Tag Archives: RISE

Rise (winds) up

In most cases, if a husband filing for divorce followed up that action by asking his wife whether she’d be happy to hand over the family home to his mistress, it wouldn’t go down too well. Bearing that in mind, it’s probably not especially surprising that (according to reports on Social Enterprise) members of Rise, the soon to be disbanded social enterprise umbrella body for the south west of England, have voted against transferring the organisation’s remaining assets to controversial accreditation scheme, the Social Enterprise Mark.

It’s quite possible that some of the members may now question whether Rise should have devoted less of its energies to developing the Mark, and more to developing social enterprise in the South West – in which case, those social enterprises might now be in a position to afford to support an umbrella body.

Clearly, though, Rise’s demise points to a wider problem in terms of regional support – the government was paying for it and is now not paying for it. Explaining the decision to close the organisation, Rise Chair, Andrew North said: “It is with great sadness that the Rise board of directors has been tasked with the closure of Rise, but with the demise of the South West RDA and a lack of government support for social enterprises, there is no other alternative. We hope that the network of south-west social enterprises, which Rise has been instrumental in growing, will continue to thrive.

While making clear – as I originally did over a year ago – that I believe (a) that the government’s claim to want an increase in social enterprise activity while failing to ensure the availability of specialist support lacks credibility and (b) that regional support organisations such as Rise provide an important service (the value of which may not be fully recognised until it’s not there), I do think there are number of important questions raised by the closure of Rise.

A report on the Civil Society website expands on the reasoning behind Rise’s decision: “Last year the government decided that all RDAs across England would close by March 2012. As a result the board of Rise has decided to dissolve, as there is no prospect of future business or direct funding. Rise’s most recent accounts show it has a healthy balance sheet with £389,744 in reserves, and a net asset value of £30,582.

It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of social entrepreneurs in the South West on Rise choosing to disband with a reasonable amount of money in the bank. As I understand it, there are other regional social enterprise bodies that run without any full time members of staff and I would be keen to know why Rise decided that it wasn’t worth investing some of their remaining assets in trying to establish a smaller, more sustainable operation.

It would be equally interesting to hear why Rise has taken the judgment that there is no prospect of sustaining their work through selling services to members. This amplifies a wider issue at the heart of the social enterprise support industry – I am not in any way implying that Rise, its staff or board members are either primarily or uniquely culpable – based on a culture of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

Those of us who’ve cumulatively spent several days of our lives on the receiving end of earnest lectures from social enterprise leaders on the evils of grants and state funding – and the need to be a real business that sustains itself through trading – could be forgiven for wondering whether some of those same leaders could reasonably be expected to have a few entrepreneurial tricks up their sleeve beyond bemoaning the fact that the government is no longer giving them any money (part of which would be spent going round telling people to stop asking the government for money).

Four people are losing their jobs as result of Rise’s closure and many social enterprises will now not get the support they need. Those are bad things. One good thing that could happen as a result of the challenge faced by the social enterprise support sector would be a re-evaluation of the messages that organisations supporting social enterprise are putting out. There are activities that are socially valuable that can’t be funded (entirely) through trading activities. Ironically, this apparently includes helping people to do social enterprise. That’s nothing to be ashamed of but now might be the time to ditch the bluster, admit reality and have a serious think about how we can get stuff done.

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The Social Enterprise Mark – what went wrong

It’s always been my intention for this blog, where appropriate, to be robustly critical of negative developments within the social enterprise world but to avoid being gratuitously rude or nasty. I’ve been attempting to come up with a suitable response to the article from the Mark team in this month’s (generally very good) issue of Social Enterprise magazine but unfortunately, the Mark saga has now reached a point where it feels distinctly unpleasant to be stating the facts.

The Mark’s Marketing and Communications Manager, Lesley Foster, explains that nine months on from its launch as a ‘national brand’ there are now ‘more than 250’ Mark holders. Based on (Mark partner) the Social Enterprise Coalition(SEC)’s claim that there are 62,000 social enterprises in the UK, the Mark is still some way off signing up 0.5% of those eligible. With grant funding for the project totaling between £814,000 and £964,000, current figures (now reported by the SE Mark team as 275*) show each £99 Mark award being subsidised with at least £2,960 of grant income*.

With 275 social enterprises signed up, trading income equals £27,225*. At best this represents slightly over 3.2%* of the project’s turnover. Given that at least 50% of a Mark holder’s income needs to come from trading, the Mark team must now be contemplating the possibility that – even if the project receives a further injection of grant or government funding – it will be morally impossible for The Social Enterprise Mark Company to display the Mark on its own website after March 2011.

