Tag Archives: Unltd

I started a social enterprise to save the world but all I ended up with was a failing t-shirt business

Over the years I’ve attended quite a few events where people in the process of starting new social ventures* ‘pitch’ their idea to a panel and/or wider audience. And on several occasions I’ve been one of those people. Even when allowing for our individual pitching abilities, many of these ideas are transparently absurd (at least, to everybody else).

The stereotypical starting point (type one) for wannabe social entrepreneurs – even once they’ve had enough absurd ideas to be tagged as a ‘serial social entrepreneur’ – is that they have an idea that offers significant social impact but doesn’t work as a business.

They want to do x thing for x group of people, there’s at least a plausible suggestion that x group of people might want it and it might really be useful but x group of people have no money to pay for it. So the type one social entrepreneur faces the (often insurmountable) challenge of finding *some other way* of paying for it.

At the other end of the spectrum (type two), there are nice people who want to start a business doing something they’re good at and, because they’re nice people, they feel compelled to contort their business plan in a bizarre way to include what seems to outside observers to be an entirely unrelated social element.

Social sourdough

So fictional social venture ‘Pizza, Love and Understanding’ is a pizza parlour but it’s going to deliver real social change for ‘disadvantaged groups (specific group – tbc)’ by using the profits to pay for them (the ‘disadvantaged groups’) to take part in workshops which will generate art with a strong social message to be displayed on the wall of the pizza parlour.

And because it’s important that disadvantaged groups are recognised as real artists they will be paid for their art (possibly in pizza).

Type two is mostly ignored as there’s no point wasting energy being rude to well intentioned people who will (in most cases) soon recognise their mistake and get on with trying to run a pizza parlour. That’s a good result. Pizza parlours that sell good pizza and pay decent wages are a good thing.

Extreme basket weaving

There is a type three, though. People who, once again with the best of intentions, find themselves pursuing an idea for a social venture that combines the absence of a business model with a lack of clear potential for social impact.

Are you building an online one-stop-shop for young people who want to bring communities together through the medium of extreme basket weaving?

Is the business model ‘corporate sponsorship’?

If so, look away now.

Once again, while the real life equivalents of fictional social venture ‘ComYOUnityBasKITcase’ are far less actively stupid, the basic recipe is the same.

Ingredient one – something you (at best) know how to do well or (at worst) have recently heard of

Ingredient two – a positive but non-specific and essentially unrelated social aim

Ingredient three – a broad category of funder/customer that you think has lots of money to spend on good things

Method – Attend pitching event. Get a grant from Unltd. Don’t sell anything. Attend conference to complain that funders/investors/customers never fund/invest in/buy innovative ideas. Repeat for 1 to 5 years.

I can’t say for sure whether type three social venture ideas are becoming more prevalent but there is certainly a strong, well established pipeline and it’s not clear that social entrepreneurship support organisations have a humane strategy for putting them (the ideas, not the people who have them) out of their misery.

Youth hostelling with Chris Eubank

As Alan Partridge memorably demonstrated, some of the worst ideas (many of which the advent of digital TV has since brought to fruition) are motivated by the toxic mix of panic and desperation. But, while parody TV hosts need to have terrible ideas, aspiring social entrepreneurs don’t.

There is another route. That is to start by putting some time and effort into researching the social change you want to make. It’s not necessary for all social entrepreneurs to single-handedly solve a problem for the whole world in the Ashoka style but it is necessary to solve a problem at some level for someone.

The best way to do that is to work out what the problem is. What annoys me most about the prevalence of stupid ideas for social ventures is that it’s not as if we have a shortage of problems for clever, socially-focused people to take a look at.

How do we look after people who are living longer but need additional help to have a good quality of live in old age?

How do we support people with severe and enduring mental health problems when institutional treatment is both unaffordable and undesirable?

How do we connect with the young people who would really like to weave baskets in an extreme way to help their communities, and give them the online tools they need to do it?

Creating a successful business to address a social need is really difficult but working out where to start is not as difficult as some of the organisations theoretically supporting social entrepreneurship and social innovation in the UK currently make it look.

Ephemeral tosh

If you want to start venture (and you live in a major metropolitan) it’s virtually impossible to avoid support designed to develop your basic business skills – and plenty of support for (often, small and unproven) social ventures to ‘scale-up’.

