Tuesday, May 21, 2019

will current trends in csr ultimately see charities and social causes losing out..?

Corporate Social Responsibility ("csr" - or also, 'not being a d!ck') has been around for as long as there have been businesses : it's the equivalent of what companies do against our giving to charity or volunteering for causes important to us personally.

It's also something that can be mired in suspicion, scepticism, acclaim, legislation, policy, and so on - although interestingly, recent research by the Institute of Business Ethics finds that our trust in businesses to 'act ethically' is at all time highs (despite high profile backlashes to do with tax, and workers treatment, by some global firms...).

But in the main, the csr initiatives that companies 'do' (either gifts in kind, sponsorship, corporate volunteering, and such like) are at the direction of the business itself that's doing the giving - in much the same way that we as individuals decide which charities we want to give money to, or which causes to volunteer with.

A few years ago, a company in America called Tom's Shoes refined this csr model into a key plank of its marketing strategy: 'buy one pair of our shoes, and we'll give another pair to someone in need of shoes who can't otherwise afford them' (aka 'Buy 1 Give 1' - B1G1). This model of csr offered a way that we as individuals could more easily assuage any concerns that we have personally that we should somehow be trying to do more to give to those in need, without having to actually give anything, or make any effort beyond our usual consumer purchases (some might say, a very effective way that the private marketplace has made it easier to be philanthropic painlessly).
Subsequently, this model of B1G1 has been adopted by lots of other companies and platforms, even though studies suggest that this model of philanthropy may ultimately actually do more harm than good.

But Tom's shoes has now revisited it's csr model in a way that makes me think that we may be starting to see a sea-change in the face of csr (and possibly to the detriment of the charities and causes we want to try and support) - the company is now offering customers the choice over what the value of that other pair of shoes that are being gifted should be used for: either giving a pair away as before, or contributing to a choice of social causes that the customer can pick.
Now, this model of customers choosing the recipient of a company's philanthropy isn't entirely new: the Co-operative Group, and Tesco stores invite shoppers to vote for which local charity should receive a financial gift from their trading (albeit as part of a wider csr programme).
But it marks the first time I'm aware of, a company changing the way it does csr because of what it's customers are telling it - in effect, it's co-producing it's csr with its customers, being increasingly led by our personal interests, whims, and fashions.

And is that a good thing? Well, it fits with classical marketing strategy of responding to/being led by customers, but if more and more companies start to follow this lead (as they did with the B1G1 model), then we start to risk some causes and issues 'losing out' because they're not as visible or popular as others, but are nonetheless equally important.

Csr plays a distinct role in the wider fabric of community and voluntary support, but supplements what we choose to do as individuals. If we as individuals start to direct the businesses we buy from as to the causes we want them to support, then we're likely to give less to those causes ourselves: after all, that cause or group will still be getting something from our purchase price, right? 
But it's unlikely that any private business's csr will ever equal what we collectively give individually, so this crowdsourced approach to csr may ultimately start to see more of us giving less to charity, and spending more as consumers... 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

A question of grace and bad debt...

I've recently published my 13th annual social impact report on myself - and as with previous years, continued to 'evolve' the framework by adding further indicators (specifically, in relation to how far I'm adopting working practices that reduce environmental impact). 

The framework I've developed is overall designed to reflect my values, but I'm wondering how far I should include additional indicators relating to 'grace', and more specifically, 'forgiveness'...

You see, businesses of all types will, at some point, face the prospect of having to deal with bad debt - a customer or client that either refuses to pay, or whose venture has become insolvent. In such circumstances, conventional wisdom decrees that we (as the people the debt is owed to) enact recovery processes: debt collection agencies, applications for court orders, striking them off our Christmas card lists, and such like. 
But sometimes, the people we've worked to support and now can't make good on the payments we've agreed, haven't made a conscious or deliberate choice to run their businesses into the ground, or to happily walk away from their dreams and ambitions with little care for the consequences. They're just as, if not more, upset than we are that circumstances have played out as they have and are simply trying to minimise the fall out (albeit that usually means by 'doing an ostrich' and hoping it all goes away by itself...).

In such instances, grace would seem to require that we at least consider the option of forgiving them their debt - not as a 'carry on and mess up other businesses' type approach, but rather as a measured and reflective conversation about how working relationships have been bruised, and helping all involved understand the cost that such a forgiveness of debt will entail (but the benefits it could also offer in the longer-term to all concerned as well). 
As a sole trader, my experiences of exercising grace in this way is 'quite painful' as I've no larger company or wider team of colleagues to help soften the hit of not now receiving the income I'd anticipated. I also need to work at least doubly hard to find additional work to replace the earnings I've lost and budgeted to receive, (earnings that help sustain my family, home, and other commitments).

