Monday, December 11, 2023

darkness and light

Most people who know me (professionally) tend to associate me with stories about wacky props in zoom calls; encouraging people to play with Lego in workshops; and awarding prizes for whoever on a conference panel I'm chairing, delivers their presentation in the shortest time (or risk being chased off stage by me with my water pistols...). 

What some may not know about me is that part of the reason I try and bring such frivolity and apparent disregard for the accepted ways in which things are usually done by injecting more fun into proceedings, is that I also work in some very dark places: for example - researching trends and influences on the reasons why and how people choose to end their life by suicide to inform national policy; supporting refuges and services rescuing survivors of domestic abuse on how they can scale the number of women and children they're able to work with; coaching founders of start-ups who've just received a terminal diagnosis on how they think about their legacy; and consulting with Boards as to how their organisation should respond to their chief executive (or similar) unexpectedly dying in their sleep or in an accident.

Despite what may appear to be my default/usual positive and encouraging attitude that the world and (most) clients see, I'm always aware that however hard we might wish otherwise, there will always be suffering around us (albeit usually hidden just beneath the surface).

It's there for all of us to see if we choose to recognise it - or we can choose to ignore it; we can hope someone else deals with it; and we can hope beyond hope that we might never have to face those issues in or own lives.

Personally, I choose to recognise it - and in doing so, to try and break the taboos that surround it which means it remains hidden, and acknowledge it as part of the messiness of life. A choice that many people with lived experience of issues challenges seem to also share, based on the origin stories of so many social entrepreneurs, and founders of charities. 

However, if we do decide to accept these harder things that all around us, and try and figure out what our role might be in lessening the pain they cause, we need to be careful that we don't end up becoming overwhelmed ourselves (research shows that social entrepreneurs are the group of people who are the highest risk of burnout). For me, part of trying to figure out that balance involves encouraging apparent silliness whenever and wherever I can: because there's enough darkness out there already. We all need to try and bring what light we can for the benefit of all of us.

Friday, November 17, 2023

profiting from despair - the unfortunate truth about how social enterprises become successful?

There's a common narrative that social enterprises step-in where private businesses can't or won't, and when public services are lacking, to plug gaps in order to ensure people have access to support and activities that they need - something that has been re-iterated in every government national policy document for/about the sector since their first one in 2001.

And ongoing surveys by the likes of Social Enterprise UK into the sector show how it appears to be more resilient and diverse than its counterparts in the private sector.


I've come across a few studies and research reports recently which make me wonder if we should be having a discussion about the ethical implications of this, rather than keep congratulating ourselves each time the updated State of the Sector report is released?

And also, if we should be re-visiting our expectations and understanding about the factors that help drive the growth and successes of social enterprises? 

- A research paper about social enterprises in France found that they prospered more when the wider economy was suffering, and tended to simply 'get by' when the country's economy was performing well (in contrast to private businesses, who grew when the economy grew, and struggled when the economy struggled): 

This trend would also seem to be evident here in the UK, based on data reported by the ongoing VCSE Barometer study, which shows that charities seem to have an opposite hiring trend to private businesses: when private businesses slow the rate at which they're investing in growing their staff, charities are increasing their recruitment, and vice versa:

spider plant
Could this suggest that social enterprises are a bit like spider plants (also sometimes referred to as the entrepreneur in plant form): if you tend to it too much, it'll wilt. It tends to prosper best when faced with harsher circumstances (less water, less light, etc) than most plants need in order to survive. 

And this is potentially a key understanding - we know our economies go through rounds of repeating recessions and boom periods, as part of natural cycles that will always happen (despite what politicians might like to otherwise hope and believe).

And we know that just as booms tend to create more opportunities for people, recessions tend to see jobs being lost, firms being wound up, etc.

We therefore need to recognise the important role of social enterprises in helping to 'prop things up' in those times of recession (a period when the data seems to suggest that they perform at their best), to help mitigate the negative impacts of the downturn in the wider economy; and crucially to provide a hope and assurance that things will keep going and remain open for people.

But what is it about such harsher trading environments that force private businesses to struggle, but enable social enterprise to thrive?


- Also, Social Enterprise UK's State of the Sector mapping raises some potentially important questions that may merit exploring further, through an ethical lens?

* while social enterprises are more likely to have women, BAME, and people with disabilities in leadership roles than private businesses, those that do are usually smaller and generate less income than those that don't.

* those social enterprises that are based in areas of higher deprivation are more likely to be profitable than those that aren't. And as most social enterprises' main customer is usually the general public, this surely prompts a question about how far should social enterprises go in ensuring that they're financially sustainable by generating a profit, but how much should that profit be, if it seems to be increasing where their customers are in greater need of support?

* and social enterprises seem to be less present in sectors and services relating to supporting employment, housing, and social care - areas where there's widespread agreement about there being the most need. 

As with (mostly) all of my blog posts like these, this isn't intended as a bashing of the sector, or the bodies that support and advocate for it - but a reflection on what various sets of data are potentially highlighting. 

That's because I've an idea that we need to get better at looking at numbers like these, if we're to properly understand how to best make sure that we're enabling social enterprises to realise their full potential for all of us - and surely we can only design support that we can be sure works for the benefit of everyone, if we keep asking questions like these?

Thursday, November 2, 2023

merging not closing - the future of charities?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I enjoy analysing a good data set - and trying to turn them into simple charts that usually make everyone who seems them stop in their tracks and start to rethink what they thought they understood and knew.

Well, it's time for another 'pause and wonder' moment, as I turn my spreadsheets' gaze on charity mergers...

