportunities than a private firm or public body, who would you choose?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why I have to be a naughty boy...

Our mothers taught us that it was rude to eavesdrop on other conversations; which is true – we should respect the privacy of others.

But I’ve found myself being a naughty boy... I find myself increasingly eavesdropping on others' conversations at events and conferences I attend (but how else will I find out who might be a useful person to get to know, and have identified Vivs Long-Ferguson of RSA fame?). And on-line we scream our conversations to the world through twitter, facebook, youtube, linkedin and others, desperate to have our conversations heard by others in hopes that they’ll join in and share their ideas and experiences to enrich our own...

So, sorry mum – but if I’m going to be able to get on in this world (professionally, at least) and find the people I need to help me change the world, I’m going to have to be a naughty boy and break some of your golden rules about good behaviour.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Me and Bono

Well – OK, pro Bono, rather than U2's Bono, but I found myself wondering recently, just how much free support do I actually give?

I've always been very open about saying I'm happy to have an initial chat/lunch/beer with anyone who like to ask me to, without obligation – just 'cos I think that's how the world should work. But I don't keep track of how much time I spend doing this, and I'm suddenly aware that its probably increasing - there seem to be a growing number of people in different sector bodies who 'pass my name on' to various groups and people (I was tempted to list the sector bodies they work for, but might be a tad delicate if I did....), and I'm happy for them to continue do so.

But very few of these lead to any fee earning work, and although that's not the reason I do it, being self-employed I have to try and drum up enough work to keep the bills paid somehow.

But I digress – I do pro bono for a lot of people and I don't track it.
Should I?
But if I did, what would it show? The only reason I measure or record anything I do is because I think it generates useful management information, and anything I record about myself I tend to be pretty open about in sharing what they show (see previous posts about my social accounts and why I do this ). As a freelancer, what useful management information would I be generating by recording how much of my time is spent doing pro bono stuff and openly reporting this (other than to gratify my ego).

This is not a hypothetical question – it’s something I really am trying to work out. I'd appreciate any comments you'd like to share with me, either by reply to this post or by direct email

Monday, October 11, 2010

Which financial language do you speak?

do you talk in terms of 'full cost recovery' like much of the third sector (i.e. making sure that you don't lose money on activities you deliver) or use the more traditional and private business understood 'profit and loss' (which shows where you spent you money in relation to delivering your activities and running the organisation overall).

It matters because of the worlds in which we exist increasingly inter-mix: speaking with procurement officers, they're used to private businesses so you need to use P&L - terms their accountants will understand. Similarly, if you're seeking loans, then lenders speak P&L as well.

My concern is that as a sector we constantly seem to be calling for a level playing field, to be treated on equal terms as every other type of organisation and group, and yet we then create our own special languages that don't match the systems and practices of the wider world.

Perhaps it time to stop being so precious about why we're special and get on with showing it in ways which anyone can understand by using their languages?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

If we're to be a movement, we need to stop listening to our leaders...

Time and again, there's a rallying call that talks of social enterprise as a 'movement'. And that's fine, but surely the way that a movement is created, sustained and ultimately succeeds, is through it being made up of numerous small initiatives – all of which are concerned primarily with impacting on their immediate community.

But... it seems increasingly that the social enterprise policy and priority being set is for 'scaling up': making existing enterprises bigger. But surely such a 'scaling up' risks the enterprise losing touch and becoming a faceless giant such as Tesco or McDonalds – they both started out very small, rooted in their immediate communities, but as they've grown, they've become increasingly distant and unresponsive to local communities. And as they've grown, they also appear to have increasingly struggled to retain credibility and trust from their customers on ethical issues...(see Tescopoly and McLibel)

Surely we need more, not less, local small initiatives, each of which recognise their role and contribution to this wider movement, but retain their unique identity and distinctiveness in their communities. And that should be the priority for growing our movement, not force growing a handful of individual enterprises.

And where questions of scale are raised on economic terms (generating economies of scale, the ability to reach larger numbers of people), we should be looking to better collaborate between ourselves – and perhaps even look to our history for models of how this can be done: the co-operative movement grew from a vast number of small, individual, local co-operative societies who created a shared supply chain (the Co-operative Wholesale Society) to balance this tension between scale, movement and local impact.

