Thursday, May 24, 2018

make noise vs. making an impact - how social media reacted to my impact report

Earlier this month I published my latest annual social impact report on myself - and my deciding to frame it against the UN's Sustainable Development Goals seemed to be well received judging by comments and feedback I've received to date.

A few years back, I started to publish the report on twitter, using the hashtag #AAimpact14 (and adding 1 for each subsequent year). But I never really thought about if twitter was the right channel to be doing this with - sure, there are various hashtags that relate to impact reporting, but that doesn't mean it's the right place for something like this.
So this year, I decided to experiment on myself (again!) - and posted out the sections of the impact report each day across different social media channels that I have a profile on, and then looked at what the numbers suggested 1 week after their original postings.

It's interesting reading, and almost counter-intuitive (if you listen to some of the hype around which social media channel you should be broadcasting your messages on):

Taking a chart based on the average number of impressions per social media post which is how most people I know seem to judge their success on social media (some channels got 1 per day, and others several, based on available characters allowed), I also looked at the number of engagements as a proportion of my total connections/followers on each respective channel.

So it seems that when it comes to reporting our impact and social value, LinkedIn is the place to be for getting it noticed, but if we want people to actively engage with it, then we should be looking more to instagram and blogs.

However, when I re-cast this chart using the number of impressions as a percentage of my total community on each channel (rather than an absolute number), a very different picture emerges:

A 'truer' picture emerges of instagram and blogs being the place where people like to see what's happening in the worlds of impact reporting, but in a much more passive sense than over on LinkedIn...

Thankfully, in an age where we can easily cross-post content and messages across different social media platforms, sharing our impact reporting like this isn't an either/or choice. But it's perhaps an interesting question to pose to ourselves: what are we hoping to achieve by posting about our impact reports - are we simply 'showing off', or trying to stimulate conversations and reflection amongst others as to how we're doing it?

Monday, May 7, 2018

how social impact reports sometimes tell us more about ourselves, than about the changes we've created for others

To my knowledge, I'm sill the only freelance/self-employed consultant to openly publish a social impact report on myself - and this year marks the 13th one!

And this year I've taken a different approach to how I present the findings of the indicators that track my 'social performance' from the stance of economic, environmental, and social themes. As well as continuing to benchmark the results externally where I'm able to source relevant comparisons, I'm also now using them to consider how far I'm contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. After all, small enterprise and freelancers make up the overwhelming majority of all the businesses in the world, so the best chance of being able to make progress against these goals is through our collective efforts, right?

And while this take has been widely lauded so far (some even referring to me as 'genius' in doing so!), it's not this new format which is my stand-out takeaway from this years impact report.

Instead, it's the footnotes and narrative that I add where the results seem to be significantly different to the previous year - a sign that somethings not played out as I'd hoped, or, as has been the case in the past, actually an indication that the quality of my provision is actually far better than might have otherwise been expected in the circumstances (one year learner satisfaction fell 15% on the previous year, but digging into it, I found that over 1/3 of all learners on courses I delivered that year had attended under duress, so the satisfaction scores should have been correspondingly much lower!).
And during the period that this impact report covers, I had a significant change in my personal circumstances - as well as the tail-end of recovering my business from the impact of the massive flooding that hit the Calder Valley at the end of 2015, I also moved out of the family home and relocated in another town (don't worry - I'm still a Northerner in the Pennines).
My professional self felt that I'd be able to manage this transition pretty well, and client feedback has shown that my standards of delivery haven't been affected by this change. However, what this latest impact report shows is that the way in which I try and manage my business has been perhaps more affected than I might have otherwise hoped:
  • I've not been able to continue to use public transport for business travel to the same extent;
  • my ability to procure from other social enterprises, co-ops, and charities has been lessened;
  • the amount of pro bono support I was able to offer was down.

And these are perhaps to be expected during a period of family change and upheaval, rethinking priorities about life, and no longer living in such close proximity to rail and bus terminals as I used to. 
However, these things aren't an excuse not to try and rethink how I adapt to my new circumstances in trying to maintain my commitment to working out my values in how I work - and to that end I'm looking to change how I offer to meet people, seeking to make better use of video technologies: something I'll be adding to my reporting matrix next year.

And I think that that's something which is often missing from many impact reports I read from others - as well as the lack of external benchmarks and previous trends to help make sense of just how far achievements are worthy of recognition, an openness in committing to change their business models as a result of what they show.