There’s very little work being done to help social entrepreneurs actually become skilled and knowledgable in the things they’re trying to do – or to put people who are skilled and knowledgable together with people who’d just like to do something good to see if they could do something together.

In that context, it’s not surprising we end up with so much ephemeral tosh and so few successful social ventures addressing real social need.

Keep it stupid

None of this means it’s desirable to discourage people from pursuing really stupid ideas for social ventures.

Lots of great (or, at least, quite good) ideas emerge from the dregs of really stupid ones. Pizza, Love and Understanding’s incongruously worthy arts workshops might ultimately be the starting point for the creation of an arts organisation that does create some great art and/or some positive social change while not needing to be connected to a pizza parlour.

And the social entrepreneur who created ComYOUnityBasKITcase might come out the other side with the hard-earned practical experience they need to do much something more useful next time.

It’s not social entrepreneurs and our stupid ideas that’s the problem, it’s the dearth of support and funding to help us develop the knowledge, and find the time and space to move beyond them.


*In this context, a ‘social venture’ could be a charity, social enterprise or other any organisation/activity initiated with the aim of make the world a better place (at least partly) by selling stuff


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Mainstream believers

With another year coming to an end, it’s time to consider our new year’s resolutions and for much of the social enterprise/social entrepreneurship movement, the new year will herald a commitment to join the mainstream (whatever that means).

At this autumn’s Emerge Conference, Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for (er… ) Social Entrepreneurship led the charge to ditch ‘social entrepreneurship’ entirely. Pioneers Post reports Hartigan expounding the view that to use the terms such as ‘social enterprise’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’ is to: “continue to dichotomise the commercial and the social spheres” when really: “all commercial ventures have to be accountable for the social and environmental impacts they are having and all social ventures have to be financially sustainable in some way.

Readers who are not immediately clear as to why the latter statement tells us anything much one way or another about whether we shouldn’t or shouldn’t run social enterprises, or call ourselves social entrepreneurs, may find a (slightly) clearer take in Hartigan’s blog length explanation of her position – written for Oxfam last year.

Hartigan explains that: “I do believe that transformational systems change will never be achieved on a massive scale by non-profit organizations or even by well-meaning ‘hybrids’.  I very much believe that the way forward is through business.

It’s hardly an unarguable fact that a business, whether self-defining as non-profit/’social’ or not, is necessarily the most effective vehicle for social transformation in any given situation – particularly where the alternatives include some or all of campaigning, legislation and individual or collective behaviour change – but assuming we accept that the biggest social problems do need a business-led solution we’re still left with the question of what ‘the way forward’ might be.

Less profit on purpose 

The answer, apparently, is the concept of ‘reasonable profits’. As Hartigan outlines: “The key to sustainable capitalism is reasonable profits as opposed to maximizing profits.  In the current system, a segment of society is trying to maximize profits without concern for the impact on the well being of the society as a whole, while another segment of social organizations have to deal with the fall out.

It’s pretty abstract stuff and it’s anyone’s guess what the wider social impact of ‘reasonable profits’ (however defined) might be in any given industry. Should (not)social entrepreneurs doing their (not)social entrepreneurship within mainstream businesses turn their sword of reasonableness primarily on gross profit or net profit? Does transformation come through selling people stuff reasonably cheap or paying reasonable wages?

Whatever Hartigan’s vision for good business actually means, none of it gives an inkling of what Hartigan would actually like social entrepreneurs and/or people running social enterprises to do (even if they broadly agree with her analysis).

For example, one of my social enterprise roles is as publisher of a local community newspaper. I’m under no illusions about the fact that I have less power to deliver transformational social change in this role than if I were the boss of News Corporation. As soon as I get the News Corporation job, I’ll be happy to try to put a reasonable profits policy in place. But does Hartigan mean that, right now, I should stop running our social enterprise newspaper – making some positive impact in one area of east London – and concentrate full time on persuading Rupert Murdoch to give me the top job?

Unltd abstraction 

Fortunately, not everyone in the social entrepreneurship support industry has given up on the idea of social entrepreneurship entirely. Over at Unltd (The Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs), they’ve launched a new strategy: ‘Going Mainstream: how can social entrepreneurship break through?