So – if we're a movement, we should be focusing on seeing more small social enterprises emerging, not trying to find who can be grown to become the next Tesco...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Co-ops are ‘punching below their weight’...

So said Dame Pauline Green, chair of the International Co-operative Alliance, at the excellent Futures North event recently.

The co-operative economy is equal to the 10th biggest economy of any country, it employs more people than all the private multinational companies combined, it wasn’t hit by the collapse of the financial markets, its led reforms and legislation that have changed the world so that commerce is conducted for the better, it serves more than half the people on the planet, (link here
and here for more)... And I agree with her.

The default position for any enterprise in the UK is for it to be privately owned: “be your own boss, make as much money as you can/like” – the education system and the media in the UK is set up to actively discourage the co-operative business model: the heroic entrepreneur is celebrated above that of the community or those who have taken shared responsibility and supported each other as a community of entrepreneurs; (want proof? – name 3 private entrepreneurs, pretty easy; now name 3 co-operative entrepreneurs...)
As such, we’re not taken seriously – and given our size in the global economy, it’s easy to see why Pauline is as frustrated as she is.

And the solution is actually pretty straightforward: all co-ops need to do is to show off more. Take every opportunity presented to get in the media, ask to speak at local schools and colleges, infiltrate business networks, educate your customers and suppliers... these things don’t have to be expensive or time consuming.

And maybe, given that as a movement we already measure our co-operative difference and impact through the CESPIs toolkit, we should add another measure – ‘what has your co-op done this year to promote co-ops’ as a way to challenge and encourage us to take more self-responsibility (a defining co-op value), and not simply rely on others to take the initiative so that we can start to punch our weight and contribute to a greater and faster impact in the changing of our economies and communities for the better.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Shakespeare can teach us about social enterprise – better ‘to be’ or simply ‘to do’?

Many charities and local authorities are now running services and activities under the banner of ‘social enterprise’ to contribute to their sustainability (both as services and organisations).

This perhaps helps to explain why there’s such confusion about what social enterprise is: some organisations presenting their structure and form as the basis for their identity, while others present their actions as their basis.

But... if it means that communities are benefiting through these ‘branded’ trading activities by groups not structured as social enterprises, then how far should we feel ‘protective’ over our identity? After all, there’s a compelling and logical argument along the lines of “as long as they job’s getting done and supporting people is at the focus of what we do, what does it matter how the organisation is structured...” however, taken to its conclusion this argument surely takes us down the path of the end justifying the means (something the Prince of Demark wrestled with famously in Hamlet).

Muhammad Yunus has waded into this historical debate with his refreshed definition of a ‘social business’ (broadly speaking - that as long as you’re primarily benefitting people in need then you ‘tick the box’). But there’s surely a risk with such loose definitions that many privately owned businesses will start to add to their ‘green-wash’ with ‘social-wash’, and that charities will further muddy the waters by having an ongoing reliance on grants and subsidies while presenting what they do as ‘social enterprise’.

Social enterprise is surely about being a sustainable business that’s rooted in the open marketplace and which exists to principally benefit those in need; it shouldn’t matter who’s in its employ or on its board – these things are fixed and immutable. Otherwise, as officers change, markets, customers, and society become confused by different peoples’ values changing the focus and purpose of what that organisation does and how it does it.

But confusion aside, that social enterprise has challenged and inspired such a growing change in common business practices amongst private businesses and charities is surely an impressive achievement and something we can take pride in?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

in praise of the local library - could it save us all?

With the cuts and reductions in the amounts of resource available to local enterprise agencies, community group networks, other local infrastructure bodies, etc; we’re seeing the amount of support available to start-up groups, enterprises (both social and private), charities and so on rapidly diminishing...

But this is at a time when there’s universal recognition of the increasing need for them to be supported, and for them to gain the knowledge that they need to not only be sustainable, but also prosper...

I wonder then if I can suggest that rather than bemoan the state of things, that instead we go to our local library.

Take my local library in Todmorden – it has shelves of books and CD-ROMs on different aspects of setting up and managing an enterprise or other group (covering everything from import/export to employment law, marketing to book-keeping and everything in-between), a copy of the Grant Making Trusts Directory (reference only) and the national Voluntary Sector Agencies Directory, free internet access, a coffee machine, late night opening... its surely therefore also an obvious focal point for groups seeking support – they could maybe make use of the big tables to meet together around? (And just to ‘complete this virtuous circle’, Todmorden library was originally gifted to the town by a social enterprise – the local Co-operative Society).