In the past I've looked at data on the 'churn rate' of charities (how many are being wound up each year, and also in comparison to the extent to which other legal forms are being wound up) - but recently, I came across the register of every charity merger since the end of 2007!

Now, despite my having been involved in 'refereeing' some mergers between charities in the past, it's always felt to me that there's something of a taboo about charities merging - Trustees don't usually seem that comfortable wanting to talk about it (unless their charity is in immediate threat of going bankrupt), by which point any other charities doesn't want to entertain taking it on as a liability which would drain and distract from their existing resources. Perhaps this is why about 3% of all charities are wound up each year in comparison to the 0.2% who merge. Does the variance in these figures suggest that charities are finding it easier to wind up, rather than be able to successfully merge with another charity?

This hypothesis, coupled with the time that a merger between charities can take (6-12 months if you want to do it properly?), seems to suggest that merging as a means for a charity to continue to see its purposes achieved beyond it's own existence is usually not taken up or enacted, even if it may transpire to be the best choice: Trustees are simply leaving things too late in the hope that something will magically resolve before feeling they can start talks with other charities about a merger option while there's still plenty of time (and reserves) to do things calming and in a less risky way.

But what of this 16-year data set about charity mergers I teased you with at the start?

Well, here's the chart:

And to help you make sense of the squiggles in it 

  • the blue line shows the number of charity mergers happening each year. Interestingly, these started to significantly increase in the years BEFORE the Covid pandemic, and have now started to drop, even during the cost of living crisis. This suggests that massive financial shocks to the sector are not having any influence on charities exploring merging.
  • the orange line shows the average number of mergers each year over the last 16 years. 
  • the dotted line is the next one of interest: it shows the linear trend of charity mergers over the last 16 years - admittedly, it's rising very slowly, but it's rising nonetheless, which suggests that ever so slowly, more charities are starting to pursue the merger option to best safeguard their purposes and support for their communities. For example - in the period 2016-2022, the likelihood a charity would merge increased by roughly 75%, in comparison with the likelihood a charity would be wound up increasing by approximately 10%. 

But is it too little too late?

We're still seeing only 0.2% of all charities completing a merger each year in comparison to the far larger 3% who are wound up.

Perhaps this chart and the notes below it will help more Trustees start to explore the merger option sooner rather than later, and so better protect the people they were originally set up to support?  And if they do, could this see a flipping of the current numbers, so that in the future, more charities merge than are wound up?

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Does social value make us more sustainable?

This is part 2 of a blog chain I started previously, exploring further some of the queries that were put to me following my 'opening provocations' at Social Value UK's recent member exchange conference.

(for the back story see -

This post focuses on the second question that was posed after my opening ramblings: "does social value make us more sustainable?"

Having slept on this one since the event, I'm not sure that I've changed my position on what I said at the time:

- Social value is of interest to different people in different ways, and at different times. For example: if you're reporting your social value to increase your chances of winning contracts, or being awarded grants (to support you be financially sustained), then the social value priorities of those people will be changing every few years. Does this mean that your approach to social value should be constantly changing too? While that may not seem like too much of an initial problem, let me put it this way: what if you changed the way you did your financial accounts and reporting every few years?

- And when do you know you've become 'sustainable'? Statistics show that most organisations don't make it past their first 5 years, so the technical definition/benchmark for your having become 'sustainable' is that you're still going after 5 years. But the world keeps changing around us (see above point); and just because most organisations don't get to their 5th birthday, doesn't guarantee that those that do will always be able to continue riding off into the sunset... 

- For me, sustainability is about the relationships we have with each other (a continuation of my idea in the previous blog/question), and my idea is that understanding our social value, and how its come to be created, means we can better manage, engage in, and ultimately sustain these relationships so that more good stuff can hopefully keep happening as a result of them.

All the other questions put to me at the time, I think I resolved and answered in a way that I was happy with - it's been these 2 questions (about legacy, and sustainability) that made me pause in the moment on the day, and I wanted to revisit to make sure I'd best considered them.

But MemEx2023 was live streamed and recorded - there's a chance that people may yet reach out to me in the future with other questions that the ideas and arguments I shared provoke... And if they do, then this is the place where I'll share what I think might be the really interesting ones.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Is our social value our legacy?

Earlier this month, I was invited by those nice people at Social Value UK to speak at their annual members conference about the promise and perils of how we approach creating a financial value to represent the good stuff we deliver and create through the work we do - suffice to say, not everyone participated in the customary applause when I was ushered off the stage, but others came up to me throughout the rest of the event to thank me...

However, a couple of questions were put to me by the audience in the room, and those watching along on-line, that I wanted to reflect on here.

The first of which went along the lines of "is the social value we create and report our legacy?".

My initial response to this is that I tend to try to not think about how people in future years will remember me (after all, chances are that 50 years from now, no one will even remember my name, let alone what I did or didn't do) - my interest is therefore in the relationships I have today; and my interest in understanding the social value and impact I'm creating in different ways, is in how this helps me to develop these relationships to realise their full potential.

But I realise that that's a very blinkered response, and very biased on my part - after all, as a business, I'm not trying to influence or lead systemic change (get laws reviewed etc), but other people are. And in their cases, then absolutely, their identifying and reporting their social value is a crucial way of helping them to make sure that they're achieving this as part of helping them manage how they work in pursing this goal.

So on balance, social value isn't our legacy, but it can be a critical element of helping us make sure we create the legacy we may be striving to leave to the world after our time is up.

As for what the other question was... you'll have to check back in with this blog later! 

(kudos to Natasha Jolob for snapping this pic of me unawares, hence the lack of usual dramatic posing!

Thursday, September 28, 2023

in praise of the laundrette

In the past, I've waxed lyrical about how great libraries are.

