Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas has been outsourced to Santaco...

I hear that Christmas has been affected by austerity and outsourced to Santaco. The elves have been cut altogether (despite organised protest at the highest level). The elves have however been given funds to help them to set up a new Elvish mutual. The Elfing Hands Coop aims to bring peace and harmony to the world, according to its new Chairman who is enjoying spending time at the north pole surrounded by white powder. Santaco is being investigated for allegedly stealing children’s presents and making up false Christmas lists. This hasn’t stopped them continuing to be front runners for the upcoming tooth fairy contract (despite organised protest from the dental profession). 

Santa’s sleigh has been replaced by a high speed helicopter to try to meet new and ambitious payment by results targets. Industry insiders think that new restrictions on using chimneys to gain access to houses without permission means most presents will not be delivered until mid August at the earliest. 

The Minister for Christmas has announced that some people are indulging too much with disastrous consequences for the deficit. “We cannot let the reckless behaviour of a small minority ruin this ancient celebration”. In future the focus will be on early intervention – with Christmas starting in May. He also announced a shift to evidence based gift giving (only approved gifts which lead the recipients to healthy lifestyles, greater well being and reduced use of A and E or other public services) and promised legislation to end to the culture of excess which has blighted the ceremony for so long.

A new hard hitting inspectorate OffYule will be set up with sweeping powers to put people into special measures should they fail to meet new Christmas austerity targets.

(with thanks to Dave Hollings ;-)

Monday, December 16, 2013

why are private businesses supporting and promoting models of enterprise that are completely opposite to their own?

there’s a lot of talk and examples recently of how big business is starting to explore ways in which it can support and encourage the next generation of social enterprise and social entrepreneurs – either through direct sponsorship, or, as in the case of Coca Cola, using under-utilised capacity within its supply and delivery chains to reach those people that others just can’t reach...

and that’s great – right? Governments and NGOs don’t have the resources alone to address the needs of our world, so it’s great to see resources and cash being mobilised out of private hands into the public good.

but... I'm struck by a historical parallel and a philosophical question in all of this. What’s in it for them, and why are they promoting models of business (social enterprise) that are at odds with their own ownership and profit distribution structures?

Go back a little while in history and we see the British Empire setting up co-ops in all the countries it ‘managed’, telling everyone that these were the way to go in terms of economic prosperity for all, sustained wealth, etc, etc – but why then did the British Empire not do more in Britain to promote and support co-ops for its own citizens?
Tellingly, although credited with succeeding in shifting cultural attitudes to the co-op enterprise model, these ‘Empire co-ops’ have largely struggled to realise their potential. And its only now, several generations on, that bodies like the Co-operative College are having the opportunity to be able to revisit these nations and seek to fan the flame of what remains of the co-op legacy...

Without a clearer lead from national and international social enterprise bodies, I'm concerned that we’ll see big private corporate firms start to rush in, create loads of social enterprises that will ultimately collapse (or be stifled in what they could really achieve) – so perhaps the most pressing question is for those private firms like Coca Cola: why are you promoting models of enterprise that are opposite to your own? If you really think that they’re so great, why aren't you changing the way you’re structured as well?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why we’re to blame when our leaders fail us

A lot of media coverage has been given in recent weeks to an ex-chair of a national ethical bank, and it strikes me as interesting for a couple of reasons that you might not expect –

1) what finally ‘tipped the balance’: this is someone who’s expenses claims on the boards of several charities where they served as a trustee were seriously questioned over the years, and who’s Council computer they used in their duties as an elected councillor were apparently found to contain images that would breach most company’s IT usage policies... but it was only after they were ‘caught’ buying (not taking!) drugs that they were ousted: both as Chair of the Bank and as a Minister of the Church.

Does this mean that as a society we have a scale of (un)ethical behaviours that we’re prepared to accept? (probably - I've written about how pornography is more ethically acceptable than tobacco before...)

2) And given the above, how were they allowed to keep holding (and gaining) the positions of power and authority that they did?

And these questions get me thinking about how they were able to fall so far – why did no-one intervene sooner or spot warning signs?

I think it may be something to do with the way we treat and support those in authority: the higher up an organisation you rise, the less support you have available and offered to you.

