‘Sell people something they don’t have’ – Reflections on Social Enterprise Exchange (part two)

Following on from part one, the packed programme at Social Enterprise Exchange meant finding a balance between attending workshops, catching up with old friends and making new ones. The first workshop that I attended was ‘Selling Skills – how to win new business’. The speakers were Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa from media training social enterprise, Catch 22 (previously interviewed here), Kresse Wesling of Elvis & Kresse – who create lifestyle accessories from waste, and Janet Barnes from Dunbar Bakery – a bakery run as a community co-operative.

There’s nothing unusual about this kind of workshop taking place at social enterprise event. What was different is that, whereas during the New Labour era of plenty, much of the talk involved consultants and support specialists dishing out generic exhortations for social enterprises to be ‘real businesses’ – this session, at least partially, addressed the more complicated question of how social enterprises could compete with other ‘real businesses’ while also being social enterprises.

As Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa pointed out while explaining his business model for Catch 22: “social enterprises have to sell customers something they don’t have“. All businesses have to do that but often (though not always) for a social enterprise to work, that thing that the customer doesn’t have needs to at least partly connect to the social change the social enterprise is looking to bring about.

In Catch 22’s case, big media companies don’t have access to talented and well trained aspiring media professionals from a wide range of ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds – people who wouldn’t have the right contacts to get in on work experience. Catch 22 provides finds those talented young people and trains them, media companies pay them to do so. It’s a relatively simple concept (which is not to suggest it’s simple to pull it off in practice).

Kresse Wesling explained that Elvis & Kresse offer customers accessories that have a story. There is a significant number of people for whom it means something to have a wallet or handbag that was “saved from the clutches of landfill“. In both cases, helping a wider range of people to get a career in the media, and making better use of the earth resources, are the social change but they’re also an intrinsic part of the product.

The situation is different in the case of Dunbar Bakery. They’re also selling customers products that they want but selling good bread and cakes doesn’t, in itself, deliver positive social change. The bakery, opened following the closure of a family bakery in the town, is a co-operative owned by over 300 local people who have invested over £40,000 in the business. They aim to offer job opportunities to people who have been long-term unemployed. As Janet Barnes made clear, the most important factor in the bakery’s success is that the products they sell are of a high standard but the business model also relies on people buying into the idea of a local community shop and providing job opportunities for unemployed people.

In the afternoon, with some apprehension, I attended a workshop called ‘Social Impact in Practice: making measurement meaningful’. The social enterprise movement currently faces big challenges around impact measurement (working out if, and explaining how and to what extent, what we are doing is socially useful).  The best known method of impact measurement, Social Return of Investment (SROI) is widely regarded as being more boring than sitting in an empty room, eating a large packet of breadsticks, while completing a book of wordsearches to find the Latin names of plants. Whilst also being overly complicated and time-consuming.

Fortunately, given that demonstrating impact is vitally important to what we do, the contributors to the workshop – Jonathan Coburn of Social Value Lab, Richard Kennedy of CAN and Kevin Robbie of Social Ventures Australia – had some interesting points to make.

Jonathan Coburn started by pointing out the value of impact measurement in the allocation of scarce resources – helping both grantmaking trusts and (particularly now) the public sector get more bang for their buck. He said that there was a danger that the wide array of frameworks for measuring impact can be a distraction. He added that it was important to start by answering the question ‘What evidence do people actually want?’ – based on understanding what the social purpose of your organisation is.

Richard Kennedy, who works for CAN Impact – CAN’s impact reporting consultancy – explained the process the organisation goes through when carrying out an SROI report, beginning with putting open-ended questions to a range of stakeholders before identifying the focused, closed questions needed to collect meaningful data. He said it was important for social enterprises to be clear about their ‘Theory of Change‘ so that they’d be in a position to investigate whether or not they were being successful.

Kevin Robbie talked about his experience of carrying out SROI reports for 49 organisations in Australia – only three had been made public as organisations were wary about putting information about what they do out in the open. He explained that it was important to agree on a set of principles for impact measurement as, while there might never be a single agreed system, it would be useful to have agreement on what the processes were meant to achieve. He said he was concerned that lots of consultants were creating their own frameworks for measurement, resulting in big arguments based on 2% disagreement over processes while there was often agreement on the other 98%.

Edward Finch, from accountants, Buzzacott, who was chairing the session, summed up the contributions by highlighting the need for impact reporting to be based on principles, and proportionate to the size and needs of the organisation – and suggested that the social enterprise movement was on a journey from ‘social impact assessment’ to ‘social impact planning’.

Overall, Social Enterprise Exchange was an enjoyable and thought-provoking day in Glasgow. In other news, First Minister, Alex Salmond was there and made a speech about how his government is putting lots of money into social enterprise. That bring back memories.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “‘Sell people something they don’t have’ – Reflections on Social Enterprise Exchange (part two)

  1. Pingback: After the goldrush – Reflections on Social Enterprise Exchange 2012 (part one) | Beanbags and Bullsh!t

  2. Alisdair Cameron

    “social enterprises have to sell customers something they don’t have“.
    A bit more than that,surely? They have to sell customers something they don’t have, but that they do want or need, and in some way is a social good.

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  3. Beanbags admin

    Definitely ‘yes’ to the ‘want or need’. Often yes to the social good but I think that depends on the social enterprise. Dunbar Bakery’s cakes aren’t necessarily a social good but hopefully the overall effect of the business is to do social good.

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    • Alisdair Cameron

      Agreed, but we do need to insist on some (no matter how vague) element of social good. Otherwise, your friendly neighbourhood arms dealer would fit the definition.

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  4. jeffmowatt

    It would indeed fit Alisdair. According to Misha Glenny in ‘McMafia, around 15% of the global economy is anti-social – organised crime. Some put the social economy at 1%, leaving around 84% for the asocial economy.

    On a conventional business form someone asked recently why business buys from you – I said I’d been told by some that what we provided was business critical, by others that we were dependable.

    I’m not convinced by SROI, which places a financial value on social impact.

    Yunus says of Grameen Danone that the bottom line is the number of children removed from malnutrition, a human measurement.

    For us – “Economics, and indeed human civilization, can only be measured and calibrated in terms of human beings. Everything in economics has to be adjusted for people, first, and abandoning the illusory numerical analyses that inevitably put numbers ahead of people, capitalism ahead of democracy, and degradation ahead of compassion.”

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  5. “social enterprises have to sell customers something they don’t have”. Yes Alistair, that one is the crucial and thought-provoking one, isn’t it? A major criticism of the marketing-led corporate consumer industry is that it ‘sells’ things to people that they do not need and ‘creates’ wants (and fears) where they previously did not exist. Incidentally, there is a cracking wee video on the event, passed on courtesy of Link Housing Group in Scotland. The link (no pun) is at:

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