Of course, some of you may be unsure how to navigate these vast unchartered shelves of knowledge and tools where everything is logged using secret coded numbers – fear not, for there are always librarians on hand: kind souls who take pity on the uninitiated and will help you to find what you most need.

Our cousins over the pond in the US are already starting to think in these terms, looking at libraries afresh as to the role they can play in supporting not only how we aquire the skills we need in the 21st century, but also the business community.

So... when was the last time you visited your local library?

Friday, July 30, 2010

just because everyone seems to be at it doesn't mean you should...

So – mentoring. Everyone seems to be at it these days: Unltd Connect are running a national scheme, there’s the Mowgli Foundation if you prefer something a bit more international, and Social Enterprise North West are running a programme that will accredit your mentor in the process!

But is mentoring worth it?

Undoubtedly yes – the chance to share some of a mentee’s infectious enthusiasm and the chance for mentors to help to short-cut processes and learning, and sometimes even save a venture from failure by sharing hard-earned lessons elsewhere can only be a good thing.

But it comes at a cost. As mentors, we need to be able to keep paying the bills and mentoring doesn’t usually pay well (if at all) in terms of cash. As mentees – don’t forget you’ve also got an enterprise to keep running and developing: don’t neglect your own customers; your mentors might be more enjoyable company, but we don’t actually pay you any money…

As for me – I still prefer my own model of mentoring: “beer mentoring”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

is SROI damaging our economy?

Social Return On Investment (SROI) is a tool that's gaining increasing credibility and acceptance through its ability to monetise the benefits that a project or intervention accrues to the wider community and society.

However, I wonder if this hasn't unintentionally led to a damaging of our economies – local and otherwise?

SROI calculates the financial value of benefits that have been created – in other words, how much cash has been saved that would otherwise have had to have been spent – cash that would have supported additional jobs, purchases of equipment and so on (those things that are used to measure the growth of our economy). From this perspective, the SROI figure therefore shows how far that organisation has 'limited' and constrained the economy.

Further, it also shows how concentrated the influence in the economy is within that single venture, highlighting the economy's reliance upon it - if it were to fail, then the 'shock' to the economy would be their turnover multiplied by their SROI figure.

So with the drive to make our local economies more resilient, SROI could then start to show us where the 'weak points' in our economies are...

So – if you use SROI and calculate a high figure – rejoice, but also be aware of the wider implications of what it may mean for your wider impact upon the economy, both local and national... alternatively, it could mean that we just need better tools to consider how we measure and understand the wider economy?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

do we need a new co-op model for Transition?

The Transition Towns movement is well recognised, credible and attracting increasing amounts of interest. It is also recognised and cited as being very closed aligned to the co-operative movement, no doubt due to the shared values upon which both are based.

However, to date, Transition initiatives have rarely (if at all) structured or incorporated themselves as recognised co-operatives, and many people in the co-operative movement are starting to encourage them to do so. (here, here, and here)

But after spending some time with a ‘Transitioner’ recently, I wonder if perhaps the reason for this apparent reticence on the part of the Transitioners is because the co-operative movement doesn’t have an appropriate model for them...yet

Co-operatives are recognised as taking many wondrous and diverse forms, all of which share the same underpinning and defining values, but which allow them to reflect their members’ interests and circumstances – for example, housing co-ops are structured to reflect the nature of members as tenants within the context of housing legislation, consumer co-ops reflect their members’ engagement as being intermittent (we don’t spend all of our time in the co-op shop) but we do expect to be regular and ongoing purchasers, worker co-ops where members expect to be in employment for the foreseeable future, and so on.

For the Transition movement, the members’ interests are transitionery – one of the principles of Transition is that obsolescence is built in from the outset, with the expectation that people will join the group based on a specific interest that may not be shared by all others, and that their involvement will ebb and flow over time rather than remain at a constant ongoing commitment (as in other forms of co-operative – see above). There is also the consideration that the group will be made up of a number of distinct themed ‘sub-groups’ who are united by their co-existing within the same geographical area, and that Transition initiatives will rarely share common sets of such groupings.