For example: think about volunteering for a charity, or being the shop-front worker in a small business – there’s clear induction to make sure you know what you’re doing, regular check-ins to see if everything’s going well, and lots of legislation to make sure that employers are properly looking after you. But become a Director or a Trustee and all that seems to vanish... there are few formal inductions or reviews at the Board level in private, social and charitable enterprises I've walked alongside over the years – and this is echoed by the Charity Commission who've found that the majority of complaints they investigate are due to governance failings, and the need in the private sector over the years to introduce Codes of Conduct for Directors.

So – as the troubles of an ailing bank are heaped upon one person who succumbed to human weaknesses, do we really only have ourselves to blame when we've set them up with no means of helping to support them do the jobs we're asking and expecting of them?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Is there an ideal size for a co-op business?

The co-operative brand and model of doing business has taken a bashing in the public and media realms recently – the co-op bank being bought out by private investors; its board being found to lack the skills and awareness needed to manage such an enterprise; the co-op groups' collaboration with Thomas Cook over the future of its travel business turning sour, and plenty more besides… all things which anyone who's a member of any co-operative enterprise will feel shamed, embarrassed, upset, and angry about because they show that our ideals and hopes for this alternative model of doing business have been 'betrayed' by one of our largest number...

Many are commenting and writing elsewhere on the implications and reasons for these fall-outs, but I find myself wondering about the question it raises about the dangers of a co-op enterprise of any type becoming 'too big' and in doing so, too distant and removed from its members who are the reason for its existence, and if by extension that means that there might therefore be an ideal size for any co-operative enterprise?

Anyone who's been involved with any co-op will know that people become members of it for all sorts of different reasons: ideology, need, economic gain, community, employment, … and with those different motivations come different expectations as to how they want to be involved in, and influence, that co-op's trading and development.
Sometimes co-ops can focus on their members' interests over maintaining a profitable enterprise which leads to trouble, but conversely those co-ops who neglect their members' interests in pursuit of a profitable business also find themselves in danger...

But does this mean that as well as an ideal size, there should also be an 'ideal type' of co-op member? After all, doesn't it get too messy otherwise to be able to manage? But pursuing this line of thought likely leads to madness: we live in a wonderfully diverse world, and its because not everyone thinks the same that new expressions and ideas and opportunities can emerge.

So – back to the original question: should we limit the size of a co-op? I know of several worker and housing co-ops who've wrestled with this question in the past, and decided that 'yes', there are natural limits to how large a co-op should be allowed to become before it has to enact formal democratic structures that would dilute and stifle their members' voices and influence  to levels that they deem to be too low to be acceptable.
But conversely, scale brings advantages despite its governance and regulatory challenges, the Co-operative Group has been able to support thousands of local community projects with grants, campaign globally on numerous issues, and help hundreds of existing and new startup co-ops across the UK through its Enterprise Hub initiative solely because its large enough to be able to generate the levels of trading surpluses it needs to commit itself to these national programmes as part of its manifestation of the defining co-op values.

Co-ops exist for the benefit of their members. 
Co-ops need to be answerable to their members. 
Co-ops should be informed by their members. 
Co-ops should therefore regularly review how well and appropriately they are ensuring this in light of changes to their business models, marketplaces and wider societal expectations and pressures. If not, then co-ops fail to properly evolve, and just like dinosaurs will quickly become extinct after an all-too-brief parade and flurry of excitement.

Friday, November 8, 2013

I'm not looking myself...

most of the time we do what we do because we believe its the right thing to do (or sometimes because we just need the cash...);

we don't do it to seek praise or public adoration, we do it to keep the wheels of the universe spinning a little more smoothly, and to hopefully contribute to a slightly better world than the one we found when we arrived in it;

but sometimes someone sees what we're doing, and pats us on the back - not because they have to, but because they want to recognise and encourage us. And when that happens its very empowering and motivating. How do I know? Because it happened to me recently - turns out I won a national award from the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in recognition for the impact I'm creating through my mentoring various enterprises (didn't realise I'd even been nominated!)

And did I enjoy the glitzy award ceremony at the Houses of Parliament? No - because I'd already promised a local charity that I'd be spending that afternoon with them, helping them to try and resolve some of their frustrations and tensions in how they manage themselves to ensure that adults with learning disabilities can enjoy a higher quality of life, while at the same time they as an organisation can keep paying their bills...

