Monday, 27 February 2012

Dragon or Enabler, what is our role?

I've just taken part in a quick Twitter poll from Co-operatives UK!/CooperativesUK regarding who I would vote for if there were "Co-operative Oscars".  One of the "nominees" was Whomadeyourpants, a worker co-op from Southampton.  I did a bit of work with them at the start of their journey which made me reflect on the role of a Social Enterprise advisor.

It'll never work
Other Social Enterprise advisors had been told about the WMYP business idea and told the founder the classic "It will never work".  They listened to the vision, the likely market gap and the clear social benefit potential in the idea and dismissed it. From the outset the founder was clear she wanted the business to be a worker co-operative and so luckily she was referred to me.  I have to admit I am no expert on a) women's underwear, b) the fashion industry, c) developing employment for refugees. However, I do understand co-ops so I said "Yes, it COULD work if you put these things in place, and get a group of people together - because you can't be a co-operative of one".  So the founder went away and did the market research, researched production techniques, worked out production space and equipment required, issues affecting refugee women and employment and we worked up a plan for how it would develop from a pre-start through start-up stage and then identified what resources were required.  This business support was supported by the Co-operative Group in what was a precursor for their successful Co-operative Enterprise Hub.  At any point she could have looked at the research or the considerable commitment required and decided "No, this won't work", she could have found that no-one else believed in the business, but she proved those other advisors wrong.

It did work
WMYP are now making a huge splash and although it is many years since I have worked with them, I know that finding the right sort of advisor who said "Yes, but if you sort the following issues out" may have made the difference as to whether this successful co-operative social enterprise was established.

What is the advisor role? 
So, reflecting on this, what is the role of the Social Enterprise Advisor?  To act like one of those self important "Dragons" from that comedic BBC TV show?  (Top tip: real business isn't like that!)  Is your job/role as a Social Enterprise to tell people how to run their business or to enable them to make the right decisions to run their business? A subtle but wholesale difference.  Should you start from the point of scaring people away or taking on the mantle of encouraging people to explore, understand adapt and make the dreams happen?  On the other hand if the client's business idea will never work do we have a duty to tell them?  Clearly, but maybe it's a question of how we go about this.   In cases where there is not business, my experience has led me to believe that an unqualified opinion (i.e. you don't explain why it won't work) is ignored and dismissed whereas making them confront themselves with the reality that the financial model won't stack up or that nobody will pay - so there are no customers - is more likely to make them pay attention.  They make the decision not the advisor.  Who says an advisor knows best anyway?

If you are an advisor, should you tell them "no" or should you empower them with the means with which to make an informed choice of "no" - or alternatively "yes, if I can just get the following resources or people in place".  Do we decide or do we enable?

And all that from an innocent Twitter post about some fictional "Co-operative Oscars"....

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Speaking at SECC conference 9 June

Update: video from the event added Feb 2012

SECC from Shedlight on Vimeo.

I am speaking about my experience of working on the South East Coastal Communities project focussed on social enterprise development for users of Personal Budgets at their dissemniation conference on 9 June.
My focus will be to look at tools and approaches that did or can work with people wanting to set up a social enterprise focussed on health & wellbeing.
It will be nice to work with the team again, as they are a great bunch of people, and well worth taking a day off work for!

Friday, 10 February 2012

the price of everything and the value of nothing?

SROI is a great tool but if it is used when an organisation isn't ready it could spell disaster.

The famous Oscar Wilde quote above comes to mind when looking at the rapid adoption of Social Return On Investment.  SROI is a great tool for displaying value if you work in a field such as employment support, business support or homelessness where there is a direct monetary value in what you do or plenty of evidence of the savings achieved that you can use as "proxies".  But what if your results provide social impact that does not generate a saving for the public purse or create income for a community?  Is the difference those Social Enterprises make somehow less important?

Some social enterprises I have worked with deliver real value to their beneficiaries or community yet the work involved in trying to monetise the impact would bankrupt organisations that are struggling to survive.  Proxies i.e. exising research or work that establishes an accepted average (for example, the amount it typically costs the government to get someone into work) are a means of saving your organisation from time intensive or costly work that would have to be repeated each time a piece of work is delivered but, again, some organisations deliver outcomes for which no proxies exist.

I fear that there is a danger in the drive toward SROI that Social Enterprises that can easily monetise the outcomes or impacts of their work will be deemed as providing more "value" than those whose impact is less tangible.  Is the Social Enterprise train heading into a landscape where only monetary value matters?  Isn't this why we created an alternative economy in the first place, because the "non-profitable" activities that create a sense of place, of wellbeing and of humanity matter just as much as those that generate fiscal wealth?

When considering Social Impact it is important that we remember to include those measures that are not easily monetised so we do not lose the real value.

So, Social Enterprise members and managers, what is the point of this rant?
What is clear is that you will need to engage with the idea of Social Return on Investment if your social impact is your product, or if you want to justify your existence to certain stakeholders.   My advice is that before you enter into the SROI process you double check what is important to your organisation.  What are your aims and objectives?  What would success look like to you?  You can always measure both internal success and SROI measures for external parties - stakeholders, customers, whoever.  Get your own strategic goals in place before you start SROI.  But if you fail to understand what is important to you, there is a risk you could become SROI led in the way that some of the third sector became funding led and suffered mission drift in the past.

Along with the Wilde quote, I also find this Cree proverb relevant. I will leave you to interpret it how you see fit: "Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money".

If you are embarking on an SROI or social impact measurement process and you need consultancy, training or support, get in touch.  I charge reasonable rates and have 8 years direct experience of developing social impact measures.