Perhaps then we need to create a new co-op model to reflect this and so better support and encourage Transitioners to more easily manage and strengthen their relationships through a co-op structure.
Such a model could be based around the existing consortia or secondary co-op models, with individuals becoming members of the wider co-operative, but then engaging primarily with their particular interest group within the wider Transition initiative. Each of these thematic groups would then nominate one of their number to the board of the co-op to ensure that (1) the co-op remains accountable to its members, (2) members shape and direct the co-operative themselves, (3) all parts of the co-operative are included and (4) allows individual members and the overall Transition initiative more flexibility about their level of involvement and engagement according to their own circumstances and that of the part of the initiative that they have an interest in.

What do people think?
Have I hit upon a ‘magic bullet’ here or simply ‘missed the point’?
Would be good to have feedback from people within both the co-operative and Transition movements.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Where next for social enterprise in the 'Big Society'?

There’s increasing interest from politicians and investors for social enterprises to enter ‘non-traditional’ market places (apparently there’s a belief that social enterprises don’t usually foray out of construction, catering or childcare into markets like telecoms, IT, financial services, etc etc...), especially into industries where private businesses have failed.

So – leaving aside the argument that if other businesses fail in these markets, where is the logic in us entering them?, this may seem fair enough, but ask any actual trading business about their entering new marketplaces and they’ve very hesitant. This is because this strategy for business growth is proven to be the most risky, and most likely to fail.

Therefore we need an incentive – if the state wants us to take such high risks, then they should recognise the cost to us for delivering their agenda (assuming that we decide it’s actually a good idea to enter new marketplaces). This doesn’t and shouldn’t be through grants, but maybe through tax and investment reliefs, interest free loans, and so on – possibly the need that the big society bank that’s being created could meet?

But if we do diversify and enter these ‘non-traditional’ market places, ultimately it should be because we see that there’s business sense in doing so – otherwise we change into charities or subsidiaries of the state and loose our distinctiveness.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Could social enterprise benefit from using a co-operative identity?

Co-operative enterprises are extremely varied in their basis for membership, forms and structures, but all share a common global basis of shared values and principles to unite them.

To help reduce confusion about what type of co-operative they are, they group and identify themselves into a number of types, with each being based on their primary focus (type of member) – worker, housing, community, credit, consumer, ...

Maybe that’s a trick which the wider social enterprise movement might look to adopt in helping to reduce the ongoing confusion about what it is. Perhaps the basis for such ‘sub-grouping’ would be on their primary market or beneficiary, so we’d see ‘employment social enterprises’, ‘training social enterprises’, ‘health care social enterprises’, maybe even ‘co-operative social enterprises’?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Marked for success or more confusion?

The principle aim of the Community Interest Company (CIC) was as an easy identifier for social enterprises, but this seems not to have happened in the way people hoped – perhaps because as a legal form CICs offer no features that are inherently unique (i.e. protected asset locks and principle purposes can be entrenched in other legal forms).

But we now have the shiny new Social Enterprise Mark, which will hopefully have a better chance of being the easy identifier as it’s based on recognising defining characteristics of social enterprise in whatever legal form or structured they are enshrined.

BUT... will this Mark spark a new market for ‘marks’? The Soil Association and FairTrade Foundation were both pioneers in certifying organic and fairly traded goods, but other organisations offering organic and fair trade certifications have since emerged...

So perhaps we should be more open to the other ‘marks’ that are available to social enterprises to seek (the Social Firms Star for instance), and welcome others’ attempts to introduce other standards (there’s moves for a worker co-op mark, and Scotland did look at having its own mark as well) and explore how they might best complement each other.

Ultimately though, the Social Enterprise Mark shouldn’t be a holy grail, but one of a number of tools that we should approach and consider its appropriateness to us in the context of our enterprises’ own needs and marketplaces. Some will take the mark and use it to great commercial advantage I’m sure, while for others it simply won’t be relevant...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Should you trust your business advisor?

OK, seeing as a lot of work that I do is in the guise of a business advisor, this may sound a bit odd, but bear with me…

I recently saw some publicity for a local enterprise agency that caught my eye (for the wrong reasons) because of a client testimonial they’d used: “their advisors give you honest feedback as to whether or not your idea is a good one”.

As business advisors, it shouldn’t be our job to tell you if your idea is any good or not, but to support you to best understand the marketplace and your potential customers, what it will take to launch and manage it, and what you’ll need to be aware of in doing so. We shouldn’t tell you whether we think the idea is any good or not because:

1) It’s your business not ours – you’ll have to live with it, not us, so why are we telling you what to do with your life?