So the question I'm grappling with is - when I exercise grace in this way, should I record and report it, as I do with other workings out of this value (such as the extent to which I currently report on the pro bono support I've given to various people and groups).
Would such open reporting simply encourage a culture of clients 'crying off' when they see that I'd be willing to forgive them their debt, or would it mean we can all start to have more grown-up and mature adult conversations about money, and the way in which we recognise and have responsibility for others through ensuring that we pay them what we owe?

Monday, April 8, 2019

accelerating to 'Launch' speed...

I've always been a keen proponent of enterprise education in all its forms, and for all ages too - not just for the sake of encouraging more start-ups, but because I think it can offer genuine benefits in whatever we choose to (or find ourselves doing) in the future.

As part of this, I've always sought to work with Schools, Colleges, and Universities - one of which is Salford University, with whom I seem to have built something of a long-term relationship, as I'm now well into my 7th year of them asking me back to work with their subsequent intake cohorts of undergraduates.

The design of their offer to students who are interested in exploring and launching their own enterprises has changed over the years - including seeing more leaders of courses and schools within the university becoming more interested in 'exposing' their students to speakers like me to help them better understand 'the enterprise option'; (I've always especially liked it when the drama school asks for these as it means I can perform my 1-man startup show on a proper stage!).
But perhaps most excitingly, the university's enterprise team has recently launched a dedicated accelerator on campus, branded 'Launch'.
And rather than assume that just because they have a business school and an MBA programme they know what the best content to teach and offer through it would be, they've linked in with the Growth Hub, Santander, and others to offer students a more rounded, complete, and stronger support offer.

Fortunately for my own enterprise practice, they've asked me to reprise my role as a mentor and adviser to some of the latest cohort in the accelerator, to which end the University recently invited me to the launch of their latest Launch programme.
And it was at this launch that I was inspired to jot these thoughts down for my blog for 2 reasons - what undergraduate students want to get out of being part of an accelerator, and the key message that seemed to be being broadcast to them:

in contrast to what we seem to hear from other national and international accelerator programmes who laud themselves on the investment they help start-ups to gain, students motivations at Salford's Launch feel much more 'earthy' and 'real life':

- people are wanting better clarity over the future of their business
- people recognise that being part of a peer community can offer them the confidence and accountability structures they know they'll need to see their ideas through
- some people feel they's lost their mojo, and the accelerator is a good opportunity to find it again

And as for the key message to these start-ups: "be a sponge (of knowledge and ideas), rather than a sponger".

As to the journey that this cohort will be taking, and what their experiences of it will be - well, I'm going to be fortunate enough to walk alongside some of them over the next few months, so I'll try and check in later this year with some thoughts of what happens at the other end...




Thursday, March 28, 2019

the joy of lunchtime lectures

I recently attended a lunchtime lecture - now, don't run off just yet... I know it's not the most thrilling of openings, but bear with me as I think I may have an important idea about why they're better than podcasts, webinars, and MOOCs as a format* - 

I've always been a fan of lifelong learning, and recently being able to spend an hour, immersed in the stories and ideas that surround the topic of "working class writing and publishing in the late twentieth century" (there's even a book published about it!), I was reminded that learning for its own sake can be of as much value as gaining knowledge and skills needed for an exam or particular workplace task. Learning doesn't have to be tied to pre-set outcomes, qualifications, or career progression, to create enjoyment and further our understanding of, and thinking about, the wider world around us.

Historically, adult learning would be only available in such formats: guest lectures at reading rooms and museums, but today technology widens their accessibility through webinars, podcasts, and the like.
But in making such opportunities more accessible to all, I wonder if we haven't lost something along the way - being in a room reduced the distractions to my being able to retain interest and focus on the subject matter. Physically sharing the experience with a roomful of other 'real' people (rather than avatars) re-enforced the value of being there by being part of such a tangible peer community. Needing to invest time to travel to the venue (the impressive and under-recognised Working Class Movement Library) made it more of an occasion - further adding to the experience and my subsequently being a in a head-space that made it far more enjoyable than listening in on a pair of headphones... And the fact that there was tea served afterwards for us all to further reflect on the questions the lecture had started to raise within us was halcyon!