(by the way - my full impact report for the year 2017/8 is now available on this link)

Thursday, May 3, 2018

tap dancing in the House of Commons

Some of you will know that I'm not big on formalities, nor one to readily 'doff the cap' in restraining myself from speaking out or causing disruption for the sake of manners.
Which meant that I was surprised to be invited to the House of Commons earlier this week, after being shortlisted in the national enterprise support awards from IOEE and SFEDI.

Although my famous fez didn't make the journey down to London with me, I was able to share the experience with my girlfriend (although she's not new to the whole awards ceremonies at Parliament, having done similar a few years back, but with the bonus of guided tours by Ministers!). 
And I'd encourage anyone who has the opportunity to add their partners as a "+1" to any business event like this to do so, as being there with her made me much more aware of just how I present myself in such settings, (and reassuringly/worryingly that I'm not that different in private to my public persona!).

Sadly, despite being shortlisted for 2 of the awards, I was pipped to the post on both of them, but the event was a rare opportunity to re-engage with some universities and sector bodies I'd started to loose touch with. 
The setting itself was also suitably prestigious, although the lack of tables for dancing on made me wonder if the organisers had been tipped off about my coming in advance..? 
But despite this, I still managed to thrown down some moves with a tap dance under the main chandelier in the Central Lobby before security were able to move me along...

Friday, April 13, 2018

defining success in enterprise support means not measuring what you think you should

We need a way to check that everything we spend money on, or invest our time in, has worked - otherwise, how do we know if it was the right thing to do? how can we learn from the experience otherwise? and if we don't have some type of indicators of success, how can we be accountable to the people whose money we've spent doing it?

Some readers of my blog will be aware that I have a slightly unusual business model as a freelancer, in that I always try and find, and work though, funded programmes when supporting clients - I have an idea that as well as making my work more transparent and accountable, I'm also helping someone else 'tick their boxes' with regards to helping them spend their budgets where it might be of most benefit.
But within any funded support for enterprises or charities, there's an element of reporting against 'indicators of success': how many jobs were created, how much more turnover does the organisation now generate, what new products or services have been introduced to the marketplace, and such like.
However, I've always had a concern that having such reporting measures, while useful for the reasons I've referred to above, risks the supported organisation starting to focus on doing the wrong things.

Case in point: in recent years, there has been a rise in interest in encouraging more charities and social enterprises to take up the option of 'social investment' (loans and debt) to help them grow and do more good in the world. This has been through programmes offering funded consultancy, workshops and training, and such like. And having been involved in supporting the delivery of several of these, the reporting of any group who accessed support through it has invariably focused on how much of an 'investment' the organisation has now secured.
But the problem with this focused approach to reporting on the success of the support is that its prejudiced and biased - my experiences (and that of many others) through programmes like these, is that many organisations receiving subsequently support find that their business model will never be able to generate the financial returns, nor satisfy the diligence requirements, of investors, however good the support they receive has been.
So they, and their funded supporters, face a quandary: 'fudge' the reporting to suggest that a loan deal is imminent (but never quite materialises), or be honest, and risk the funder asking for their money spent on the support back, with it apparently having failed to achieve what they wanted it to.

And it's a pattern I've seen in other funded business support programmes in other sector over the years as well, with private businesses in initiatives aimed at stimulating job creation and economic growth.

So does this mean that funded enterprise support will never achieve its aims, or that we can never trust what these funders share as the collated impact of their programmes, in many of the reporting of it's activities being 'less than completely transparent'?

I'm inclined to suggest that there's a third option we have, and it's one which I'm encouraged to see some providers of such funded enterprise support starting to take: funders of these programmes starting to openly recognise that the way they measure and consider the success of their intervention should consider a wider range of outcomes, rather than a simple binary measure as has been traditionally used. 
And a leading example of this is the Social Investment Business, whose reflections on 5 years of programmes supporting social enterprise access social investment is identifying this:

"Success should not be solely defined by growth or whether investment is raised. 
Instead, improving resilience should be the primary aim."

So perhaps we can all take encouragement from this and have a little more courage in future when reflecting on the benefits that come from engaging with offers of business support and how we report this, and be open to the good things that happen when we do?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

what I've learned about freelancing after doing it for 13 (and a bit) years

As some people who know me may know, I never meant to be self-employed - 13 and a bit years ago, I relocated my family from Cambridge to the North to take up the offer of a dream job with a leading enterprise in the social sector, only for it to quickly disappear before we'd even started unpacking the moving boxes.