2) How do we know if a new business idea really is any good or not? - Look at all the ‘rubbish’ ideas that were rejected by the “gurus” of Dragon’s Den that went on to make a fortune; and history is littered with ideas and inventions that the ‘powers that be’ and recognised purveyors of ‘wisdom’ of the day just didn’t get – as a result we almost never had TV, the jet engine or even photocopiers!

You – the entrepreneur, should not always take what you’re told as gospel by a business advisor about if your idea will work or not: it’s your idea, your life, not ours.
If you don’t think we ‘get it’, then challenge us, or ask for another advisor; but please don’t abandon your brilliant idea that will change your world and mine just because someone else tells you it’ll never work based on their own personal tastes and prejudices.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

why are we scared about asking to be paid?

Ask most employees what they grumble about most, and ask their employers about most, and it’s likely to be getting their pay cheque on time.

Yet when we create new enterprises, we suddenly seem to lose this boldness and capitulate to our customers when they’re late in paying our bills and invoices to them – to the tune of over £62 billion for small businesses!!!

So why this change in attitude between being an employee and an employer over money?
I have a suspicion it’s about FEAR. We’re frightened that if we appear pushy, our customers won’t come back, and/or even more damningly, our customers start to think “if they’re so desperate for our money, then they must be in trouble, so better take my business elsewhere”.

So what do we do?

Well, for starters, let’s be more open about talking about money and getting paid – raise it as soon as we can as part of negotiations with customers and clients, be clear about when they want to pay and when you want to be paid from the outset. Negotiate, haggle, agree compromises – after all, we do that already over the price and delivery schedule, so why not the payment terms?

Plan the cash-flow: so many businesses fail because they run out of cash before they get paid – I’ve seen it happen, including to a business that was making a £1m+ profit annually (I helped their employees subsequently buy-out the business).

Finally – don’t forget the easy stuff: there’s a lot of legislation you can use to support you with your asking to be paid. The biggest (and least well known) being the Late Payment Act which says that as a small business, you can charge interest on what you’re owed if its late in being paid. And after all, it’s not you that’s chosen to charge interest: it’s the government and their legislation... so no risk to your personal relationships. I’ve used it a number of times and on each occasion got paid more promptly AND had that client/customer book me for further work.

Simple things that with a bit of thinking and planning can make all the different to getting that overdraft reduced and staying in business.

Or maybe there’s something about ‘being British’ that means we like being owed more than £62 billion and not being able to cash it?

Monday, April 19, 2010

too successful?

a charity made front page news by closing after receiving £100,000 from the Home Office because it's been "too successful" in reducing crime and so its services are no longer needed.

Well done to them - rather than try and continue a service that no one wants/needs, or to re-invent themselves with new services (which would undoubtedly have moved in into areas different to those that originally attracted its staff, volunteers, trustees and other supporters to it), they've decided to shut up shop, celebrate and allow all involved to move on to new adventures with a renewed sense of excitement and optimism.

Too often I see groups and agencies who are 'fighting on' long past their use-by date: as a result their people are unhappy and de-motivated, other groups view them with suspicion and they suck up resources that could be better deployed elsewhere.

I've always advocated to groups that once you achieve the reason you were created for, you should stop and go home - don't assume that everyone will want to continue with you if the organisation starts working in new areas, and if you're really serious about wanting to create 'social good' and benefit the community above all else then prove it by walking away when you've done your job.

This translates to me personally in that one of the ways I check that I've been successful in supporting the groups I work with is that they no longer need me (because I've trained/empowered/strengthened them so well) - in effect I've done myself out of a job, but the vision has to come first.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Adrian Ashton's social sccounts released...

I've always been a keen proponent of the idea of social accounting - after all, if we say that our values and ethics are important and make a difference, then we should be able to show to what extent, and in what ways, they do.

And there are a ton of toolkits and models out there to support you do this - some based on your form (ie - CESPIs for co-ops) and some on your main focus of activity (eg environmental impact).

However, as a sole trader, there's nothing really obvious that I've found that I can easily pick off the shelf and use on 4 years ago I began to create my own framework based on measuring the things most important to me in terms of what I try and achieve and contribute through how I work.