And if you've ever been on any sessions I'd led about getting to grips with bookkeeping, or feeling more confident in how you can understand accounts, you'll know I also rave about museums too.

But I now want to create a trilogy of destinations that are often overlooked, but which we should all really recognise and value more - laundrettes.

Once a bastion of high streets, they still offer a critical and unparalleled role in our communities, when you consider what they represent and offer (beyond the ability to do a large load): 

  • they are meeting places = offering people a neutral space to come together and so help tackle social isolation, and facilitate community cohesion through enabling people to share time, and conversations together who might not otherwise meet.  
  • they are warm spaces = in an age of increasing fuel poverty, a bank of tumble dryers will definitely keep the chill off, without having to use energy to turn on additional heaters.
  • they help us reduce carbon emissions and reduce environmental impacts = every so often, I hear about a community somewhere that's launching a tool library (how often do you really need to have a power drill?) Surely better in lots of ways to be able to borrow one occasionally, rather than buying it and only using it once a year. Laundrettes offer us that option of shared equipment that we all need to varying degrees of frequency, but may struggle to otherwise (1) have the space for, or (2) afford.
  • they act as community hubs = no laundrette I've ever visited has ever not had noticeboards and information about local events and services.
  • they offer economic inclusion = machines are usually not contactless, instead relying on coins. And that's important, because here in the UK, over 1 million people don't have a bank account (about 1 person in every 70).
  • And on a purely personal note, who doesn't love the smell of freshly laundered sheets..?

So please - next time you're passing one, even if you don't have any bags of laundry with you that need a quick rinse, just as with libraries and museums, step inside and savour them.

They've been closing at the rate of about 4 every week for the last 45 years - when the last one goes, we'll loose all of the above, and probably won't realise just how important they were until it's too late...

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

why not being an academic means university students get more benefit from my teaching

Over the last 25 years or so, I've found myself approached from time to time to speak as a guest / associate lecturer within within various universities and faculty schools. And sometimes, I've also been asked to help design new degree course content around themes of social entrepreneurship; social innovation; and there's even a podiatry degree that now has an enterprise start-up module in it thanks to me!

The feedback is always that students enjoy my sessions, and they seem to get more out of them than they do in their usual taught syllabi (a group of students who were part of a startup bootcamp I was part of told me that they'd gained more useful knowledge from the 2 day sessions I'd delivered, than they had from the last 2 years of their business degree!). 

However, despite this consistent appreciation and validation from students, I'm sometimes not invited back...

So there's obviously a dilemma here: students enjoy it, but the university doesn't.

This relates to the old-school marketeers story of the bakers dilemma: understanding that your customer and consumer are often two very different groups of people, each with their own divergent expectations and needs: 

- students want new experiences, they want to learn in new ways, they want to develop their own critical skills in new ways;

- but further and higher education is a regulated teaching context, where curriculum content has to be covered, and assessed in pre-determined ways.

I'm therefore always trying to walk the line between ensuring a university is able to ensure compliance with its teaching requirements, but at the same time, students get an experience different to what they might usually enjoy.

But I also recognise that I'm not 'academically gifted' in the traditional sense: I scraped through school with a clutch of GCSE passes; similarly limped through College with only 2 A-Levels just about passed; and was only offered a place at a business school through clearing (which subsequently saw me graduate with a 'Desmond'* after 5 years) - but I've since gone on to create, co-design, and develop curriculum content and modules for a number of universities and international colleges; influence national policy and company law, etc. 

And all of this means I carry a prejudice and bias about how I see the value of taught curriculums and formal education - but in turn, this means I'm more emboldened to take risks and do things very differently to how students might usually experience learning in academic institutions. And it's this difference that they seem to appreciate and enjoy: having someone who not only talks about how things can be done differently, but physically models this too, encourages them to re-examine their own wider learning and how they are engaging with it, and in doing so, get even more value and benefit from it.

* if you don't know what this is, then I'm obviously far older than I'd like to think I am for making this cultural reference...

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Nihilism, safety goggles, and the number 6 - freelancing with imposter syndrome

I've blogged in the past about the risks that being a freelancer can have on your confidence, and also highlighted in my book about imposter syndrome how working in this way can also mean you appear to be more prone to such feelings of self-doubt.

It was therefore exciting and encouraging to have been asked by Freelance Heroes (who are ultimately responsible for my writing the book in the first place), to lead a session to share and explore some of the ideas in my book - in hopes of helping offer fellow freelancers some encouragement and practical ideas for how they might get more out of working as such.

And whilst it's always exciting to share the books' ideas with new people to get their views on my arguments, and what these are based on, I also find it valuable to 'gather some more stories' about people's experience of feeling like an imposter - not just for the sake of possible 2nd edition, but more importantly to share with others through this blog, in hopes that they may be of encouragement to others I'll never meet...

People in the session shared that they'd signed up to it, in recognition of some of the impacts that feelings of self-doubt were having on their freelance careers, and which they wanted to try and do something about:
  • not charging as much as they could/should/(needed to), and so financially struggling more than they recognised that they perhaps needed to;
  • not pursuing contracts or projects that would help raise their profile and secure future work, for fear that they did not hold the right qualifications for it (despite simultaneously acknowledging that they had significant relevant experience).

There was also a key point that one person made about the confusion and overlap between feeling like an imposter, and having a lack of confidence.

It was also interesting and challenging to hear of some of the practices that some of the freelancers in the session had created and adopted, in how they currently deal with feelings of imposterism:
  • phoning a trusted friend for a 'sanity check';
  • adopting a nihilistic mindset, and disassociating themselves from their work, to try and protect themselves against the potential risk of things not working out as they might hope they would.    

