Friday, 28 September 2012

Graphic Novel review: The Co-operative Revolution

Last night I attended an event that I found inspiring.  I am not good at these kind of events normally as I want the speakers to stop speaking so I can get on with networking.  But not in this case.   I was at the launch of The Co-operative Revolution: The Graphic Novel and was treated to some genuine and amusing speakers from the Co-operative Group and a chance to hear Polyp, the artist.  I was pleased to hear people directly challenge the "selfish gene" myth and we were treated to Polyp's insight into what he thought those original RADICALS who founded the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Society might have been thinking & what Rochdale in 2044 might look like to inform his art, before being treated to a "behind the scenes" look at how a graphic novel is constructed. When I arrived at the venue (Waterstones in Picadilly) I was blown away by the queue round the block before realising they were probably there for the Jessie J book signing!  We've got 13 million members of the Co-op movement in this country so an easy mistake to make....

Onto the book:
If, like me, you enjoy graphic novels you will realise that £5.99 is an absolute steal - the reason being that The Co-operative Group has subsidised the printing of this 71 page treat which has been produced by New Internationalist.   They realise that the message is more important than turning a profit on this project.  That's the difference with the co-operative movement - it's not all about economic return, sometimes we do stuff for the social benefit!  And they have also made it available to read online for free.  But for less than the price of 2 pints, why not have the book gracing your radical bookshelf?

The graphic novel element of the book takes us through several stages - Yesterday, Today, Always, Tomorrow. "Yesterday" brilliantly recounts the struggles and victories of the early pioneers of the Co-operative movement and is the best introduction you could possibly give someone.  It really brings it to life, and puts the co-op movement's founders in the context of social upheaval and protest movements and struggle for democracy of the time.  For instance, did you know that the first Toad Lane store had a green door?  Green because it was the colour of the Chartist movement.  "Today" treats us to some key facts about the current co-op movement with interesting graphics and a couple of pastiches of classic British comics which would make damn fine posters.  "Always" might be the most important section of the book as it illustrates how co-operation is the key for survival of all creatures on the planet and debunks the selfish gene myth.  In digestible form, this could be the key text to educate young people about the alternative to the mainstream individualist approach they have rammed down their throat at school.  "Tomorrow" is the science fiction chapter. 2044.  A Mars landing led by a Rochdale co-op with a woman at the helm.  Pioneers to the last.

Although I believe the graphic approach is the best way to tell a compelling and important story of our radical movement, it is really useful that the book is topped off with a Timeline of key co-op movement events, and on the last page is a call to action.  Something you can do simply and quickly. But I won't spoil the surprise.
So at the risk of sounding like some kind of co-op evangelist, I recommend you to get this if:
  • You like graphic novels
  • You are part of the co-op movement
  • You are interested in co-ops
  • You are a social entrepreneur - find out about the roots of your movement and an approach that has sustained for 160 years
  • You are interested in radical politics
In the words of Father Ted "Good luck with the book"

To get The Co-operative Revolution visit  or to read it online visit

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Legal Structures

Having recently developed a Social Enterprise Legal Structures training day for delivery to clients of Olmec, I thought I should unleash it to the world, so you will see a new page on this site for Legal Structures training and consultancy!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Social Enterprise or Social Purpose - Clarity is the best policy

The recent attempt by Salesforce to trademark the term "social enterprise" and the amazing response led by Social Enterprise UK (Not in our name) to defend "our" term resulted in the trademark application being withdrawn.  WIN!  The recent ruling that A4E cannot describe themselves as a "Social purpose" organisation in advertising was a similar step to clarifying where we stand with these terms.
However, "social enterprise" and "social purpose" are labels applied in such wide and varied ways that they are almost opaque. What do they even mean any more?

As more and more people and businesses see these labels as holding a commercial advantage, we have seen the term adopted by a wider and wider constituency and from my point of view it has become increasingly watered down.   The terms are being devalued.  Sometimes I wonder if they are worth defending at all when charlatans can use them to make a quick buck, but what I really believe is we need to ensure the terms are clear and effectively auditable by the lay person.  "If it looks an elephant and sounds like an elephant..."

I don't believe that legislation defining the term social enterprise is the answer.  Let's keep our movement (if it is indeed a movement) out of the hands of the government and civil servants who will twist it to the changing agenda of the day.  After all, most social enterprises are pragmatic responses to socio-economic situations that politicians have failed to address. We can make a difference now, while a political solution may take 10 years, 15 years, or never even happen.  All that time and energy can be applied directly in the economy to MAKE A DIFFERENCE now rather than lobbying. And if there is a change of government, so what?  They don't own us, they don't control us, we carry on doing what we do. 

We are taking direct action by operating lots of little bits of the economy and making them work for the benefit of stakeholders rather than investors.  And if all those bits complement each other and add up to a sizable lump of the economy the country will change in a way governments never quite achieve.  You could call it an alternative to capitalism if you like.  Just a bit of an evolution rather than a revolution - rather than storming the gates we are just ripping up the road that leads to them.

I also don't believe a "kitemark" style system is the answer as ultimately some who can demonstrate they are social enterprises will fall short of the necessary boundaries that have to be drawn for such a system to work.  And with the work involved in administering and monitoring such a system it can become a case of "paying for the right to be".  And why pay for the right to deliver social benefit when you could pay for a kitemark that assures your quality for customers (ISO 9000x)?

So if legislation and kitemarks are not the answer, surely, it is up to us to pro-actively demonstrate how we make a difference.  "PROVE IT!" as I have said in many training sessions.

If you have to use a complicated diagram and lengthy discussion to enable me to understand how you MAKE A DIFFERENCE then I may think it looks like a smoke and mirrors trick to hide what is really going on or feel like I am visiting the snake oil salesman. It would also lead me, as a support provider, to question whether your business model is actually ineffective or inefficient taking a meandering rather than direct route to achieving your objectives.   Keep It Simple Stupid!

Teasing out the difference between organisations that happen to trade in a sector with a primary purpose to benefit investors or shareholders (e.g. a Health sector recruitment company) and those which exist to MAKE A DIFFERENCE requires CLARITY, TRANSPARENCY and OPENNESS.  The bullshit will tend to bubble to the surface.

Newsflash!  You don't have to tell people you are a Social Enterprise or Social Purpose driven organisation to make a difference.  But if you are making that claim you should expect some scrutiny in return for the potential marketing benefits of these claims.

Tell us about it!
Here's my suggestion.   Ask yourself these questions and then make sure you broadcast the answers.  Then people will be able to make an informed choice about whether or not they like what you do!
  • What is your social purpose?
  • How do you deliver on this?  Is it through the service/product you make?  Is it about what you do with profits?  Is it about how the business is managed and owned?
  • If social purpose is primary, what happens about profits? How do I know this isn't a lucrative seam that enterprising capitalists are mining for private gain? Who owns your enterprise?
  • Who gets to decide if you should cease trading or wind it up?
  • What happens to residual assets  (any money or property left over)?
  • Can you explain in simple terms who benefits from the enterprise and to what degree - investors, employees, customers or end users, community? 
Social impact reports and Social Return On Investment are great tools, but we all need to start somewhere so don't be afraid to tell us in your own words.  The more you tell us - the outside world - the more we can trust you.
And if you won't tell me how you deliver on the social element of your "social enterprise" is that because you are a con merchant or you are wasting resources?  What have you to hide?

Just a few cynical thoughts.  Call it playing Devil's advocate.....