Unfortunately, the publication is a ‘strategy’ only in a broad sense. The conceptualisation and analysis of the problem – the question of why social entrepreneurship is not mainstream already – is apparently restricted to the results of a recent survey of (433) social entrepreneurs that revealed strong support for some abstract statements:

  • 96% Social entrepreneurs have huge potential to do good
  • 94% Social entrepreneurs need to be taken seriously as businesses
  • 87% Social entrepreneurship needs to be better understood

The challenges preventing these abstract desires becoming reality are (according to the 389 social entrepreneurs who answered that part of the survey):

  • 71% Finding sustainable revenue streams
  • 71% Making a living from a social venture
  • 60% Getting access to the right kind of finance
  • 59% Finding routes in to sell to the public sector
  • 52% Getting access to the right talent and skills

It is interesting that most social entrepreneurs can’t sell stuff and (as a result) can’t make a living from what they’re doing. It’s also interesting that Unltd haven’t done any research to try and find out why (or, if they have, don’t mention it) – particularly as in recent years they apparently have had plenty of time and resources to promote the decidedly niche ‘profit-with-purpose‘ model.

The apparent absence of any analysis or understanding of how social entrepreneurs opinions and experiences relate to what’s actually happening in the markets they’re seeking to enter is a significant barrier to any attempts Unltd might make to come up with practical ideas for change.

The right platitudes 

On that basis, it’s no surprise that what follows is a cheap buffet of universal support organisation platitudes – Realising Potential; Connecting To Great Support; Maximising Impact –  offering no meaningful indication as to how Unltd post-2016 will be different to Unltd pre-2016.

The sad thing is that while the leaders of world and UK social entrepreneurship wallow in waffle, the questions about the role of social entrepreneurs – from those working as part of unregistered, volunteer-led groups in rural church halls to those with big jobs at big companies – remain largely unanswered.

In the UK, despite huge resources going into support organisations, we don’t know enough about what kind of support social entrepreneurs need:

  • to enter public service markets
  • to provide service fillings gaps left by public sector cuts
  • to create social enterprises to succeed in mainstream markets
  • to work within mainstream businesses to create transformational change

And, with a few honourable exceptions, we’re not very good at using what do know to inform what support organisations actually do. Time to stop waffling and get on with it.


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Purpose unclear

One of the most baffling developments of 2014 was the emergence (at least in social enterprise policy-world) of the ‘Profit-with-Purpose’ business.

For those who missed it, the ‘Profit-with-Purpose’ business is an idea primarily championed by social entrepreneur support provider, Unltd, to explain their support ‘for-profit’ businesses (companies limited-by-shares) dedicated to fulfilling a social mission.

Unltd ceo, Cliff Prior, chaired the Mission Alignment Working Group (MAWG) of G8 Social Impact Investment Taskforce and their report explains the idea at length.

Prior also explains the idea (to some extent) in this interview with Pioneers Post, where he responds to criticism from Unltd’s former partners in Scotland, Can and Senscot, who ended their relationship with the storming assertion: “UnLtd has developed into one of the UK’s leading advocates against the regulation of social enterprise and for the inclusion of private profit companies in the sector.

While I understand that many readers are experts in the minutiae of social enterprise policy debates present and past, less firmly embedded readers may appreciate some explanation of the terrain on which this battle is being fought.

Very roughly, it’s this (from the MAWG report, p18): “From a legal point of view, the main difference between profit-with-purpose business and social or solidarity enterprise is the degree of flexibility regarding the distribution of profits and use of assets.

What, in a UK context, is the nature of the inflexibility that Unltd are railing against?

Umbrella body, Social Enterprise UK, state that in order to be considered a social enterprise (for the purposes of membership): “the majority (more than 50%) of an organisation’s profits should be reinvested to further its social or environmental mission.

That’s a pretty flexible definition, even without creative interpretation, it enables a company to pay 49.9% of its profits out to private investors and retain the other 50.1% in the company ever year if appropriate.

When it comes to assets, SEUK’s position is: “We believe that an asset-lock can be effective in ensuring that a social enterprise operates in the wider interests of society for perpetuity and is not at risk of sale. But we recognise that many social enterprises receive no public funds or assets. Some have benefited from considerable personal investment on the part of the entrepreneur and need the money back.