As we wrapped up the hour together, everyone shared that they'd found the time together of encouragement, and all committed to take a range of actions as a direct result of it:
  • increase their knowledge about specific areas of their existing work (libraries are always a good place to start for this!);
  • explore and better understand the 'origin stories' of what their doubt about their skill may be rooted in, so that they can design more effective ways to better manage it;
  • create feedback loops with clients and others;
  • talk about these feelings more openly with others, after realising that everyone feels them, to be able to hear others' experiences, and through these, better understand their own;
  • adopt a practice of self check-in questions with themselves when they think they may be feeling it, to help better manage these feelings of doubt and move through them;
  • experiment with different ideas to see which might work best for them (but as with any experiment, always make sure you wear safety goggles, just like when you were at school!).

What also struck me about the session was the number of people who were part of it - normally, on-line sessions and events I've been part of, or heard about, seem to attract (or need to book on) upwards of 15 people - we were a perfectly formed '6', which seemed to naturally allow for everyone to feel they could easily speak, and have the opportunity to explore and directly apply ideas and prompts to their own personal circumstances and situations.

So if you're thinking of joining a session to explore some of these ideas or feelings in the future, perhaps try and avoid the 'sell-out'/'big ticket' types, and hunt out the smaller groups as you'll likely get more benefit and encouragement from them (but only if you're really serious about wanting to do something about feelings of being an imposter...)


Wednesday, August 16, 2023

how to (instantly) lose credibility as a key-note speaker

We've all been to conferences, webinars, and other events where there are headline speakers presented to us in a fanfare of excitement - and we all find ourselves getting whipped up in anticipation of what they're going to say, and then as they're delivering their message/story/challenge, we find ourselves moved to start to take action and make changes in our lives and businesses.

But what if the changes we make because of what these big name people exhort us to, are actually based on lies, and these high-ticket speakers are actually misleading us?

In the last few months, I've been at events where some of the 'big names' touted as to why I should attend them have based their whole arguments on different un-truths, including:

1) it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something

2) according to the laws of physics, bees shouldn't be able to fly

And if you're reading this thinking - but those things are true, please ask yourself this: how do you know they're true? Chances are, you believe them because you've heard them repeated by lots of people over time. (This is know as 'the illusionary truth effect'.) I'm pretty sure, you won't haven't researched either for accuracy or published research, because you already believe them to be true so, don't need to fact-check them.

My concern about this perpetuating of un-truths as part of people supporting their ideas or arguments, that they want us to act on is this:

- If you're asking me to believe the ideas you're presenting to me, but the foundations that you're building them on simply aren't true, then:

a) you've shown you can't be bothered to do some simple homework / fact-checking, which makes me wonder what else in your approach is similarly 'lazy'?

b) if you're asking me to trust you by relying on things that have been proven to be untrue, then that's a hard ask...

Reflecting on my own experiences and feelings of when key-note speakers have 'shown themselves up' in this way, I find myself immediately 'switching off' to want to listen to anything else that they're wanting to offer and argue - because I simply feel I can't trust it, and that they obviously don't have any respect for me as their audience. 

Which is a shame, as I also realise I may be missing out on some good stuff that's buried amongst the fallacies and untruths that they're unwittingly perpetuating, which only serves to contribute to false understanding about what we and others might really be capable of... 

So please - any of you out there who are speakers or headline attractions at events: do us the courtesy of showing that you respect us as your audience and fellow human beings, and do a quick check of your facts before you unwittingly succumb to the illusionary truth effect, and tell us do things based on 'facts' that just aren't true (and never have been).

debunking the 10,000 hours rule - 

debunking that bumble bees shouldn't be able to fly - 

Monday, July 17, 2023

why freelancers are so (unnecessarily?) self-critical

Reflecting with fellow freelancers as part of a recent networking get-together, we all shared and identified that we're really self-critical and unforgiving of ourselves when we get things wrong - yet are often far more understanding and accepting of others when they do...

My idea about the usual way we can reconcile this, is to do with our not being part of regular teams (in the ways that our salaried counterparts are) - in not having access to appraisals, regular training activities, or all of the other ongoing feedback that can come on a daily basis in micro interactions, we're lacking the perspective to make more sense of our own experiences. And we're more tolerant of others because we don't have the job security our salaried counterparts have, so are more concerned to maintain and protect relationships with have with clients. 

But I think there's actually something else that's equally, if not more, important in understanding this apparent contradiction: because we're not part of a regular team/workplace, we don't get to see all the mistakes other people make everyday that they're either getting away with, or turn out not to be that much of a problem after all.

Without the openness about mistakes and failures, we surely risk entrenching ourselves in echo chambers of our own mistakes - with no recourse to judge how far our errors and lapses really are that 'bad' in comparison to other peoples', we'll increasingly and unnecessarily chastise ourselves to our own detriment?  

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

all business owners and entrepreneurs should do car-boot sales once in a while

Some readers of this blog may recall that in the past I've written about how I try and keep my hand in at running a market stall from time to time...

But recently, I broke my car boot virginity, and with my wife (who's a more seasoned pro at these things) filled the back of the car and set off at crazy o'clock in the morning to unload the contents in a field alongside others, in hopes of being able to generate a few quid from things which we can't offer a home for anyone - but which we thought might still be of value and enjoyment to others.

And whilst standing in a field all day, hoping that passing strangers will stop by our pitch and help us not have quite so much stuff to re-pack into the car at the end of the day might not sound that appealing to some, it was an experience that I'm glad I indulged in (and will probably try and do again in the future):

- it highlighted the changing patterns in our society of how we consume/do business: for example, no-one buys CDs and DVDs, because these media are now available on streaming services;

- it re-enforced how hard it is to sell clothes (however cheaply you offer them), as fast fashion makes it so easy to buy on line (and have option to return without cost);

- and it also evidenced how increasingly time poor people are: comments from people in our neighbouring cars and pitches who've been doing it regularly for years, all agreed that there are far fewer people browsing than used to.