So instead, Harsha Patel of Doing Social kindly accepted the award on my behalf - and I'm glad she did, as she looks far better in a dress than I could ever hope to...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

what’s worse than not getting a grant? – having to pay it back...

I've always held that grants are probably the riskiest type of money you can try and get – not just because of the time you need to spend researching and writing applications, then waiting for trustees to read your submissions, then responding to requests for more information, and eventually being awarded it (only to find that you can only spend it in certain ways), but for the reason that no-one ever tells you about: CLAW-BACK...

Within any grant awarded, you, the recipient, will sign an agreement and somewhere in the small print of it will be a clause that says if you fail to keep all the paperwork you’re supposed to, or don’t spend it on the things you said, or fail to engage with as many people as you thought you would, then you have to pay it back (after you've already spent it...)

And in my experience, advisors, grants officers and others will never stress upon you how real this risk is. And that’s a real concern as I know of several charities and groups over the years who've gone to the wall because they've been found wanting by the funder when it came time to file their reports and paperwork, and they've had to wind up in order to clear the arising debt.

From time to time, I'm invited to support various grant making programmes and initiatives – and I currently find myself having to serve notice on some local, fantastic groups who didn't keep their admin up to date and so now have to find a way to repay thousands of pounds. At its heartbreaking. So please, if you’re applying for grants – make sure you have proper admin systems in place to keep all the paperwork up to date that you’ll need as evidence for the funder. It may be glamorous or sexy or exciting, but it’ll mean you can keep meeting the needs in your community and stay credible in the eyes of everyone.

Friday, October 11, 2013

how ethical is your business advisor?

"my name is Adrian, and I've been a business advisor for about 15 years..." - sometimes I feel like I've a shameful secret about who I am that I can only be absolved of in a similar way to attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous...

And its nothing to do with me, but with those other guys - the small group of ill-informed advisors out there who through their practice end up causing more difficulty for the enterprises they're supposed to be supporting than they started with by directing them down paths that are wholly unsuitable or not making sure they've connecting them to sources of funding or further support that might be available to them.

And you won't always be able to spot them until its too late - because they look the part, they know the jargon and they exude a confidence that makes you feel you can't question their counsel. But you should - after all, its your enterprise, not theirs; you're the one who has to live with it while they can walk away; and what they think they know may not be appropriate for what you need to know.

If its starting to sound like getting a good business advisor is a bit of a lottery, take heart for there are some simple steps you can take to assure yourself that the person you've asked to walk alongside you does actually have your interests at heart (rather than their accountant friend who they're strongly encouraging you to sign a contract with...) -
  • ask them for references: after all, if you were employing someone to do a job for you, you'd want to know that they've done good by others, right? And crying 'client confidentiality' really doesn't wash in these days of LinkedIn recommendations and testimonials...
  • are they a member of a trade body? As a member of several myself, you can't get in without proving your merit, and if it starts to go badly between you, at least you have someone to complain to who can take actions against them (i.e. kicking them out of the club)
  • finally, do they subscribe to a professional code of conduct? Codes of Conduct set out a transparent and ethical framework of what you should be able to expect of your advisor, and to which you can (and should) hold them. (the institute of consulting has a nice one for reference, but your advisor should be able to show you one which is relevant to your business type or market)

'but what about qualifications?' I hear you cry. Well, I'm afraid I don't see these as an indication that your advisor is any good at being able to support you, merely that they can pass some exams - after all, you may have got your Maths O-level or GCSEs, but how many of you could easily solve simultaneous equations now if I asked you? My experience is that while qualifications have a purpose, they're not the automatic assurance that you should be seeking;

after all, if your business is going to be ethical, shouldn't everyone else be who you invite to be involved with it..?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

trains cause epic fail for Govt cycling initiative...

so - earlier this summer lots of people (including me!) got excited to hear about our Government wanting to encourage more of us onto our bicycles and investing nearly £80m to back up the rhetoric!

sadly, at the same time Northern Rail seem to be doubling their efforts to actively discourage cycling...

Anyone trying to board a Northern Rail service (at any time) with a bicycle will know how hit and miss it is as to whether there'll actually be a bike rack on a carriage, and if there is, if there'll be space to squeeze another frame in. But Northern seem to have now gone one better and seem to be actively discriminating against cyclists: they're about to close a tunnel for maintenance works for 5 months during the upcoming winter period, and during this time have arranged a replacement bus service between affected stations.