So the official social enterprise position on profits and assets – to the extent that there is one – is that a social enterprise can distribute half its profits to private investors and doesn’t need to have any sort of asset lock (as long it can bear the ignominy of failing to pursue an approach that SEUK believes can be effective).

Elvis and Kresse, the business used in the Pioneers Post article as an example of a ‘profit-with-purpose’ business is (entitled to call itself) a social enterprise (if it wants to) by the SEUK’s definition.

That said, there’s absolutely no reason why a socially-minded entrepreneur should sign-up to SEUK’s commitments if they don’t want to. In that situation, they can start an ethical business like Ecotricity or Lush, that does business in the open market using a conventional ‘for-profit’ structure – attracting ethically-minded customers on the basis of the way they do business rather than their corporate set-up.

In the UK context, a ‘profit-for-purpose’ apparently fills the gap between social enterprises and ethical businesses. Look carefully. Can you see it yet?

Profit can be good

Despite, this deeply inauspicious premise, Prior and the Unltd team are neither bad nor stupid people so there must be some reasons why they’ve ended up on this bizarre wild goose chase.

There’s at least one good one, based on what are (whether or not you agree with them), honorable principles. In a recent discussion on social media, Dan Lehner, formerly Head of Ventures at Unltd and now working at CLS social enterprise/profit-for-purpose business, Oomph!, explained his support for the thinking that mutated in ‘profit-for-purpose’: “My biggest reason to push the issue is because I think there’s need for a new level of awareness-raising (partially with consumers/government and funders/investors but mostly with really talented, imaginative, ambitious entrepreneurs) that it’s ok to make money out of social purpose – if social outcomes are genuinely achieved and evidenced.

Why shouldn’t people who want to earn a decent living, provide well for themselves and their families and make the world a better place in the process be encouraged to do so? It’s difficult to imagine many of us in social enterprise world offering any suggestions as to why not (although some of might argue that that’s often possible using a social enterprise structure, too).

Why should, Unltd, a charity set-up to support ‘social entrepreneurs’ (rather than ‘social enterprises) support those people? Senscot and Can, amongst others, clearly do have some suggestions but others of us are pretty relaxed about that, too – School for Social Entrepreneurs is another example of an organisation that supports ‘social entrepreneurs’ without specifying the type of organisation they have to work for or set-up.

Two bald men lose will to live during ethically-produced comb brawl

The less principled driver of ‘profit-for-purpose’ is as one skirmish in the distastefully absurd scrap over the £400million worth of ‘unclaimed assets’ allocated for investment in ‘Social Sector Organisations’ via the government’s semi-detached social investment wholesale finance institution, Big Society Capital.

The starting point is that: “The statute under which BSC was established defines third sector (or social sector) organisations as those that ‘exist wholly or mainly to provide benefits for society or the environment’. BSC has interpreted this to include regulated social sector organisations such as charities, Community Interest Companies or Community Benefit Societies as well as some profit-making companies or enterprises that have a clear social mission where these entities can meet the specific criteria set out in the attached Governance Agreement.

The ‘Governance Agreement’ definition combines the clarity of wool with the flexibility of nylon to deliver a set of criteria that virtually any business could meet if it could be bothered.

It states that: “the payout of cumulative profit after tax to shareholders will be capped at 50% over time” but doesn’t specify how much time so, presumably, as long as time (or your business) doesn’t stop you can pay as much profit out to private shareholders as you like on the basis that you’re firmly intending to start the process of reinvesting the majority of overall profit generated over the lifetime of the business at some as-yet-undefined point.

Big Society Capital’s view (as I understand it) is that a key reason why the social investment market didn’t really get going in 2013/14 was that social investors were spooked by this potentially confusing situation.

In August 2013, BSC ceo Nick O’Donohoe stated: “We need to more clearly segment the social impact investment market and also define more specifically what should count as a social enterprise.” and that: “That definition, in my view, will need to be driven by a specific legal form or golden share which guarantees a lock on social mission and also allows capital providers to earn a reasonable return consistent with the risks they are taking.

‘Profit-with-Purpose’ clarifies that situation so that, in the words of MAWG report, p19, there is: “a way for social investors to identify eligible profit-with-purpose businesses with confidence and familiarity.