But, having a pitch at a car boot sale also reassured me that as much as things are changing (see above), some things will remain as true today and tomorrow as they did when I was a kid - 

* parents are always keen to encourage their kids to get into reading actual physical books;

* cash retains a place in how we do trade;

* and we'll always want an ice cream from the van...

Monday, June 5, 2023

being all things to all people - the realities of being self employed and an unpaid carer

This post was written at the start of carers week 2023 - and is based on conversations amongst freelancers and owners of small businesses at events hosted by Freelance Heroes and Atomicon23.

It is not intended to offer definitive, medical, or legal counsel or guidance - but reflect emergent themes and issues that may be of encouragement and support to others; and possibly also highlight future wider policy development needs. 

My name is Adrian, and I'm an unpaid carer for my adult step-child, as well as being a freelance business consultant.

In my head that makes me sound like I'm at an alcoholics anonymous meeting, but maybe it's not too dissimilar: people often struggle to feel comfortable in knowing how to best behave in the company of an alcoholic, and similarly with someone who's an unpaid carer (unless you're living it day to day, it can be hard to fully appreciate the realities of the identities and roles that you hold and manage as such).

But unlike my counterparts who are in salaried, direct employment, there are no legal recognitions for me as an unpaid carer in my (paid) work; and no data on how many other people like me there are - in preparing to host the roundtable discussions that this blog is based on, the Office of National Statistics, the Labour Force Survey, and ipse all revealed that there is no data about how many people who are self-employed/business owners are also unpaid carers. 

A rough-cut extrapolation of data I could find about unpaid carers in general, and different models of employment, might seem to suggest that roughly 10% of the self-employed are also unpaid carers (that's about half a million people!), and of those, less than 1 in 10 have access to any support for themselves in these roles - and as freelancers, we're more likely to be in poverty if we're an unpaid carer than if we were salaried.

Starting to initially explore these issues with groups of fellow freelancers, small business owners, and sole traders who are also unpaid carers like me, saw the following emerge and being shared:


Busting accepted wisdom about origin stories

It can be easy to assume that people who are unpaid carers chose to become self-employed to offer themselves more flexibility around their unpaid caring role - but what came out of the discussions, is that this wasn't always the case.

Often, people took on the mantle of an unpaid carer role after having been self-employed for many years, and as a result subsequently found they needed support with redeveloping how they worked in order to be able to maintain their earnings to continue to support themselves and their families (but this isn't offered/available to them).

Seeing it coming

In one of the roundtables, a person shared how they had joined the conversation to learn from others' experiences because they had recently recognised that in future years, they will need to be more actively involved in supporting the care of their parents. 

They were trying to be pro-active in managing the impact that becoming an unpaid carer would have on themselves, their family, and their business by better understanding the likely realities they will experience when they do. As a result, they hoped to be able to best plan to mitigate the impacts of this - and this roundtable had offered them the first opportunity to be able to do this in any meaningful way.

The need for a better handbook

Through sharing their experiences, people agreed that there was much about being an unpaid carer that they wish they had know sooner, but which no-one had told them (for example - the benefits of being able to be formally recognised and registered as a carer for a family member). 

While there is knowledge out there, it can be hard to navigate and identify ("you don't know what you need to know, so don't know what questions to ask").  People are frequently relying on friends and family for informal (emotional) support for themselves, but as encouraging as these people might be, they rarely know of practical and pre-existing systems and processes that unpaid carers can apply to, but often aren't told about.

The limiting of business growth and potential

A common recurring practicality about being an unpaid carer that was shared, was how it meant that the businesses we had created all had to be limited in terms of their potential to grow in order to honour our caring responsibilities - and with that, our ability to innovate and develop new services and offers in the marketplace.

Whilst this is obviously a personal decision that all unpaid carers find ways to eventually reconcile, this speaks to the impact of the need for unpaid care to our wider economy.

The cost to our personal futures

As well as the financial impact that being an unpaid carer creates through loss of earnings (which is not mitigated through carers allowance were it is able to be awarded), there was also concern about how little support there is for us to be able to access for ourselves in this role - one person shared how becoming an unpaid carer had led to them being diagnosed with mental ill health, and being subsequently needing to be prescribed anti-depressants.

The emotional stresses that unpaid care places on us therefore also affects the future we might have otherwise experienced for ourselves, through it is affecting our well-being today. 

The need for supportive clients

A tension was briefly explored around our relationships with our clients as small business owners - specifically, how far we're open with them about our identify and priorities as an unpaid carer, and how this tension can be managed in how we work with them. As freelancers, our clients come to us to solve problems quickly, responsively, and without adding to their own existing complexity, so revealing we may need to drop them at no notice because of a caring need, may understandably 'spook' them a little...

People shared how their clients were generally sympathetic and flexible in work agreed - but not every business that commissions us will be able to be such; which loops us back to the limiting on our business' potential that being an unpaid carer can entail.

Taking back control

Being self-employed often means we face a barrage of external stressors because of the ever-changing circumstances we all experience that are instigated by others (clients, government, etc) - and being an unpaid carer only exacerbates these through the additional unknowns of how the child, parent, or sibling we care for may respond on any given day to any given event, how reviews of their care or support plans may trigger new complications, and so on.