It's an evolving framework, and I usually add an additional measure each year, but surely its a start.

This year they show an increase in the extent to which I've contributed to stimulating debate and discussion around sector issues, that over a quarter of all my business purchases have been made from local companies, that the majority of all my business travel was made without the use of a gas-guzzling and polluting car, and that training I develop and deliver seems to be well received.

You can download a pdf version (as i include it in my 'blag sheet'/CV) from my website here (its referred to as the 'information sheet about me'); and below is a copy of their summary:

So what do people think? Is this a useful emergent framework for social accounting on sole traders, and what other measures should I incorprate for next years?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

main website is unwell...

Dear all

sorry for 'hi-jacking' my own blog, but this will remain the 'latest post' until further notice as I want to let people know that due to technical issues involving the internet service provider who looks after my main website, that my main site (the one with all the cheesy pics, links and copies of various published articles) will not be available until further notice.

you can still follow me here on this blog, as well as my twitter feed and via LinkedIn, and hopefully it'll be back before you know it and I'll continue to post my (sometimes irrevent) musings and thoughts here.

I've also now created a temporary site using paperclips and rubber bands at - while it doesn't have everything my site usually offers, its got some of the basic stuff available again there.

until then, thanks for your patience and understanding

Adrian Ashton
07786 492313

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

the real benefit of using cartoons

The Development Trusts Association have produced an “Early Warning Guide” – it’s a very powerful and engaging resource, not just because it gives a very clear, easy to use and quick analysis of the state of an organisations’ health, but because of the way in which it does it: the use of cartoons and simple, bright images.

Often, as professionals and support providers we assume that what we deliver and offer has to be highly technical and detailed when sometimes simple cartoons will suffice – cartoons ensure that everyone understands the issue, everyone is involved and somehow, in being a cartoon, its disarming and so people more likely to at least pick it up and start to engage with it as they see it as non-threatening even if, as with the DTA guide, it ends up telling you that your ship is sinking fast and you've no lifeboats left!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Franchising social enterprises – replicating the ‘magic dust’ and the hidden threat from within?

I’ve been involved in the replication of social enterprises and co-operatives since 1998: as a member of a worker co-op that was licensed from another successful original worker co-op (which led to my being asked by some to comment on the failure of the Whole food Planet franchise that was based loosely on it earlier this year); as a manager of one of the regions of the ill-fated Aspire: the first attempt at creating a formal franchised social enterprise in every region of the country; involvement in the national social franchising programmes that ran in the early 00’s; and in supporting groups to evaluate social franchise offers as well as developing their own.

In all these instances I’ve been struck by the baggage associated with the phrase “franchise” – people seem to think that the only way to replicate a successful model is to do a McDonalds on it, but actually there are lots of ways that such enterprises can be replicated and duplicated elsewhere.

I recently participated in a 2-day residential on social enterprise replication run by Unltd Advantage – a welcome opportunity to reflect on my own knowledge and experience built up from firsthand experience and self-directed learning (especially as I’m currently writing a 5,000 word essay that will be critiquing current theories, models and tools for social franchising).

And while the formal content it offered me may not have offered much new that I hadn’t already educated myself in, including how we identify and recreate the ‘magic dust’ that makes our enterprises successful, the opportunity to spend some time exclusively immersed in the subject matter, and to share stories and ideas amongst the other participants did make me realise something:

Despite there being a multitude of models through which successful models of social enterprise can increase their impact in ways that they could never do if they remained as a single entity, the biggest threat to this being achieved is our egos:

People can be extremely precious about the enterprise model they’ve developed and aren’t always happy about the chance that in offering it ‘out there’ in some way for replication in ways other than in very formal command and control ways on their part, perhaps there’s a fear that they’ll lose control of it, that maybe others may be able to improve on it, and that it will mean less reward and kudos for them personally and individually.

But if, as social entrepreneurs, we’re motivated primarily by the needs we see in society, shouldn’t we welcome any and all opportunities to increase the impact in addressing those, even if that means copying someone else’s model or accepting that our own approaches can be improved on?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

if you could have your time again... life lessons for social entrepreneurs

There’s a regular feature in a private business management magazine that asks prominent business leaders each issue if, with hindsight, they’d have done anything differently if they had their time again.