In a UK context, this means a way for social investment intermediaries to investment UK citizens’ unclaimed assets in businesses that are not ‘regulated social sector organisations’.

Few within either civil society or social investment world disagree with the idea that if government is going to provide money for a social investment and (tax relief for it) it should provide a regulated registration system for those eligible to receive it (particularly if their social mission is not already regulated in some other way).

My strong expectation is that vast majority of organisation who could be bothered to register would meet SEUK’s definition of a social enterprise. For Unltd, the idea that might be a few that might not but would be keen to receive ‘social investment’ is apparently justification for the creation of ‘A New Sector’.

The more worthwhile stuff that’s ignored

BSC’s money is a relatively small, specific chunk of cash set aside to support ‘Social Sector Organisations’. The parochial battle over whether (or which) private companies should be eligible to receive it ignores the far bigger and more interesting discussion about the promotion of social purposeful activity in the private sector.

Dan Lehner’s point that: ‘it’s ok to make money out of social purpose – if social outcomes are genuinely achieved and evidenced‘ – is an important one but the last thing it suggests is the need for the creation of ‘A New Sector’ of businesses for a bemused public to attempt to get their head around.

Whether we’re using the term ‘social investment’ or ‘impact investment’ there’s huge potential investors to invest in companies and customers to buy products based on the social good generate by those activities. This is not necessarily about companies demonstrating their impact through SROI, it could be about being Living Wage Employers, using sustainable materials or demonstrating their support for their local community.

If what the company does with its profits and assets doesn’t matter, then why else should an investor be interested in what it is as opposed to what to what it does? If an investor is investing what an organisation does, social requirements can be just as usefully written into an investment agreement as written into a company’s mem and arts. If a social entrepreneur running a private business doesn’t what their social mission distorted by an investor, they should get that mission written into the deal.

Shoving the good stuff done in the private sector into the cul-de-sac of ‘Profit-for-Purpose’ businesses serves no one other than a support organisation struggling to explain what it does, and some social investment organisations struggling to do what they’re meant to do.


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Shine 2011 – part one

I spent sizeable parts of Thursday and Friday at this year’s Shine Unconference at Hub Westminster – ‘London’s first superstudio for the impact economy’.

Social enterprise support charity, Unltd, are the prime movers behind Shine which was launched in 2008 as an alternative (or perhaps antidote) to the formulaic conferences laid on by both the public sector and conventional conference organisers. This year’s event was curated by communications company, Culture Group and social enterprise, Red Button Design.

Shine is unusual in being a social enterprise conference aimed at social entrepreneurs. The major reason why most social enterprise conferences are not aimed at social entrepreneurs is that conferences are riskily expensive to put on and most social entrepreneurs don’t have £300+ to spend on attending a conference.

On top of that, those social entrepreneurs whose businesses are successful enough to enable them to be able spend £300+ on attending a conference are more likely to spend that money on attending conferences related to the sector they’ve succeeded in rather than a conference about social enterprise.

During the 2005 – 2010 period, the political and economic climate supported expensive social enterprise conferences attended primarily by employees of public sector bodies and social enterprise support agencies, along with the army of social enterprise consultants that New Labour was directly or entirely funding in an apparent bid to replace the UK’s shrinking manufacturing base with an industry based on mass production of unimplemented business plans.

Now the money has run out and Shine – aimed primarily at those towards the beginning of their social enterprise journey, and costing a very reasonable £50 for two days – is the future of social enterprise conferences. Of course, early stage social entrepreneurs are just as worried as anyone else about the fact that the money’s run out and Thursday’s programme reflected that – with three consecutive panel sessions on whether you need money, how you get money and making the most of your money once you’ve got it.

I attended the first two of these. ‘Money 1: Chopping Down the Money Tree – Do you really need money and how do you source it?’ included contributions from serial social entrepreneur Dave Dawes of Entreprenurses and former racing driver, Trudy Thompson, of sustainable living centre enterprise, Bricks and Bread.