The roundtables therefore also tried to look at how we're approaching supporting ourselves, and in doing so, gain a little more control over our own lives:

- counselling support from the FSB was mentioned as one of their member benefits, that one person had made use of;

- one person shared how they had chosen to deliberately limit the earnings of their business to reduce the stress on having to work with multiple clients on different deadlines which would otherwise be constantly competing with the needs of their child, that they are the unpaid carer for;

- taking out a private health care plan to be able to arrange GP appointments, any procedures, etc at times that suited them, rather than playing the lottery of NHS scheduling and waiting lists, was shared by someone else;

- registering as a limited company, rather than remaining a sole trader, was shared as a way one person had approached reducing the stress they were feeling about the risks in their business alongside being an unpaid carer.

But these roundtables weren't all 'doom and gloom' as might start to be otherwise interpreted based on the above:

- there was also news about 'Cornerstone', a new emergent peer community for freelancers who are also unpaid carers being created;  

- gratitude was expressed for people having the opportunity to (briefly) share time with their peers, and be edified from hearing that what they were experiencing wasn't unique to them; 

- and people also valued how being an unpaid carer creates space for us to reflect on our own personal identities as human beings.

If you're an unpaid carer you may find the below sites of help (as well as links in the various parts of the blog above):

I'm also happy to offer to speak with any fellow small business owners, sole traders, and freelancers to swap stories that may be of mutual benefit - as well as with any sector or national bodies to further explore potential policy and initiatives that may address some of the themes and issues these roundtables identified:

- the impact to the economy of 500,000 businesses not being able to achieve their potential;

- the need for business disruption to be avoided when small business owners transition into unpaid care roles;

- how freelancers can be better supported to access support/avoid poverty when becoming unpaid carers.

UPDATE 3rd AUG 2023:

Published after these round tables, and blog was written up, JRF have undertaken some further research into this, and found that as unpaid carers who are also freelance/self-employed/small business owners, we pay a #CaringPenalty (suffer lost earnings) of nearly £10,000 every year!
- any wonder so many of us are finding ourselves being pushed into poverty?

Thursday, June 1, 2023

I'm always trying to be a better conman

One of the recurring pieces of feedback I get from many of the people and organisations I've worked with, is how they've enjoyed how the ways in which I've enabled them to create the changes they've struggled to achieve, but always aspired to.

And got me thinking about what the 'secret sauce' is that I always try and use, and bring to every project and contract I'm involved with.

I've realised it's all about my being a con-man:

Con(findence) - modelling behaviours and actions myself, to inspire and encourage others in turn; so that they might be able to reach further than they thought they could, or felt brave enough to.

Con(nections) - we all rely on other people to varying degrees for everything that we want to achieve and enjoy in this life. I'm always happy to share contacts in my network with others to try and create some serendipity whenever and wherever possible. I also recognise that I'm mortal, so at some point, people will need to know who else they might be all to call on in the future... 

Con(viction) - life is hard and unfair. We need to keep finding ways to motivate ourselves, which is why I try and only get involved in work that I think is meaningful in some way, and creates benefit for others. Part of how I work is wanting to find ways to get excited about the things I find myself involved in.

So there it is - I'm a conman, and that's probably a good thing for the people who ask me to share some of their journeys and adventures with them.      

Monday, May 22, 2023

How people's forgetfulness is costing me a family home (or, maybe it's time I stopped trying to be so idealistic?)

A few years ago, I started to track how much time I'd 'lost' from people forgetting to turn up to meetings that they'd asked for with me, or from groups who'd booked me to run workshops for them, only to cancel them the day before.

My reason for this wasn't motivated by spite or indignation, but rather to try and quantify and understand the extent of the impact of such occurrences on my business; and what that meant in turn for how well I could earn money to support my family. 

The first time I reported this figure was in 2020 - and it a showed a whopping £4,560 over the year; equivalent to treating my family to a meal out once a week every week of the year.

Sadly, that figure has continued to rise year on year, and since 2020 it's jumped by over 80% to the latest reported value of £8,325!

That's about £160 a week that I otherwise could have earned - nearly £700 a month: almost the average cost of renting a family home in the UK! 

Over the last 18 years since I've become self employed, I've always tried to practice the value of grace in different ways - which to date, includes not penalising people who are causing me to incur these lost earnings (which, frankly, would be very welcome in my bank account in light of current inflationary and cost of living pressures). I could have been charging them a percentage of what I would have otherwise realised from working with them in those periods of time: a common practice in the terms and conditions amongst my fellow consultants and training providers.

But in light of people and groups seeming to be becoming more dismissive of recognising the impact (hurt) that their not trying to make effort to have the courtesy of letting me know when they know that they they're not going to be able to spend the time with me that they'd agreed to, and with sufficient notice for it not to cause me further financial distress, maybe I need to start introducing some 'nudges' in my own T&C's?

And that sucks - because, as I wrote before, I'm aware of how messy and unpredictable the world can be at times, and we can't always know when we're going to be knocked sideways. But surely, if we all know how much we're all struggling, we should at least be trying to make an effort to recognise when a change in our own circumstances may affect others, by having the courtesy to give each other a quick heads-up?

Perhaps by starting to include some penalties in how I agree to work with people, that might help to start to nudge behaviours so that we can all become a little more sympathetic, understanding, and supportive of each other?

But doing so would mean I'm starting to compromise on what I try and hold as one of my core values - perhaps after 18 years it's time I accepted that I can't carry on being so idealistic?

Thursday, May 11, 2023

erased from history (by facebook)

You won't be able to find me on Facebook any more.

And more than that - you won't be able to find any trace that I was ever there since I first registered my account on the platform about 20 years ago... no sign of any photos I posted, comments I made on your posts, nor membership of any groups.