Although my new home was only a few streets away from the local Job Centre Plus, I was aware that I had a young family who were relying on me to support them, so did what I've done since I was 14 and needed a job - went out and started knocking on doors. And the first offers of work were on a contracted, rather than employed, basis, and so I began my accidental journey into the work of a freelance consultant...

And over 13 years on, I somehow find myself still here!

So what have I learnt from these 158 months? In no particular order - 

1) people are more supportive that you might think

As a 'professional', there's a sense that we have to present ourselves as perfect and flawless, yet we're all human underneath; admitting we're struggling or don't know, can go a long way to strengthen relationships with others (provided that we're able to do it constructively and appropriately...)

2) manners really do make a real difference

Remember what our parents taught us when we were kids. It works.

3) the only support you'll get is what you make and find for yourself

Despite fine rhetoric from government, self-employed and freelancers are actually pretty screwed over by government when it comes to our being able to access support if we're ill, or family circumstances change. But there's a wealth of peer encouragement and in-kind trades to be done to help get through those darker chapters of our journeys, if we're only brave enough to ask for the help.

4) you can create more change and impact that you think you can

I've been involved in changing company legislation, influencing national policy, and helping a community of local businesses recover their livelihoods after flooding: all without having an official mandate, or being asked to do so. As a freelancer we have a lot more flexibility and political freedom to speak out on things and get involved in activities that we might realise, we just have to realise that everyone else is also saying someone should do something, but no-one else seems able to do it...

5) despite acclaim, you'll always self-doubt, and there are more dark days than people let on

I've kept a business going for over 13 years which has not only been able to generate an income for me that meant I could support my family, but also support another business for its first years of trading, winning various awards, and generating lots of positive feedback on my linkedin profile obviously suggests I'm doing something right. Yet despite all of the above, I still doubt myself. And there remain days when the 'black dog' comes snuffling at your door (and stays for far longer that they're welcome).

6) you're only as good as what you know

As a freelancer, no-one else is interested in your CPD or in offering you appraisals. Over the years I've built my own CPD framework around myself that seemed logical and sensible, but national standard-setting bodies tell me it goes way beyond what most companies offer their employees. But if I'm trading on my knowledge and insight, it's surely only common sense I do all I can to try and make sure its current and relevant?

7) It's all on you - no-one owes you anything (and the world isn't fair)

Despite the existence of networks, membership bodies, facebook groups, and such like, it still falls to you to make sure things are done: coping with power cuts, internet outages, managing cash-flow when clients fall behind on payments they owe you, making sure you take time out for your mum's birthday... But hopefully you can take some small comfort in the knowledge that you're not the only one with this type of life.

8) You don't have to work by someone else's rules

If you're not careful, you fall into the trap of being 'more of the same as everyone else' - and if you do, then why did you bother becoming freelance in the first place? It's amazing the trouble that you don't get into by dancing on tables, wearing a fez, and even swearing, when working with clients or speaking at national conferences. And as for networking? Why limit yourself to someone else's event - my best networking was when I hit London for 48 hours with a travel pass (although I don't cycle to events with my shiny red helmet as much as I used to...)

9) Word of mouth takes longer to generate than you think it will (and won't always be what you want)

As freelancers and sole traders, we trade on our personal reputation, but that takes time to build up, get known about, and even longer to be trusted. Thinking back, I think it was about 6 years of hard hustle and 'schmmozing' before people started to pass my name around their networks unprompted. But despite ongoing efforts (including addressing a national conference with a duck under my arm), many sector bodies still erroneously refer to me as a leading social entrepreneur.

I'm sure that there's plenty more that good for rummaging out of my head, but hopefully these 9 points are a start?

Friday, February 9, 2018

who in their right mind would be self-employed?

I've been self-employed for over 13 years now (although more by accident than deliberate design), and I increasingly hear arguments being made everywhere as to why more of us should set up our own businesses, become self-employed, or start a career as a freelancer. 
But in all the hype and excitement, I can't help but feel that people aren't being given the 'full picture' of what they might be trading off in not pursuing more traditional employment options, and as a result, rushing into something that makes their lives harder and less happy than they might potentially have otherwise been.