So next time you see a lunchtime lecture (or similar) advertised anywhere, and you the subject matter briefly piques your interest - I'd urge you to make every effort you can to get to it.


(*Of course, I recognise I may be a little biased in having delivered lunchtime lectures myself in the past...)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

a 10 year landmark



Not because I thought I had something to say, but because lots of other people kept encouraging me to do it - and that's what kept me coming back to keep posting here. 
The web is being increasingly littered with blogs that people start with good intentions, only to let them lapse, but if other people think I have something of value to share, then surely I should keep starting conversations, provoking others, and challenging 'accepted wisdom'?

And it's the comments people have made to posts, and the emails that they spark, that help reassure me that this is something that's still worth continuing (not the analytics - thanks to vooza, I've always been wary of 'big data' numbers...)

  • Over the last 10 years, I've posted about a number of things:
  • my apparent divinity
  • why pubs are better than community centres
  • how I changed company law
  • pornography, S&M clubs, and male strippers
  • my kids
  • libraries
  • my relationship with U2's Bono
  • the medieval internet
  • how I make clients faint
  • why people shouldn't trust me
  • sexism
  • making perfect cups of tea
  • gold clubs
  • disco balls
  • playing spin the bottle with Boards of Directors and Trustees
  • fezes
  • tap dancing in front of armed police in the House of Commons...


as to what might come in the next 10 years - who knows, but hopefully it'll remain as entertaining..!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

is 'responsible lending' starting to mean investing in private businesses more, and social enterprises less..?

Since what seems like forever, there has always been the provision of 'alternative finance' - people and communities coming together to support each other financially when either the banks said "no", or because they wanted better terms than mainstream lenders were offering them.

Over time, this has led to the creation of what's now named and recognised as 'alternative finance' - pioneered by early co-ops, community businesses, and charities through things like credit unions, the formation of the Charity Bank, and such like. And then attracting global interest through the rise and populism of 'micro finance'.

Instead, this is about my wondering if the recent performance of alternative finance providers, as reported by the sector body, Responsible Finance, is showing that social enterprises are increasingly moving away from such ethical alternatives, and that we're seeing private businesses making better use of these lenders designed to step in when mainstream banks and lenders said 'no'. And in doing so, are we also starting to see an evidence base emerging that shows private businesses are better at creating social impact than social enterprises...?


As readers of previous posts like this may recall, I don't claim to use any statistically significant variance analyses - I try and take a simple layman's approach: looking at the data as it's been published, and sticking it into some simple charts.

And to try and break the flow of this post, I've copied these charts below, with some summary observations further down:






Now, taking a 'layman's approach' - these charts seem to indicate some trends. Namely:
  • social enterprises have been more volatile ('bust and boom') in their performance in comparison with private businesses ('slow and steady')
  • the private sector offers better value for money in creating and sustaining jobs (but it's been argued elsewhere that this is because social enterprises tend to employ people with higher needs than a typical company would be willing to invest)
  • responsible/alternative lenders don't seem very keen to lend to start-ups if they're a social enterprise, but are far more willing to do so if it's a private business
Now I mentioned having also looked at another data source - Social Enterprise UK's mapping of the sector. In 2017 this reported that nearly 1 in 4 of all social enterprises were actively seeking to take on a loan of some type (with 83% who applied to do so, receiving an investment = approximately 14,000 enterprises), and those that did were able to secure a median amount of £60,000. But against the comparable year from the responsible lenders, the average amount was £391,185, against 363 borrowers. Which suggests that most social enterprises are NOT going to alternative and social lenders to raise investment, and those that are, are far larger than the typical social enterprise is.

All of which seems to paint a picture of responsible/alternative finance being a good thing if you're a small private business looking to start up. And for these lenders themselves, private businesses would also seem to offer a more stable client base to build on in the future too. These private businesses would also be good to show to policy makers to boot, with their offering better apparent value in helping to create and protect jobs in the wider economy.

But there's lots of other data in these annual publications too, which suggest that there's other things going on around responsible/alternative finance too, not just this dichotomy in performance between social enterprise and private businesses who take loans: 
  • the total number of borrowers has fallen by over 50% in the last 4 years 
  • the average loan to a private business is up by nearly 90%; whilst to social enterprise borrowers it's only up by 5% over the same period
All of which makes me wonder if alternative finance has gotten too good at being 'alternative' - in evidencing to the wider marketplace of mainstream lenders and high street banks, that those enterprises and people who they previously said "no" to, can now be said "yes" to?