And it's not because I've decided I hate you all and don't want to hang out with you anymore - but because I found myself being targeted by hackers who, it seems, when they couldn't get through my passwords and 2-factor authentication do-hickey, managed to find a back door way to link my personal Facebook profile to what must have been a very illegal Instagram account.

And I know this because when I recently tried to log into Facebook , it told me that my account has been disabled - and reading around this topic, it seems that whatever the hackers were doing on the Instagram account was bad enough for it to qualify as an immediate and automatic disabling (deleting) of both that account, and under the rules of the Metaverse, any accounts linked to it (which included mine, thanks to the hackers), with no right to be able to submit a request to review the decision.

Now - I know what most of you reading this will be thinking at this point:

"how awful for you (I'm glad it wasn't me that happened to!)"

"that's really unfair that you can't appeal this - surely there must be something you can do?"

Well - like I said, I read around this level of disabling and them's the rules that we signed up to when we created our accounts, and agreed to keep them going when Facebook went Meta.

Life isn't always fair - and no-one owes me anything (a personal mantra that helps me with navigating and pressing on in this world).

I'm fortunate to have grown up in a pre-Facebook world, so as upsetting as this might seem, I feel I'm able to bear it better than those that have come after me into this internet age would. Somehow I navigated this life before Facebook was born, so there's a chance I'll (hopefully) be able to again.

Whilst I do have the option to 'regenerate' myself on Facebook by recreating a new profile and account from scratch, I'm not immediately rushing to do so.

I'm using this unexpected plot twist to allow myself some time away from that playground - to have space to reflect and experience what it's like not to be on Facebook, so that if/when I return, I'll be clearer about how I manage my relationship with it (and hopefully it will have strenthgthed it's security and rights of appeal by then, too...)  

Friday, May 5, 2023

why volunteer as a small business owner?

Being self-employed or a small business is hard.

We're the ones responsible for making sure everything's being taken care of, to resolve all the issues as they arise, and to also make sure the coffee doesn't run out...

We spend more hours working than our salaried counterparts - so from a starting point of being more pressured and having less free time, how could we even consider adding volunteering to our calendars?

Well, various researches show that there are lots of reasons that motivate people to volunteer:

For me, volunteering is something I do through my pro bono work. It's part of my CPD: the opportunity to get involved in projects and activities that I might otherwise not, and in doing so, push my skills and gain new knowledge.

And it's also part of my values: for example, as a member of the Federation of Small Businesses, I try and show solidarity and support and encourage fellow small businesses, through volunteering as a host of one of their networking forums. 

I have an idea that it we're not clear as to why we're doing something before we embark on it, then at best we won't get the most benefit from the experience, and at work - it will be a waste of time.

So if you're thinking about what you might be able to 'give back' through volunteering as a small business/business owner/freelancer/sole trader - it's ok to think about what you might want to get out of the experience, and then to seek out ways that best help you to achieve that.

Monday, April 17, 2023

How long can I keep it up for?

In January 2005 I officially became self-employed. I never meant to be (and still don't), but in seeking to try and make the most of it from every angle, I've committed to a range of ongoing practices - one of which is my annual impact report.

It began in 2006 with 2 throwaway lines on my then CV, and didn't even feature in my blog here until I'd done the 4th one of them!

But over the years, the framework I've created has expanded and evolved so that it's now looked to as a leading example of 'integrated impact reporting'; picked over by people in different countries around the world; and is now starting to increasingly raise questions about/highlight how the context for how I work is changing (and not just because of when I started this, the UN's Global Goals, and letters 'ESG' didn't exist!).

And this years' has already elicited feedback that likens its approach and structure to the professional revalidation that medical practitioners have to undergo every year to prove that they remain safe to care for patients (which I'm taking as a pretty hefty endorsement of it being an excellent way to evidence my CPD*).

However, one of the other early comments that's also come back has particularly struck me - "17 years of impact reporting - that's dedication!"  I've been sharing this 'warts and all' view of how I work, and what happens as a result of it, every year for 17 years.  

I'm not sure I know of any other organisation who's published so many such reports about themselves in this way, so I'm hoping there's someone out there who can 'prove me wrong' and help reassure me that I'm not the 'oldest tool in the bag' when it comes to publishing impact reports on their work?

* In this instance, the letters mean what most people usually associate with them, rather than what I do... 


Tuesday, April 11, 2023

imposters in the RSA

I was recently asked to give a talk about some of the ideas in my book about imposter syndrome by the RSA North, as part of their ongoing Coffeehouse programme which seeks to spread thinking and insights to help create more/better change throughout our communities.

Having been approached to become a Fellow in 2007 by direct invitation from the Society (to my knowledge, the only such instance - everyone else I meet who's connected to the RSA became a Fellow through either direct personal application, or being nominated by an existing Fellow!), I've always been encouraged by the profile and ideas of other people that they've helped to share, so to now be part of that recognised body of changemakers who they offer a platform to, is an exciting validation of my own!

But unlike previous invitations I've received to date from sector bodies to lead conversations based on the ideas in the book, this time the format was much more about my conveying a summation of my research and arguments, followed by a short Q&A.

Rather than re-hash what I shared in my presentation (that's all available through either reading the book, or dipping in and out of the 2-min videos on my YouTube channel's playlist), I wanted to try and capture some of what people shared in response to what I brought, and the initial conversations that started to flow from it:

  • Many people in the session felt that they don't have easy access to opportunities to talk about any feelings of self-doubt in constructive ways. As a result, people can live with feelings of imposterism for prolonged periods of time, unsure of how to resolve them, and this can create ongoing damage and distress for them.  
  • Imposter Syndrome can sometimes be 'weaponised' by others against us: if we start to exhibit skill and potential that a colleague feels threatened by, it can be easier for them to seek to undermine our confidence to maintain their position, rather than 'rise to the challenge' and 'level up their own game'.
  • If a person feels that they've never experienced feelings of self-doubt/imposterism, then this may be a sign that they could have psychopathic traits. However, this does not automatically mean that such people are automatically dangerous or destructive...
  • A lack of role models for a person in new or emerging roles (which can be a frequent 'root cause' of feelings of imposterism developing within someone), can sometimes be mitigated through a carefully designed mentoring or coaching relationship.