Don't believe me? Well, what about these various published researches that highlight the 'dark truth' about self-employment that very few (if any) of its advocates share with us:

less earnings and more poverty - 
- as a body of workers, we're increasingly likely to be earning below the minimum wage, and the trend is that this will be true for majority of us within the next 2 years: 

- compared to our 'employed' counterparts, we're actually earning less now than we did 20 years ago: 

- and compared to those same employed counterparts, we're also paying more in tax on the earnings we can make than they do on the wages they're paid:

- changes to our benefits system by government, means that for those of us who qualify as being eligible for some type of income support, we'll now be about £2,000 a year worse off than before...

- all of which means that many of us have very little (if any) cash savings to fall back on in the event of a 'rainy day':

more sickness and worse (physical) health - 
- we're not entitled to sick pay: if we get sick, we can't earn or claim anything in the way that our employed counterparts can:

- as a result, over 80% of us who fall ill will work through it, as we can't afford to stop earning, placing further risk to our long-term future health:

more loneliness and worse (mental) health - 
- working for yourself means you're more likely to suffer from loneliness and the anxiety that's associated with this:

longer hours and less time with / more stress for our families:
- if the main household earner is self-employed (as was my own experience for 12 years), then not only are their relationships with their family increasingly likely to suffer, but their family will also begin to feel more stressed as well:

- we also work longer hours (typically 13 hours a day), with less time off for holidays:

- and women in particular struggle to be able to maintain a semblance of controlled hours if self-employed, juggling multiple family responsibilities which lead them to have extremely elongated days with little (if any) time for themselves and their own well-being:

- less than 1 in 5 of us is able to save into a pension (unlike our employed counterparts whose employers make regular monthly contributions into one on their behalf on top of the salary they pay them..):

So the research shows us that to strike out as an entrepreneur means you're more likely to be poor/in poverty; suffer long-term ill health; have worse relationships with your family; and never be able to retire...
and you what makes this even worse? Government is aware of all of this from the official statistics it collects and openly publishes, yet somehow doesn't seem to be able to get around to doing anything about them: 

If I've made it sound like self-employment is a bleak landscape that only the wretched and foolish would dare to venture into, I apologise. My interest in collating and presenting these various and multiple researches is, as always in my blogs, a desire to share knowledge in helping people make more informed decisions and being able to spot/avoid hype - it's not all doom and gloom for everyone. After all, 15% of us do it. And we do it for a variety of reasons: the unavailability of other forms of employment, the need for flexibility around family/caring responsibilities, the desire to use a personal skill or passion that outweighs the apparent cost of maintaining it as a sometimes hobby, and similar.

And in light of our Government's apparent disinterest in us, we're also increasingly finding ways to support ourselves:

Facebook groups like Freelance Heroes

Campaigns like MicroBiz Matters

Pooling of financial support for each other through co-operative initiatives such as 'Bread Funds'

The current state of self-employment and freelancing may therefore be very precarious, but we can perhaps have hope of a brighter future if we start to take more action in all of our interests by working together, and supporting each other more..?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

based on official statistics, my support to enterprise is far better than what the government pays for...

Business support comes in all sorts of forms, in all sorts of places, and from all sorts of people.

But the question that all entrepreneurs face when navigating the options out there, should be "is it any good?"
And there are all sorts of ways in which you can start to consider the quality, validity, appropriateness, (and even legality!) of the support you find and the advice you're offered through it:

- what qualifications does the person have? (but as I've shown before, a qualification is only an assurance that the person has been taught something, it's usually no indication of how knowledgeable or competent they actually are...)

- what recommendations have others made about them? (but again, I've evidenced how you can't trust any such endorsements a person may have received...)

So what's left? Well, how about statistics relating to performance? After all, it's how the success of any contract or project is usually considered, and the government's flagship business support programme, the growth hubs, are regularly applauded on the basis of these.

But the latest published self-congratulatory statistics about the performance of these growth hubs suggest that they may not actually be that great in practice, and when I compare my own performance against theirs, I seem to come out in a far better light:

Growth Hub - only 5% of all businesses who contact them actually get some 'real' (in person) support
Me - only about 5% of people who contact me by websites, social media, email, or phone don't get the opportunity to have a 'real' (in person) contact and support

Growth Hub - 87% customer satisfaction
Me - 98% customer satisfaction

Maybe this is why I was named as one of the UK's top10 business advisors by Government, and have a trophy cabinet of national and international awards, and the growth hubs don't?
Or maybe it's a case that there's are lies, damned lies, and statistics...?