deal or no deal

who's the banker

Let’s be honest Endemol are the gods of car crash TV.  Love it or hate it they have the format cracked and they very very rarely get it wrong.  Some of their formats work better in some countries and some contexts than in others but on the whole failure of the format is rare.

And the best of all…

The banker knows the location of the booty and all you have to ask yourself is – is it a deal or no deal?

Rodney Schwartz is right, I think, to be optimistic about the Big Society Bank ( and I think the Big Society in general.  In the big question of Deal or No Deal it is not the bank you have to trust but the Banker.  The Banker knows the location of the prize fund, the amount in the fund and fundamentally pulls the strings as to who gets the booty.

I guess there has been a lot of asking of the question “deal no deal?” recently mostly from people who are a little scared that The Banker can’t be trusted because his motives are not completely clear.  But in the real world peoples’ motives are often unclear, or at least complex.  Investors, stakeholders and partners of social enterprises have a complex range of agendas and motives for engaging with a particular social enterprise.  Genuine altruism to mercenary PR spin is the spectrum along which many of us engage with those who want to be aligned with the outcomes we are able to deliver.  Do I care?

Probably not is the answer.  As a social entrepreneur, first and foremost I am a business woman and, as such, used to negotiating the complex agendas of staff, customers, stakeholders and investors.  Do I care about the motivation of the people I am working with.  Probably not.  With 20 years experience in the world of business I sometimes wish I had the luxury of the comfort of the moral high ground of some of my voluntary sector partners.  I do not.  As a pragmatist I am really interested in the question – does it deliver?

The Big Society has been worked and reworked in different contexts.  From the 1500’s through to the present day there have been a plethora of expression of this same social ideal.  In context as diverse as Africa, Latin American and Europe there have been many different expressions of the same ideals.

The question Endemol asks of the latest incarnation of Big Brother or Deal or No Deal is – in this context at this time, does it work and will it make money.

I am interested in the same question.  In this context and at this time will the Big Society work and will it delivery outcomes.  Again as a business woman and pragmatist I want to say, let’s give it a go.  Let’s throw some investment and time into it and see what flourishes.

So whilst we are thinking and debating the concept and context of the BS and the BSB lets just do something eh?  Let’s invest in robust multi-local cross sectoral partnerships that deliver profit and strong social returns and then let’s see if it works. Not in principle but in the concrete realities that we wrestle with each day.

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the beating heart


the beating heart

When I mentioned last time about riding the waves I didn’t realise how wet I was going to get!  The last week has been filled with meeting with investors and partners and government ministers who are all fascinated with social enterprise and the possibilities it holds.  The challenge is always right in front of me, social enterprise is different.  It is different from the way that the government delivers services, different from the way the voluntary sector pursues a vision for change and different in the way the business generates growth and profit.  One of the most important things I think is to recognise that Social Enterprise is different but that it defines itself not as what it isn’t (as defining itself over and against other mechanism for social change) but what it is.

As a model social enterprise, particularly those like ours which has an operation that is intentionally driven and business focussed, is unique.  That unique combination of business focus and social impact is what offers our unique selling point.  And there in lies the rub.  How do we scale social business and not loose the heart of the operation. How do we scale the quirky environment of a café that our customers love, with staff fully bought into the vision of the business to a scale of operating eighty businesses in 20 cities in the next three years?  How do we scale to that level of delivering 2,500 homeless people back into work and not loose the integrity of the business model or ethos?

This is a tricky one because organisations have a life of their own.  That doesn’t mean that they can’t be managed but that as organisation grow and scale the complexities of interpersonal and organisational dynamics are magnified and more than anything the heart of the businesses needs to keep beating.  The ethos of why we do what we do needs to be maintained.

The story is told of how President John Kennedy once visited NASA.  He came across a cleaner and asked him what his job was.  The cleaner replied: ‘My job is to help to put a man on the moon.’  There is some discussion of whether this story is true or not, but what it illustrates is the cleaner’s complete alignment with the aims of NASA, and the collective mission and strategy.

The organisational dynamic of a social enterprise that chooses to employ homeless people to deliver employment solutions for homeless people is a complex one.  That is because complex social problems require multi faceted solutions.  In a world where the elevator pitch is everything we shouldn’t be afraid to say – ‘it is not quite as easy as that’.

As we scale the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.

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The movement of the waves.

catch the wave

There is a lot going on at the moment in the world of social enterprise and in our world here at Create.   We are in the middle of Big Society Week and there is a huge buzz and an even bigger debate going on about the big idea of the big society.

In our own social enterprise there is also a lot going on.  After three years of building a sustainable and profitable social business we are on the brink of a national expansion and these two things are part of the same bigger picture.

A big part of the coalition governments plans for the big society is the replication and scaling of social enterprise – how do we take a great model that delivers sustainable, profitable businesses and social impact and scale that business to deliver even more?

It seems to me that the opportunities and challenges of the Big Society and the opportunities and challenges of scaling a social enterprise like CREATE have the same fundamental question at their root…

How do you start a movement?