Recently, at a networking event organised by Social Enterprise Yorkshire & Humber and Unltd, I had the opportunity to ask a panel of prominent and successful social entrepreneurs what they, if they had their time again, and with the benefit of hindsight, might do differently.

I’ve transcribed their responses below, and get the feeling that it was the question that people in the room most appreciated being asked and answered:

* Recognise the timing – most successful enterprises (social and otherwise) are opportunistic in response to emerging or changing need

* thinking more about what you want to get out of it – it’s too easy to let it take you over (something that I always counsel start-up businesses about, and have developed a tool around to manage)

* finding more resources – you can never have enough people, support or materials

* being single or having a very understanding partner

* gaining more knowledge – however much you think you know, there’s probably something crucial you’ve overlooked so never turn down the chance to learn something new

* more partnerships – you can never have enough, and you never know when you’ll need them so always be seeking new groups to hook up with

* making more mistakes – ...and learning from them as they’re the greatest source of learning you have

* don’t go it alone – take every opportunity to get together with other entrepreneurs to be encouraged, re-invigorated and refreshed

all seems really useful insight - the sort of thing we perhaps don't talk enough about, but what would your answer be?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

the Conservative Co-operative Movement - hoisted by its own petard?

A few years back, there was something akin to outcry when the conservative party announced the launch of its ‘conservative co-operative movement’, mainly because we already have a co-operative movement that‘s been doing quite well for quite some time and already has good linkages into the political systems at Westminster.

Undaunted, the conservatives pressed on, launching their movement with a website and flagship publication “Nuts & Bolts – how to start a food co-op”, the author of which prefaces by saying that they have no technical expertise in how to set up co-ops... and the site doesn't list what co-op values are, nor link to the national federal body for the movement - Co-operativesUK

And this new movement has been subject to some criticism, not least because although espousing co-op values, it was a self-selecting body, accountable to no-one... But now, all that’s changed! It’s incorporating itself as a formal co-operative entity, with membership open to all (a snip at £10 a year!)

And that got me thinking... if enough people in the ‘main’/pre-existent co-operative movement became members, we could exercise member democracy, call an extraordinary meeting, and agree to dissolve the co-op, distributing its assets throughout the wider non-partisan co-op movement.

Anyone with me?

Monday, February 15, 2010

does your legal form make you a social enterprise?

The current launch of the national social enterprise mark has brought to the fore once again the issue of how we identify and recognise social enterprise.

Many argue that in order to be a 'true' social enterprise, your organisation must exhibit specific characteristics and that these must be present in one of a number of limited legal forms (limited in number and choice, that is) - asset locks, accountability to more than just investors, controls on how profits and used and distributed, and so on...

Given the complexity and range of such characteristics, most generally accept that any form of co-operative, company limited by guarantee, CIC or other similar legal forms are acceptable as 'true' social enterprises.

BUT - what about the S&M Club that almost became a CIC (pdf article - see p2)? the Thailand lap dancers co-operative? and so on...

Given the importance that as a sector we ensure that our image is consistent and easily understood, should be perhaps be moving away from simply accepting enterprises at face value on the basis of their legal form?

especially when those legal forms can be used for activities and services that we would not necessarily recognise as meeting social and environmental needs...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

charities and pubs - more closely related than we think?

So - pubs are now closing at a rate of one every 3 hours!

I also recently worked out that a new charity is registered every 3 hours.

Co-incidence? or a sign that either ex-drinkers are looking for new ways to occupy their time, OR that pubs are a hot-bed for charity creation?

UPDATE: 22 March 2010

it seems the government may have picked up on this post and and my earlier one about the value of pubs, and have recently announced a multi-million pound programme of support to enable communities to take over their own pubs!
news item

Monday, February 8, 2010

this one's for Edward

OK, so my oldest boy, Edward, and his class are learning all about Mexico in Class 2.

And we've found out about these great crystal caves in Mexico that appear nowhere else on the planet; only snag is, the school's IT system won't let them to the sites where they could watch clips of it, so I'm hoping that they'll be able to load my blog, and from this, see this clip...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

does our research only serve to gratify our egos?

the 'conversation piece' feature in a recent issue of Third Sector magazine (26 Jan 2010) would seem, at first glance to show that our sectors' umbrealla bodies are doing a great job at what they do: only 4% of their members are unhappy with what they get from them according to the State of the Sector Survey.