Now, any cyclist will know that replacement bus services can sometimes struggle with any passenger carrying more than a shoulder bag... so I made enquires at my local station office in Todmorden and was assured that pushchairs and wheelchair users would be accommodated, but that they were unsure about bicycles.
So, a few emails to Northern Rail customer services later, and I've been told that there will be no provision made for 'non-folding bicycles' - this means that if you're travelling by train with your bike, you'll need to cycle the 15 miles between stations yourself, in winter, and having done it myself (once!), you'll need to give yourself at least an extra hour and a half and be in really good shape to cope with the inclines...
Of course - the folding bicycles refer only to the brompton-style commuter bikes, and lovely as these are, not many people in the valleys have them as their wheels are too small to be able to cope with the hills in these parts.

So - for the next 5 months, I'll be forced to use a car for travel, as Northern Rail have failed to make provision for me as a passenger with a bicycle, while every other group of passenger will be catered for.

No wonder they've their own hashtag on twitter: #northernfail

Monday, September 23, 2013

why I helped to kill a C.I.C.

I've never made a secret of my personal views about the Community Interest Company legal form that was designed by the government to better support and encourage social enterprises - but I've also always been clear that if there's a clear advantage that it can offer to an enterprise based on their specific circumstances, then I'm happy to throw my weight behind them in making sure that they gain this status.

Over the years I've been asked on numerous occasions by CIC's how they might 'un-become' a CIC after its become apparent that they've incorporated with this form on the basis of poor or mis-informed advice. All have then come to realise that the hassle and implications to undoing this form outweigh the cost of their carrying on with it. All, that is, until recently when I was invited to formally meet with the Directors of a CIC to help them decide if they should dissolve it, after they felt that this status was hindering more that helping them.

It transpired that winding up the CIC was the best thing they could do - because having this status was actually damaging their potential to achieve their social goals: 
- partner organisations (including some statutory agencies) just didn't 'get it' so they were wasting time regularly educating different people in the same organisations as to what it meant to be a CIC, 
- the investors they were targeting didn't want to get involved because of the statutory caps that would limit their return to below market rates, 
- through customer dialogue it had been identified that all the contracts that they were winning were on the basis of the quality of their service and had nothing to do with their legal status or identity as a social enterprise,
- and perhaps most dangerous of all, there was a culture emerging of 'just doing enough' rather than striving for excellence as owing to those statutory caps and the asset lock, staff didn't feel motivated to take risks or put in the extra effort that can make or break a growing enterprise as there was no mechanism that would allow their 'sweat equity' to be rewarded at at future date...

So - the papers have now been signed and the process of dissolution is formally in motion. By the end of the month there'll be one less CIC on the register.

But why share this story of apparent failure in the otherwise rosy world of social enterprise? Because sometimes things go wrong because we're offered bad advice and guidance and don't always know how to spot it; because legal forms can sometimes put the success of an enterprise at risk through no fault of its own; but mainly because sometimes we need to be told its OK to feel that what everyone else is raving about as being brilliant isn't working for you.

Monday, September 2, 2013

the paradox of taking holidays and why tents need plug sockets...

So - its September and I missed sharing any insights or encouragements last month. Sorry about that, but I've a great excuse - you see, I was technically 'on holiday'!!

Holidays are a strange feature in the third sector - if asked, just about all of us would agree how important it is that people are supported, nurtured, encouraged, and that includes being well rested: taking holidays! But for those of us in formal leadership or senior management roles, lets face it: how easy is it really to be able to give ourselves those things that we're prioritising amongst the people we're supporting/working with/walking alongside?

Well, this year I was away for a whole week and 2 weekends (mixture of camp-site and a friends' cottage in the South Lake District) - may not sound much, but was the longest official break I've taken from being self-employed for about 3 years. But every day, I trekked about half a mile to be able to get a signal on my phone to get for any urgent messages or emails - and despite scheduling client projects and contracts so that nothing should suffer for my absence, there were 2 contract opportunities that arose that I've missed because I'd promised my family that I wouldn't be bringing work with me (and frankly, working on a camp-site can be a tad tricky with precious few plug sockets!).