And then when you have started it how do you sustain a movement?

I want to think about these two questions and the way that they provide a framework for thinking about the Big Society movement and the Social Enterprise movement.

The first question then – how do you start a movement?

In the thinking and sound bites about the Big Society and in the thinking about how to develop and replicate a good social enterprise to scale and impact this is really important.  Plans and strategies are important; investment and governance are important but more important than that is how do you start a movement that gets the passionate buy in from lots of stakeholders to a shared vision.

Some movements come out of nowhere and take us by surprise.  That is what makes them exciting and innovative and catches the imagination.  Many, indeed most, movements are not based on a new idea.  A Big Society of co-operation, community involvement and voluntary activity for the common good is not a new idea; it is the fundamental political and social organising principle of many historic movements.  A social enterprise that delivers a great business for the greater social good is not a new idea.  So one of the keys to starting a movement is the clear articulation of where the present expression of that movement fits in to the big story.  Where it fits in to the overarching narrative of human history and experience and how this part of that movement will make a difference.

Great movements are caught not started.  Great leaders catch the mood and ride that wave, not in a mercenary way but in away that galvanises action that people were inclined to take anyway.

Great movements are caught.  When someone floats the idea of doing something that will become a movement people listen to the idea and say, “yes I buy that”.  And what people buy is not just the idea but the integrity of the motivation of the person selling the idea.

So… I am not responsible for the agenda of the Big Society, but perhaps for my part within that.  I am responsible for leading a growing business in a sector called social enterprise and so the heart of the movement is massively important to me.  When we are part of a movement and not just a business idea the way we share the vision of that movement resonates deeply within the people around us.  People catch the idea and deep inside say yes, because it resonates with the individual human and social aspirations of those people.

Social Enterprise catches the wave of a generation of people who want to see business play a just role within the building of a society that wants to make money but also makes all those involved in the making of the money feel really good about themselves. We are in an ideal position to catch that wave.

The problem with waves is that they are unpredictable and you never know if you are going to fall off and get wet…but it sure is exhilarating trying to ride them!

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Big society, big politics and parties.

murder on the dancefloor

murder on the dancefloor

My business partner and I have been invited to the Big Society party and apparently everyone who is anyone is going, so I was feeling a little bit churlish and ungrateful for sticking the invitation on the pile of “to be actioned” paperwork.

I think that the big society is brilliant because I think the word big is brilliant, like ‘kind’, ‘new’, ‘caring’ and lots of other words that I find it hard to disapprove of.  I also like ‘society’, in fact I think since the publication of Woman’s Own on the 31st March 1987, lots of people have thought that society is a really good thing.  But I think that is where my unfettered enthusiasm ends.  You see you can’t just put really good things together and automatically incubate an even better thing; otherwise black-pudding pinot grigio would be bloody brilliant.  Like life and a tin of pilchards we are looking for the key and someone thinks that they have found it in the Big Society.  Next week the new coalition government will have a week to mark the big society and last week it was all over the news.  But I think before I get all togged up for the party I’d like to ask a couple of questions.

Before any government asks us to acquiesce with a plan they need to tell us what that plan is.  There is a difficult historical precedent with governments which announce a woolly-round-the-edges narrative and ask people to buy into it.  We need to ask what is the big society and do I (as an organisation, sector or individual) want to be a part of it before being rushed into answering the third question – what is my role within that society.  Unless we ask the first question we are in danger of making the mistake that others have made before of buying into an idea, or ideal, that has so much flex in it that when it becomes clear what the plans are we are too far into the in-crowd to opt out or authentically voice concern.

The second question this week, in preparation for the big society week of street fairs and fetes, is what are we doing in that society.

According to News Night it seemed that our role within the big society is to grab a brush, summon a crowd and get sweeping up.  Is the big society really only about more volunteers?  Perhaps.

But what are we asking people to volunteer?  We live in a world where people are cash rich, sorry scratch that were cash rich, and time poor.  So why are we asking people to volunteer that thing that they simply haven’t got?  Should we still be asking people to volunteer their time or something else?  We perhaps should ask them instead to volunteer their money.  Volunteer but not give.  When I volunteer something I place something which is and remains mine, at the disposal of a cause I have bought into.  So perhaps underwritten social or community bonds are perhaps the future of volunteering where I volunteer money, not time, and expect that money to be returned when it has accomplished that thing that I believed in.  Perhaps we should also think more broadly in this information economy about people volunteering their contacts, facebooks, networks, creativity and talent in ways radically different from before.

I was disappointed watching the cabinet minister with whom I had met representing a leading social enterprise, alongside a national homeless agency and a national retailer, all saying ‘we are going to work together to deliver thousands of homeless people into full and fulfilling employment’…I thought that that was the idea of the big society and not running a brush up and down a prom.

Anyway back to the big society bash.  I think I shall go and so must answer the most important question, “what shall I wear?”  If the last decade of public discourse has taught us anything it is that it is not what you believe but how convincing you look when you are believing it that matters.