Although the panel leaned more towards ways of getting money than towards doing without it, they usefully considered this issue from a social entrepreneur’s point of view. Dawes gave a direct illustration of the difference between grants, loans and equity investment by offering the audience a chance, first to give him a pound, then to give him a pound and get £1.20 back, then to put up a pound with the chance of getting five pounds back based on a toss of a coin. He then (slightly controversially) suggested that more social enterprises should be set up to take equity because, if social enterprises weren’t expecting to make a profit they were charities rather than social enterprises. He also suggested that social entrepreneurs needed to think carefully about whether they needed start-up investment at all as, if you can get the business to the point of making a profit reasonably quickly it’s better to use ‘sweat equity’ – working for free or little pay until you start generating income by selling things.

Thompson offered a no-nonsense approach as she explained her frustration with the situation where people wait around for months to find out if they can get a grant to start their business rather than just getting on with it – and generating the money they need by running a viable business. She complained that advisory bodies had advised her to set up as a Community Interest Company (CIC) when in reality it was not a suitable model to attract investment for her business and slammed the state-funded business planning industry: “surely we should be encouraging people to write plans for themselves.”

‘Money 2: The Funding Landscape – Discussing the current funding landscape and options’ featured contributions from some of those looking to fund the current generation of social entrepreneurs and social enterprises.

Jonathan Jenkins, chief executive of the Social Investment Business, which manages government funds including the Communitybuilders Fund and the Department of Health’s Social Enterprise Investment Fund, suggested that social entrepreneurs looking for very early stage investment would be best off looking to trusts and foundations for start-up grants. He said that a current problem with the social investment sector was that many social investors don’t say ‘no’ quickly enough so end up wasting people’s time with applications which aren’t going to go anywhere. Asked about the importance of legal structure he expressed the personal view (not necessarily reflected in the criteria for all his organisation’s funds) that “legal structure is utterly irrelevant to the embodiment of social value in an organisation.”

Theresa Burton, chief executive of the crowd-funding website, Buzzbnk, said that in the early stages social entrepreneurs’ focus should be on demonstrating that their business has traction, while spending the least amount of money possible. She said that friends and family were often the best source of early stage investment and that Buzzbnk effectively provided an enhanced way of generating that kind of support.

Stephen Rockman, of Merism Capital, the UK’s first dedicated social enterprise investment fund, pointed out that social entrepreneurs shouldn’t worry about getting ‘the right kind of money’ as long as they were able to put that money to work in the right way. He said that investors and the social enterprise sector needed to acknowledge that ‘failure is part of the story’ and suggested that enabling social entrepreneurs to be based within incubators such as Hub Westminster was more useful than sending them on an investment readiness course.

The underlying message of both sessions seemed to be ‘there is money out there if you can convince people that your business is likely to sell stuff’.

Part two to follow.


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Bold new venture – initial thoughts of The Venture Society

It only really hits home that there’s a new government in office when one of their favourite thinktanks brings out a report and you actually bother to read it. The IPPR, the Fabians and Demos (in those days leaning towards New Labour) now gaze back nostalgically on the 1997-2000 period when their ideas where close enough to the agendas of a new government to matter beyond the worlds of academics and political anoraks.

Now the centre-right are in the ascendant and Phillip Blond’s Respublica is perceived to be so important that it’s worth taking their latest outpouring on a long train journey and battling through to the bitter end.

In fact, The Venture Society, produced in association with Unltd and launched at Shine 2010 a couple of weeks ago, is mostly very good. Amidst the babble and counter-babble about The Big Society, it’s a document that actually makes some practical suggestions.

Essentially, it’s a blueprint for stimulating grassroots social enterprise by increasing investment and support while reducing bureaucracy. The central feature of the plan is the creation of local community ‘lablets’ – effectively local incubators for social enterprise that will invest in local social entrepreneurs’ ideas and support their development to a level where they have a sustainable business serving the local community.

The context of this intervention is not what it might seem. For all its bluster about social enterprise being the way forward, and some interesting small scale initiatives, New Labour never made any clear effort to help people start social enterprises to do anything other than deliver public services. This may have been based on the quite legitimate opinion that supporting people to start social enterprises in local communities was no more important than general business support but it sat uneasily with their rhetoric.

On the one hand, we had the government and the Social Enterprise Coalition participating in an ever more intense two-way verbal backslapping contest, on the other hand the average person looking to set-up up a social enterprise in their local area was not benefiting from any meaningful practical interventions to make setting up a social enterprise easier than setting up a normal business. The suggestions outlined in The Venture Society would change that situation a lot, building on the existing relatively smallscale success of Unltd itself and other support organisations such as the SSE.

