Tag Archives: social enterprise exchange

‘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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After the goldrush – Reflections on Social Enterprise Exchange 2012 (part one)

Last year’s annual social enterprise conference, Voice11, saw five government ministers join the shivering throng at the O2 centre in London. This year, Social Enterprise Exchange – a joint event put on by Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) and Social Enterprise Scotland – featured warm sunshine in Glasgow but no UK government ministers at all. Nick Hurd, the minister for civil society, did send a video message…

In his blog on the event, David Ainsworth of Third Sector says: “there was a general feeling that the government had tried some things, didn’t really get what was needed, and had now lost much of its initial enthusiasm for the sector.

Nick Hurd memorably claimed in the early days of the coalition that while there would be smaller cake (in terms of public spending under the new government), civil society would get a bigger slice of that cake. In fact, the government’s policy has been an exagerrated continuation of New Labour’s policy of talking loudly about public services being contracted out to smaller organisations in the community, while directing all the serious cash from public service delivery into the bulging wallets of private outsourcing companies.

While accelarating the creation of an oligopoly of corporate outsourcing monsters, New Labour did also provide considerably funding for social enterprise development. That goldrush is now over and, while there’s still plenty of consultants working in social enterprise, those that are still plugging away are mostly those with strong ideas about what their consultancy is meant to achieve – as opposed to specialists in hoovering up cash for churning out generic business plans and advice sessions on getting loans.

My feeling, significantly reinforced in Glasgow, is that social enterprise – a movement that expends significant intellectual and emotional resources deliberating what it is – is being galvanised by the opportunity to state clearly what it is not, while social entrepreneurs are getting better at explaining the benefits of what they do.

In his opening remarks at the conference, SEUK chief executive, Peter Holbrook, stated: “Bringing a pure profit model to work with the most vulnerable people does not make sense” while in her closing remarks, SEUK chair, Claire Dove, was equally blunt in contrasting social enterprise with the approach of a controversial back-to-work provider: “Thinking about A4E. If I had £8.6 million, what would I do? How many jobs would I create? That’s what the CEO took home. It’s absolutely scandalous.

The overall impression of the conference for me was of anger about the way things are, blended with grim determination to keep going in spite of everything and then combined with an underlying sense of optimism. The workshops that I attended (see part two) were notable for a massive reduction in vacuous bullshit about social enterprise being really nice and ‘so innovative’, with a corresponding increase in practical, sensible advice for people wanting to get on with doing social enterprise.

The lunchtime plenary ‘Good Business and how to do it’ to a ‘big picture’ looked at the role of social enterprise – particularly in the UK – after ‘the world financial catastrophe’. Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark was an engaging chair who seemed to have unusually strong understanding of the issues for a mainstream journalist.

On the panel, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, started by asking: “I’m not the shadow minister for social enterprise – why am I here?” While his enthusiasm for social enterprise was clear, his contributions didn’t entirely answer the question but he spoke strongly on the need to meet the needs of emerging markets and of creating an economy that was “not just about consuming things“. He also talked about an economy focused on long-term value creation rather than short-term profit.

Paul Monaghan from The Co-Operative Group was keen to emphasis the political nature of social enterprise past and present. He challenged the popular image of the Rochdale Pioneers, regarded as the founders of co-operative retail, as men with cloth caps and whippets who just wanted to run a local shop. He pointed out the the Pioneers were Chartists and that their political agenda included developing social housing and ultimately ‘owning the means of production‘ co-operatively. He said that: “Good business is doing the right thing – even when there isn’t a business case – and staying politically engaged” and that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Chris Dabbs of Unlimited Potential, asking a question from the floor, raised doubts about the (currently popular) idea of ‘responsible capitalism’ saying: “I didn’t come into social enterprise to be a capitalist” and that he supported a different economic system based on social benefit. This prompted a discussion on what people meant by capitalism. Paul Monaghan complained that capitalism had come to mean “the people putting up the capital get all the surplus.” He called for a better awareness of different models saying: “we use PLC as synonymous with capitalism, it’s not.”

Panelist, Sophi Tranchell, of Divine Chocolate, pointed out that: “There are different ways of doing business and they are significantly different.” She called for business models based on involving workers in decision-making and generating profits for “many people not few.” She challenged corporates to adopt social enterprise approaches saying: “they can join us if they want to.” She also said that mainstream businesses should be made to report on their social impact so that customers could take that into account when deciding whether or not to buy their products.

Fellow panelist, Jim Duffy, of Entrepreneurial Spark, which supports start-up social enterprises in Glasgow and beyond, emphasised that mainstream business would always have a role saying: “We need capitalism. We need that growth and you’re never going to change that.” His organisation had successfully sourced funding from business leaders, including Sir Tom Hunter, to pay for free office space for social enterprises.

It was a discussion focused on ideas rather than practical answers but it reinforced the impression that the social enterprise movement is moving away from a heavy focus on public service delivery – though this will clear remain important – towards playing a bigger role in the wider economy. More in part two.


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