But these bodies will all be charging membership fees - so they'll only have members who feel that they're getting a good return for their money; the rest will 'lapse' and spend their money where they feel they'll get a better return, or something more tangiable and beneficial to justify the cost.

Surely a better question to our sectors' leading luminaries with regard to the support they offer their members (us) would be how many of their members fail to renew each year?

Monday, January 25, 2010

the secret truth about business plans...

As an enterprise/business advisor (a graduate of 2 university degrees in business, a member of various professional bodies, and published by peer review on business support), I've had a lot of time to think about business plans.

And there's a lot of stuff about them out there: courses, books, templates, on-line tools and programmes, consultants offering to write yours for you...

However, there always seems to be an underlying assumption that whenever you start to talk about trading or doing business that the universe demands you create a business plan, or else yoru venture will automatically fail, you'll be subject to horrible plagues and the world will end... (OK, maybe I exaggerated those last points a bit).

But I have a rather unusual view as a business advisor - you don't always need a business plan.

In fact, I think that there will only ever be 3 reasons why creating a business plan would be a good use of your time (and if you identify with them, they can often help you to focus your thinking and efforts to make the process a lot easier too):

1) Paranoia - you've never created an enterprise before, or run a business, so how do you know you've not forgotten or missed something? Post-mortems on most failed businesses show that they failed because of seomthing that with hindsight could have been picked up sooner and fixed.

2) Time Capsule - at the outset, you've a clear idea as to how this thing will work, what it will generate and how everything fits neatly together. But the world is messy and full of surprises - if you're not careful, you end up taking on lots of new things which start to pull you away from your original hopes and aims. As such, you can suddenly find yourself not enjoying what you do, running an enterprise you don't recognise, and generally being unhappy - all of which is avoidable if you have the opportunity for a 'reality check' every so often: compare what's happening with what you thought and hoped would in your plan; if they don't match think carefully about what you might want to do about it to get things back on track.

3) Ambassador - if you are going to ask anyone for any type of money, you'll be asked for a business plan: something that explains with no prior knowledge on the part of the money person, who you are, what you're doing and why/how its going to work.

And because you can't always guarantee that you'll be there to present it in person, it should represent your character in some way too, so get creative with using pictures, language and so on - don't let it be another boring thing someone has to read...

And that's it.

If you don't think that any of the above apply, nor ever will, then spend your time doing something more enjoyable.

But if you think that you do need to do one... well, that's another blog on the easy way to write business plans...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why we should include poetry in enterprise education

There is a school of thought that entrepreneurs are either born or can be 'taught'; either way, entrepreneurs tend to exhibit certain character traits - passion, imagination, seeking to direct their own lives and not be dictated to by others as to how they should work, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary...

All traits that are also common amongst poets - poets who, over the centuries, have challenged our views of the world in ways that entrepreneurs do today and in doing so inspired us, changed the way we act and ultimately changed the way the world works.

Surely then there's a lot for today's entrepreneurs to gain from looking to this richer source of guidance, instruction, understanding and inspiration which just doesn't seem to be happening anywhere.

As an (initially) closing thought - consider this passage from William Blake's 'Jerusalem', first written in 1803:

"I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans;
I will not Reason and Compare; my business is to Create."

Monday, January 4, 2010

if we don't value our people more, social enterprise will be lost...

The recently published national Careers and Salary Survey 2009/10 (regeneration & renewal 09/21/09) makes for sobering reading for the social enterprise sector:

1) future career opportunities and prospects in social enterprise are felt to be more affected and limited by changes to funding regimes than in the private and public sector;

2) social enterprise (while it may 'punch above its weight') apparently pays its people less than is fair - typical sector salaries see directors of social enterprises being paid less than managers in the public and private sectors, and officer posts in social enterprise usually offer less pay than officer assistant posts in public and private sectors...

3) and perhaps most alarming of all is that more than 60% of people currently working in social enterprise don't expect to still be working in this sector in 5 years time!

But there is a glimmer of good news: it seems that the training that social enterprises offer their employees is felt by them as being more valuable and useful than that offered by the private and public sectors.

This is surely a serious wake-up call: there are various strategies and policies around how social enterprise is going to save the world, but in all the hype and excitement we must be careful to remember that we can only do so if our people feel valued in doing so, and we can retain them for the journey.