The Venture Society is (deliberately) a publication that looks at the mechanisms that could help the development of social enterprises and the work of social entrepreneurs, rather than a publication about the possible impacts of social enterprise activity or the question of whether social enterprise the best way of delivering positive social change.

One thing that’s not yet clear is how the drive to stimulate social enterprise fits in with the wider Big Society agenda. At a training event last week, the manager of a successful local voluntary organisation explained to me that social enterprise was an idea that was being promoted by politicians to destroy the voluntary sector by turning it into business – a more local example of this kind of discussion.

If the new government wants civil society to help deliver its agenda of solving social problems while also drastically reducing public spending, it may not want to wind-up the mainstream charitable bits of the voluntary sector by pushing the idea of social enterprise and, as The Venture Society advocates, diverting cash for third sector capacity building into developing social enterprise.

Having said that, it wouldn’t be impossible for the ‘lablets’ idea to support the development of enterprising grassroots organisations and activities that could be a mixture of social enterprises, charities or other structures. It’s too soon to say what, if anything, will come of these ideas wants if and when they end up being chewed over by those that dwell in the corridors, and none of this makes looming cuts in public spending seem any more pleasant but, from a social enterprise point of view, there’s interesting times ahead.


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Shine 2010 – part two

As with part one, this is another snapshot of the Shine 2010 experience. Aside from the stuff covered here, there was also lots of business development support being delivered – both on one to one and a group basis – which I didn’t go to but which other social entrepreneurs told me was extremely helpful.

I arrived around two on Saturday and met a social entrepreneur I’d met for the first time on Friday who, as I explained a bit about a project that my social enterprise is working on, suggested I should talk another social entrepreneur who was working on something similar.

The social entrepreneur in question was Tom Gaskin, who is developing a project called Our House – which aims to develop two-way online communications between housing associations and residents. It turned out Tom was one of the three finalists in Unltd Live Pitch which rounded off the unconference.

The Live Pitch was a social enterprise cross between Dragons Den and The X-Factor with three social entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas – shortlisted from 12 who’d turned up in the morning and presented their idea to the Unltd team – and receiving feedback from three expert judges before the audience got to vote on who would go home with an Unltd Level 1 award (of up to £5,000).

Aside from Tom Gaskin, the contestants were Anna Pearson of Spots of Time – a project that aims to match up volunteers who can do performing arts, with organisations who’d like volunteers to come and do performing arts for the people who use their services – and Mikkel Hansen of Urban Green Line, a project that aims to set up a green trail through London connecting communities to green spaces and sustainable organisations.

The judges: Natalie Campbell of Enterprise UK, Geraldine Blake of Community Links and Jess Tyrrell of Germination provided robust but mostly positive feedback loosely based on compere Cliff Prior of Unltd’s suggested ‘Love it, Build it, Leave it’ format before the audience got a chance to chip in with their thoughts – some of which were delivered immediately on Twitter and could be viewed on the big screen behind the presenting area.

Then, while the judges conferred over the final recommendation, the pitching social entrepreneurs had a chance to ask the audience for suggestions of where to find (or direct offers of) practical help help in taking their projects forward.

The judges, though supportive of all three projects, unanimously backed Urban Green Line to receive the cash but the audience disagreed and – on a clear hand vote – awarded the £5K to Spots of Time.

I was one of the few to vote for Our House. This was probably partly because I’d had a chance to talk Tom about the project earlier in the afternoon so I had more of an idea of what it was all about than could be communicated in a five minute pitch. But also – at an audience event with an audience made up of anyone other than housing professionals or housing association tenants – an idea (however good) for a project about communicating with housing associations is unlikely to connect as well with most audience members as projects about the arts or saving the planet.

But all three contestants would’ve more than justified a punt of up to £5,000 (and I imagine the unsuccessful ones may still get the cash through the usual application process). The Live Pitch – with its combination of entertainment, colloboration and serious business – was a fitting end to Shine 2010. I’ll do some more on some of the ideas and issues raised at Shine 2010 over the next week or so.

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Shine 2010 – part one

One day on, it’s time for some general reflections on Shine 2010 – hopefully to be followed by some thoughts on some of the issued raised.