But this is a layman's take on annual reports published by industry bodies. As with my previous posts like this, my hope is that rather than start a revolution and change the system completely, is will instead provoke some further reflections and conversations, and help contribute to making sure that the support and services we offer to businesses (be they private or social), can remain most relevant and current in meeting their changing needs, and by association, the people they employ and the communities they serve.

All I've done here is what I don't see happening that often amongst policy makers and sector bodies - looking at trends over time, and starting to cross-reference other data sources to try and better understand the picture.

Monday, January 7, 2019

are community businesses starting to fail, or are we simply becoming more honest about the true nature of them..?

A few years ago, there was a jamboree around 'community businesses' - enterprises that are led by the community they're based in; operate and trade to meet the (social and health) needs of those local areas; and generally make that area a better place for everyone to live and work in it.
This was precipitated by the formation of Power to Change - a charitable trust whose remit is to nurture, encourage, and support the growth and impact of this sector of businesses.

Over the last 5 years since it's creation, Power to Change has initiated a range of programmes and support, which have, in turn (and to me at least), seemed to also catalyse a range of other good things starting to happen through other support bodies to the sector.

However, one of the things about Power to Change that's impressed me most, is its commitment to research, data, and openly sharing it's findings. I've drawn on some of these published findings in previous blog posts, in exploring what they can add to other researches and data from other bodies in seeking to better understand specific themes, but this time thought I'd look at their own data on the community businesses they exist to support, from a longitudinal perspective.
I've always thought that having more than a "this year vs. last year findings" is important in any context as it means you can better start to identify trends, blips, and other happenstance events (last time I did this it was on complaints received by the CIC Regulators against individual Community Interest Companies, the findings of which still cause shock amongst people I share it with...)

And when I look at the 4 years worth of 'State of the Community Business Market' reports that have been collated and published to date, I can't help but wonder if we shouldn't be making more noise about the general state of community businesses, and in particular, how the sector appears to be worsening...

As some who've read previous blogs of mine may recall, I don't claim that analyses like these are based on sophisticated or technical regression techniques and other sensitivity analyses in data sets, but merely what a regular lay-person might find if they were to apply some basic maths to the headline figures reported.

In this instance, I took the figures from the last 4 years of reports, and worked out the average (mean) figures of what a typical community business looks like from the headline figures in each - the charts highlight the story, but in summary:

1) there seems to be a general overall increase in the numbers of community businesses (up 2,000 over the last 4 years), but...
2) the average income of community businesses has fallen by nearly £20,000 (roughly 10%) over the same period;
3) the average value of assets they hold each has fallen by over £150,000 (roughly 60%);
4) they're employing 20% less people, and, before anyone points out that that's because they're making greater use of volunteers - the number of volunteers has also fallen too (by around 50%)...
5) they're also becoming more reliant upon grants over trading to help sustain themselves, and continue their activities into the future






Now, it may be that this is all easily explainable: in the reports themselves, Power to Change are very clear and open that each year the methodologies used to research and generate the data are changing - so there's a strong argument to debunk the above on the basis that I'm not comparing like-for-like. Except... for the figure about the overall number of community businesses which seems to be on an upward trend - if anything, this would suggest that the methodologies are actually getting more effective and precise in identifying and profiling community businesses. 
And if this is the case, then that surely means that a combination of things may be going on:

1) the strength and scope of community businesses, upon which national policy and investment programmes have been based, have been over-estimated, which means that the support now available isn't actually what's most needed...

2) Power to Change has been 'too successful' in inspiring a faster than historic growth in the sector of new community business start-ups, whose financial and operational standings will be far more immature (weaker) than their more established counterparts, and this is skewing the overall averages - although the age of community businesses isn't something that's closely monitored in these reports, parallel mapping by Social Enterprise UK highlights that most of the wider social enterprise sector (of which community businesses form a part), are disproportionately 'young' in comparison with private businesses).


So - all in all, a false alarm for community businesses after all?

Maybe, but as I pointed out earlier, I've done this rough analysis on the basis of how someone taking the headline figures from these annual reports might look at them (and perhaps be unwitting misled?)
And given that other national support initiatives, investment, support, and funding programmes usually take a year or two to 'roll out', in light of them being potentially based on flawed assumptions and data, will this mean that they 'miss their mark', unless they regularly pause to reflect on findings such as these about the wider sector that they're working in, and respond accordingly..?