But as always with opportunities like this to reflect on the books ideas with others - to gain feedback, critique, and seek to further build on them, the time goes all too quickly. And the above capture offers tantalising hints at future conversations we might like to explore more fully and deeply - so, if you were in that lunchtime talk, and want to carry on the discussion, or you'd like to reflect on some of your own experiences and thinking about any of the above, I'd be very happy to find a time to chat over a cuppa (virtual or otherwise!).

Thursday, March 23, 2023

so long, northern facilitators... (the end has come, but the moment has been prepared for)

4 years ago, I accidentally found myself starting to host an monthly gathering of people who shared professional interest and roles in facilitation, and as facilitators.

It was only supposed to be for fellow facilitators in the Manchester area, and it was only supposed to be for a year or two.

But somehow, 4 years on, I only find myself only now 'signing out' of this role for the last time, having brokered links between facilitators around the world...

(maybe some background at this point would be helpful): 

I've been aware of, and involved with, the International Association of Facilitators for many years - and am part of the leadership team for the England and Wales 'chapter' of this body.

4 years ago, I asked the question "how can I find out if there are any fellow facilitators in my area, to swap stories with, and for a bit of mutual peer support and encouragement?" and learnt of the informal practice of #iafmeetup: you simply pick a venue, a day and a time, and then put an announcement out to see who turns up: not just IAF members, but anyone who feels that they may be a part of/interested in becoming more involved in, a community of facilitators.

At that point (2019) they'd been popping up all over the country, and always with the same format - an informal drop in for anyone in the neighbourhood who was free for about an hour, to chew over current things we were thinking about.

Now, most people will know that I like to try out new things, and challenge accepted norms where I can: so I introduced some changes to the format when we ran it in Manchester: 

  • we starting running the drop-ins for 90 mins - in recognition that travel time for people to get to a venue in Manchester wasn't always quick or easy, so the time they would get from being part of the conversation needed to be meaningful enough to help them justify the travel time.
  • we moved out of cafes, and into a library (the Portico), to reduce distractions to our conversations, and also increase the chances of having comfy seats.
  • we introduced the idea of alternate meetups having a specific focus: to offer a space for more structured learning and development of our skills.

And it started to go well - word got out, more people starting coming along, and the library were keen to keep hosting us (they have a kitchen on site with a great range of cakes!)   

And then someone on the other side of the world sneezed and our lives contracted to the size of our laptop screens.

I recognised how important these meetups would be for facilitators in my area, in allowing us ways to maintain contact and encouragement in the face of turbulence and uncertainty. All my fellow #iafmeetup hosts around the country were coming to the same conclusion, so we all moved out of our libraries and cafes, and into zoom rooms.

For various reasons, I found myself being quickly approached by other #iafmeetup hosts across the North of England, asking if they could 'merge' with us - possibly largely in recognition that I'd been using zoom a bit in previous years, so seemed to have some idea of how to make this format best work for people. And then equally as quickly, I found myself the 'last host standing' out of all of us in the North - but, in recognising how valuable people who were clicking in were finding the calls, persevered in continuing to offer my time to set up the calls and facilitate them in way of showing solidarity.

And looking back over this early pandemic period, I realise just how forward thinking we were being as a body of practitioners - in our first on-line gathering, we were already considering what the long term impacts of the pandemic might be in transforming the norms of facilitation practice:

Over this period, you may have seen various social media posts where I've shared some of the more unusual and entertaining topics we've discussed and shared stories around. We've also continued the habit of having specific themes to explore together - most of which I've written up notes from, and shared on my blog and elsewhere:

  • how to facilitate people who don't want to be in the room (2019)
  • how different physical spaces affects facilitation (2020)
  • facilitation vs training (2020)
  • northern facilitators vs UK facilitators - what the research shows (2020)
  • getting ready for hybrid facilitation (2021)
  • winning clients (2022)
  • the impact of faith in/on facilitation (2022)

And over this period, as we've been meeting on-line, we've also been joined by facilitators from the North of other countries around the world too, as word about the Northern facilitators of England has spread...  

This period has also been an age of the group 'selfie with props' - a tradition that people have seemed to increasingly look forward to as one of the highlights of the experience:


But now it's over. Today is the last 'Northern #iafmeetup' that I'll host.

I've not stopped hosting this group because I've had enough of my fellow facilitators, but rather because as IAF England and Wales, we've been re-thinking what we do, how, and why - and as part of this we feel it would be prudent to rationalise the on-line meetups to a monthly event (as it was before 2020). This will also see a wider group of people facilitating these calls to widen experiences and opportunities. Which means that I may be making guest hosting appearances in the future...!

If you were ever part of a Manchester/Northern #iafmeetup call over the last 4 years - thank you for turning up and sharing your time (and props!). I hope you took things from the conversations that were by turn encouraging, constructive, and challenging; in helping to enhance your skills and confidence both as a facilitator, and a fellow human being.

Hopefully I'll see you all again at some point in the future #iafmeetup calls (you can check out the dates and booking links over on eventbrite) - so while this is an end of sorts, the moment has been prepared for, so that there'll be a continuation of them in a new form...