Shine brands itself as an ‘unconference’. The point being that – unlike some social enterprise and wider third sector events – it’s not just blokes and ladies  in suits from umbrella bodies, quangos and the civil service making lengthy speeches in jargon and coded language after which all the angriest social enterpreneurs clamour to grab the mike and deliver questions/speeches complaining about the fact that the council has just cut their funding.

Shine’s about social entrepreneurs talking to other social entrepreneurs about what they’re doing and the help they need to do it but with other interested people dropping in and joining the conversation.

The organisational side – delivered by Germination with founding and organising partners: Unltd, SSE, the Hub and Ashoka – has moved on a lot since the first Shine in 2008 (I didn’t get to the one in 2009). The first event had lots of good bits to it but, as someone just turning up rather than being involved with any of the participating organisations, it wasn’t always easy to work what was going on, when and where.

To an extent, this is an occupational hazard of running a conference that is specifically meant to be spontaneous and co-operatively run but the big (positive) difference between Shine 2008 and Shine 2010 was that, while the flexibility was still there, both venues – Show Studios and The Hub Kings Cross – also had a clear focal point where the bigger sessions were taking place.

Work commitments meant I only got to attend part of each of the three days. The opening speeches on Thursday were a mixed bag. Listeners will have had a range of views (or none at all) about whether Paul Twivy of The Big Society was right to be angry about the way Labour politicians and others mocked the concept of the same name in the run up to the recent general election but unfortunately this anger, which edged towards bitterness, came across more clearly and forcefully than any positive message about what his organisation wants to do.

Phillip Blond, on the other hand, brushed off the same political derision far more quickly with some self-depricating comments at the beginning of his talk, and then got on with a positive and engaging speech about how social enterprise can form part of an alternative to the overbearing state and the untrammelled market, before launching The Venture Society, a blueprint for growing social enterprise developed by Unltd and Blond’s ResPublica thinktank. That publication needs its own post.

On Friday, I arrived in time to catch up with some social enterpreneurs I knew – and to meet some I didn’t – before the start of ‘Fink Club’. This event involved four leading figures from the social enterprise world putting on big comedy boxing gloves, jumping on to a stage set up like a boxing ring and exchanging strong views on the future of social enterprise, with Liam Black of Wavelength acting as a provocative referee.

Social Enterprise Ambassador, Saeeda Ahmed, lampooned the idea of social enterprise delivering public services on the cheap by badgering volunteers into doing what would’ve otherwise been paid jobs, Rod Schwartz of Clearly So said that for years – it may have been 30 or 13 – the economy had been run like shit but social enterprise offered an alternative, Amanda Jones of Red Button Design backed up her call for social enterprise to stay young, freakish and beautiful with lots of swearing. The fourth person in the ring was a bloke called David who was very angry about the co-op’s investment fund not giving him any money to set up a chain of co-operative supermarkets to rival the Co-Operative and Somerfield – the relevance of this issue to any wider debate wasn’t really clear.

Contributions from the floor were lively and varied. A lady called Jess said it (all the badness in the whole world) was Coca Cola’s fault, prompting Sam Conniff of Livity to respond that he was pleased to work with Coca Cola and social entrepreneurs should stop talkng to each other all the time and start working with corporates.

Ed from Yorkshire proposed the gift economy as an alternative to cash and Liam Black asked him to kick start the plan by buying him a drink, which he did.

A lady from Eastside Consulting said social enterpreneurs were narcisstic and that they should merge into bigger organisations, and that the Social Enterprise Mark was crap. Liam Black asked for someone to come up and defend the Mark but there were no takers.

Someone called Ben reminded everyone that in 1649 Gerard Winstanley had proclaimed the earth to be a common treasury for all and the Bob Marley had not left a will because he couldn’t take it (his cash?) with him. This comment was in support of mutualism.

Erica Sosna from The Life Project asked what Business Link, with their salaries at the end of the month, knew about supporting social entrepreneurs. The Business Link advisers who’d been around doing one to one advice during the afternoon had either gone home or didn’t really fancy responding.

The event ended with the audience getting to choose which of the four experts had won. The biggest cheer went to Saeeda Ahmed and her arm was held aloft in the traditional end-of-boxing-contest style.


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