Austerity chic here we come…

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General Election Madness

be counted

David Cameron must be wondering how it all went so wrong.  A better example of wrong place, wrong time couldn’t be found, as his lack-lustre success in the run up to the election replaces what should have been a meteoric rise to stardom!  In a year when our economy went into melt-down, the expenses scandal revitalised the red-top reading voter out of their usual apathy towards politics, the Afghanistan war was a subject on everyone’s lips and the Iceland saga had everyone stranded, Cam/Sam should have been planning the new curtains in number 10 by now but he just can’t seem to capitalise on the misfortunes of the previous years.

But why is that?  We want a change don’t we? That’s ALWAYS been the case at this stage in any party’s government and it’s always worked before for the opposition.  Cameron should win for no other reason than he’s not Brown!  But for some reason he hadn’t quite worked out things are already changing and not in the way the Tories expected!  Disillusionment is fuelling more than a switch from left to right…the usually unquestioning majority are now questioning the two party system in an awakening that runs a bit like this:  Tories = change but Tories don’t = change for the better.  In fact, Tories = not better and not even that much different.  So what’s plan B?

Is it a vote for the classic British underdog that we all love to love?  Certainly, Clegg has seen media hyped celebrity the like of which we haven’t seen since Diana died and those of us unaffected by this hype shake our heads and wonder where Clegg’s carpet of flowers is, metaphorically speaking?  As a nation, we quite like Nick.  And a hung parliament wouldn’t be that bad, would it?  Even if it would mean a hung parliament in Britain for ever more, once proportional representation was brought in.  Poor Cameron.  A hung parliament might just mean that he could never form a majority government again.  How that must hurt.

But wait!  Suddenly the possible outcomes are multiplying exponentially.  Cameron and Clegg are courting each other in search of mutual interest and a blue/yellow deal is being whispered of in the corridors of power!  There may just be some common ground between them.  Big Society blue is not a million miles from yellow’s localism, both declare green agendas and both criticise red’s central, state led government.  But really – Euro-sceptic shackled to Euro-enthusiast?  Defendants of Trident arm-in-arm with abolitionists?  How bizarre.  But, like it or not, Cameron’s personal dislike of Brown and our crazy electoral system is driving Clegg towards Cameron.

And the likely outcome?  My guess is that Clegg and Cameron form a coalition.  Cameron fails to deliver on the electoral reform he promised Clegg and blames either Clegg and/or Vince Cable for pulling the plug.  A second election is called, by which time Brown is semi-retired in the Lake District somewhere and the voting public has decided it’s fed up with the change agenda and wishes it’d stuck with Labour after all.  David Milliband is the new PM and we all breath a sigh of relief that the world hasn’t gone crazy after all.

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This weeks budget…fireworks or fluff?

adding some sparkle

I’d anticipated budget day more eagerly this year than in the past.  Would it be a budget for economic recovery or an election winner?  Would Social Enterprise and indeed the SME sector in general win any favours or would we be at best no worse off and at worst paying for the vote-winning crumbs thrown to the elderly via heating allowance…not that I’ve anything against the elderly, you understand!

The dust is beginning to settle now and I’m struck by some key figures that are beginning to emerge.  For instance John Denham, the Communities Secretary, says that he can save £1.2bn a year by cutting the duplication of local services and has said that if Local Authorities can prove that they are saving money then they can keep some of those savings.  That sounds like an incentive that those of us who have an entrepreneurial mind-set would jump at and I wonder just how many Local Authorities would be better run as a Social Enterprise.  But that’s me all over…I think that the world would be a better place if every business were a social business. 

One thing that interested me though was the instant response to the budget.  The Financial Times claimed that over 11,000 tweets were recorded during the speech itself and a Facebook site protesting against the rise in tax on cider was very quickly established…clearly predictions of the first Social Media election weren’t far wrong! 

But, back to the normal routine now and life at the helm of a growing Social Enterprise is never dull.  This week has included discussions with a potential investor…a high net worth individual who may be interested in financing our expansion plans, talks with our corporate partner about the number of jobs they will guarantee for those trainees graduating from our soon to be launched pre-employment academy and my business partner and I are key note speakers at an awards event later today.  As always, you can find out more about the work and vision of The Create Foundation on our website.

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Welcome to my first ever blog!

This is my first blog as Chief Executive of The Create Foundation and I’m hoping that you’ll find it interesting, thought provoking or, at the very least, worthy of a re-visit at some point in the future.  I’d like to use this space to explore some of the challenges that we in the Social Enterprise world face, celebrating the successes and sharing the tough stuff.  I’m hoping that you’ll comment on my thoughts and observations and I welcome a dialogue through which we can all grow and learn.

But where to start?  There are so many issues facing social entrepreneurs today, from the legal structure we choose to incorporate our business (the CiC versus “the rest of the world” debate is one that I’m sure I’ll come back to) to the challenges of growth and replication, how we sell ourselves as credible and professional organisations and the whole issue of social investment.  I’ll be exploring these and a whole host of other issues in future posts, as well as sharing with you life at Create.

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”  Aristotle.

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