Tuesday, February 21, 2017

does pursuing social investment reveal a weaking social enterprise sector?

As some of you will know, I'm an approved provider for various enterprise support programmes, one of which is Big Potential - funded development support for social enterprises to better explore, and develop their businesses cases to pursue, social investment.

There are various aspects of this programme that continue to impress me, some of which I've written about before, but one that I keep coming back to is its transparency and openness about its data. It's committed to undertaking an annual evaluation of both its performance, and the profiling of enterprises whom it engages with. (It's also started to publish performance data about how well us approved providers are doing as well...)

Last year, I blogged about the first of these published reports, seeking to better understand what it's data might tell us if we compared it to 'typical' social enterprises (spoiler alert: Big Potential seems to be attracting social enterprises who are younger, more ambitious for growth, and more locally rooted than your typical social enterprise). But this years' data gives us a bit more to consider as we can now start to compare year on year data - and my cursory analysis of the data tables while on the train seem to suggest that while Big Potential may either be getting more generous in awarding support or the sector is getting better at targeting whom it should support for support, (there's an increase in initial enquiries from social enterprises who go on to be awarded a development grant: 2.16% vs 0.6%), there are signs that the wider social enterprise sector may be weakening:

  1. enterprises being supported typically have a turnover that's 7% less than last year
  2. typical net profits have fallen from nearly £18,000 to £3,000 (equivalent to net profit margins falling from 6% of turnover to 1%)
  3. assets held by enterprises are roughly half of what they would have been expected to be in the previous year
  4. the self-reported standards of current social impact reporting, and assurances over data used within it, by applying social enterprises has fallen by 9% compared to the previous year
  5. the overall average investment readiness score of applying social enterprises has fallen from 59.3% to 48.7%
  6. and there have been increases in the incidences of poor governance, and poor financial performance on the part of social enterprises being the reason as to why Big Potential hasn't feel able to award support to them
All of this would also seem to reflect a wider narrative and sense of 'struggling' amongst charities and community groups in light of prolonged austerity and recessions...

But... there are also signs that the Big Potential programme is doing what it set out to do - as well as supported social enterprises securing around £3/4m in investment of different types, they are also reporting increases in turnover in the region of nearly £100,000. However, most of this increase seems to be from growing existing services, rather than entering new marketplaces, and the sample on which this part of the data is based is so small - 4% of enterprises supported, it can only be taken as highly anecdotal at best?

For those of us so inclined, there are also some other findings in the data of interest:

But these are only my initial playing with the tables in the report while on the train heading out of London this evening - as with my previous initial analyses of evaluation reports like these, I hope others in the sector will pick these up and explore them further, and in doing so, help us all to better understand this sector, and how we might best continue to support it in the future.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

who should we believe about how great (or not) being self-employed is?

I'm now into my 12th year of being a self-employed enterprise consultant-type. It was never part of a grand plan I have for my life, but rather necessity: I found myself needing to earn money to support my family, and at the time no-one was hiring, but some were offering work on contracts rather than payroll. And I've been hustling ever since.

Some readers of my bog will know how I've managed to use this status to clever effect in influencing national legislation and policy, and others may also recall the other impacts it's had on me (such as struggling to get to all the christmas parties clients invite me to...).

But there were 3 pieces of research published earlier this month that made me pause and reflect on how appropriate it is that we're all being increasingly encouraged to explore and pursue freelance careers, and also the apparent indifference of the government to us in the bulk of business support being directed to companies with lots of employees and such like:

1) being self-employed makes you happier and earns you more money (according to research by Intuit Quickbooks), but...
2) average earnings for the self-employed continue to fall far below that of their employed counterparts (according to data from the government)
3) being self-employed means your relationships with your family will suffer more (according to the Centre for the Modern Family)

so who should we believe if we're considering a freelance career? What sort of life could we reasonably expect in light of the above contradictory research, and what impact might it have on those close to us?

As for me - I didn't feel I had the luxury of a choice, and over the last 12 years I've tried to manage my role as best I can to try and create as much benefit as possible for those I've been supporting, and also the wider world ('cos of how my mum brought me up). It's been tough, but there have been various moments that I can't imagine I could have otherwise created, (many of which I've tried to chronicle here on my blog).

But the challenge with all this research (as I highlighted under 'Q' in my alternative entrepreneur's A-Z), is that it's all generalisations based on the group of people (who aren't you) that the researchers asked. And I have an idea that we're all so diverse and unqiue in our circumstances that any surveys like these can only point to general trends that may or may not be relevant to us - as with everything, we should look behind the headlines, consider if there are findings which speak into our circumstance, work out what we can do about them, and then just get on with it, and continue making our own path.