As mentioned previously, I’ve never been a supporter of the Mark. It neither tells commissioners about what organisations do and how they do it, nor tells consumers about the social impact of the products they buy (like, for example, the Fairtrade Mark). I’m remain willing to sign-up to a Mark that does either of those things but I see no benefit in buying into what a friend in the movement describes as ‘a bumper sticker that delivers no social impact’.

Despite my own opposition to the Mark, I’m genuinely surprised it’s been as unsuccessful as it has been. My hunch at the time of the its launch was that as many social entrepreneurs are optimistic people, keen to try and make the best of things, often against their better judgment, many would apply for the Mark as a gesture of social enterprise solidarity.

As it is, the speed and scale of the comeback necessary for the Mark in its present form to become a sustainable business would, if achieved, rightly see the Mark Company registered as a religion in the next census. The Mark has been a cock-up from start to (looming) finish. Given the resources expended, the number of social enterprises signed-up is significantly less than the number who could reasonably have been expected to have been engaged in lengthy one-to-one discussion on their needs during the market research stage. Instead, the Mark has been a political fudge – who can forget the darkly hilariously proposals for a three-tiered accreditation system – that failed disastrously to even fudge the politics of the issue.

A clue to the debacle may possible lie in the fact that the project was pushed forward by a “14-member social enterprise identifier project steering group that was set up to find a way to brand the sector with professional marketing advice from the government’s Central Office of Information (COI).” I’m sure there are some good uses for a 14-member steering group but I don’t think any of them are directly-related to starting a sustainable business.

Current SEC chief executive, Peter Holbrook, is not to blame for what’s happened. He’s loyally and honourably backed the Mark after finding it in his inbox on taking up the job this year but he will hopefully be able to play a role in both sorting out the mess and making sure similar mistakes don’t happen again. Between them, Rise, SEC and the late Office of the Third Sector have – with undoubted good intentions – cooked up an embarrassingly expensive dogs dinner. Most worryingly, the Mark saga demonstrates the failure of many in the upper echelons of the social enterprise lobby to understand either what social enterprises need or how social enterprise works in practice.

Recriminations are no use to anyone but it’s time for a bit of humility and a lot of listening. I hope that it’s not too late to salvage something from the mess. Maybe there’s still time for a new Mark product, developed in consultation with people running social enterprises rather civil servants and umbrella body executives and enabling social enterprises to better explain what they do to commissioners and/or customers, to be brought to market.

*Figures updated in response to new information provided by the SE Mark team.

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Bury your head in the brand (debate)

There’s nothing that excites social entrepreneurs more than discussing the meaning of social enterprise. And there’s nothing that excites the social enterprise lobby more than the idea that everything would be all right if only the general public knew what social enterprise is. Neither of these situations are either bad or surprising in themselves but I can’t help thinking that ‘brand wars‘ is shaping up to be one of the most pointless policy debates in the world, ever.

A committee has been set-up to discuss whether the social enterprise trade mark developed by Rise should be rolled out nationally as it is or split into three tiered trademarks: a top tier of organisations who meet a series of strict conditions as to what a social enterprise is; a middle tier of organisations who think meeting a series of strict conditions on what a social enterprise is is a nice idea but not nice enough for them to do it themselves; and a third tier of people who don’t have a business but drink Cafedirect and never take foreign holiday without planting five trees in the back garden first.

Already, some people are up in arms. In the linked article, social enterprise developer, Geof Cox, wants to know why ‘they’ want to ‘straight-jacket us’. They don’t, Geof. They want a hook for some publicity campaigns and some funding applications to enable them to do more publicity campaigns – if you don’t want to sign-up to whatever the official version of social enterprise ends up being they’re not going to make you and it’s unlikely to have any major effect on anything you’re doing.

Back in the real world, the debate doesn’t really matter either way to anyone whose actually doing social enterprise. If the conditions for being an official social enterprise turn out to be in line with what our organisation already does and wants to do already then it’ll make sense to sign-up and get some useful publicity. If they don’t, then we’re not going to be changing our approach to satisfy the whims of the social enterprise lobby, who are mostly very lovely people but are neither our paying clients nor our stakeholders.

My instinct is that, unlike Fair Trade or being a Social Firm, the notion of social enterprise is far too subjective and disparately delivered to be usefully trademarked. The brand debate is an interesting intellectual exercise but it certainly shouldn’t be allowed to become a distraction from the ongoing challenges of keeping on paying the bills while doing something socially useful. But it’s going to run and run and run.

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