But I'm back and feeling good for having been able to devote myself solely to my tribe for that time - sharing new adventures and (mainly) enjoying spending time together. The only downside has been knowing how hard it was to be able to schedule just a week, and then seeing the 'out of office' emails from others in public bodies and larger private companies, saying how they're away for up to 3 weeks!!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

super-powers revealed!

so - thanks to all of you who answered my 'call' a few weeks back when I asked what my superpower is.

it was humbling in places to read what high esteem some of you hold me in (and comforting to know that there are some of you I can always rely on to make sure I keep my feet on the ground...)

I've copied all the responses below for reference (anonymised, naturally - got to protect those secret identities!), but what seems to be coming out of them is that my superpowers are:

1) the ability to take complex information and ideas and present them in ways that are easy to understand and relate to
2) connecting diverse and wide-ranging sources of information to help cut through issues quickly and concisely

thanks to you all for 'playing along'.


  • laser-beam analytical skills
  • the ability to understand people/scenarios/language quickly (a hugely under rated talent IMO) and its obviously 'super' (difficult) because of the sector that you choose to ply your trade in, most social entrepreneurs have their own 'language' in my experiences to date !!
  • When I ask you about something, you form a web of interconnections and links, allowing us to swing straight over ground which has been previously trodden, and avoiding existing pitfalls
  • conviction. You always demonstrate a clear belief in what you are doing or saying
  • vastly useful in-depth knowledge of charities, social enterprises, and co-operatives, and their role within our economy
  • respond to a complex question in a factual and personable manner. I have seen you do this on several occasions, putting the questioner at ease with not only the response but also the manner of the reply
  • Stats and normal distributions could b used to categorise you in the six parts per million category....... or even at one in a thousand that’s 99.9% of them not as good as you
  • You are Hyper efficient, easy to reach, informative on most subjects and a jolly fellow to work with.  Why do I call you, because you are easy to speak to, a good listener and able to discuss through what are often tricky situations as well as offer advice.  You get things done quickly and are always willing to go beyond what is required of you to support me in my quests.  There!  Supportive, efficient, good communicator, get things done and never let me down
  • Being able to translate strategic vision into something useful on the ground. 
  • Insightful and being able to reference good practice and findings from the work you've been involved in and topics you've researched and reflected on over the years
  • Being able to spot weaknesses/gaps and challenges in a proposal and make useful suggestions  
  • Sensible but also entrepreneurial - a risk taker
  • Honest, ethical and fair and challenging authority where necessary 
  • translating legal structures and governance into something none legal people can understand 

Some people also likened me to:
  • professor X
  • the A team
  • being a Babel fish (hitch-hikers guide)
  • spider-man

Friday, July 5, 2013

secret super-powers...

we all have one - something we can do that others struggle to, and that people are in awe of us when we use it: a skill or ability that marks us out from the crowd, and is the thing that makes us special in the eyes of those we work with;

and I'm wondering what mine might be - don't get me wrong, I'm pretty clear about my various skills and abilities (just check out my 'modest' profile), but I'm not sure I'm that clear on which of them the people I walk alongside cherish and value the most;

I've therefore decided to ask. So - if you get a message from me in the next few weeks, this is your chance to tell me what you really think it is that I can do that's better than anyone else. 
And why am I doing this? Well, I'm curious, and its been a while since I did some good evaluation on myself other than taking recommendations on Linkedin (of which I seem to gathering quite a few!) and seeing people tweet about me occasionally. And because its only by better understanding how other see me that I can best strengthen and enhance myself against any future super-villains and their kyrptonite... 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

why every business should play musical chairs

As a kid, one of my favourite party games was musical chairs - especially at friends' birthday parties as invariably there'd be a prize if yours was the last bum seated.
But I grew older, started to work and learnt that 'musical chairs' is still played in some businesses - although its more about temporarily swapping roles, rather than competing for that prized party gift...

Recently I was fortunate enough to share some of my experiences and insight about various aspects of starting up your own enterprises with a group of students at a start-up boot-camp in Salford. There were a dozen of them, all packed into a small room and had been talked at for most of the day by other experts before I arrived...
Naturally energy levels were dipping, and I picked up that some participants had struggled to relate some of the earlier content of the day to their ideas.

The answer? I got them to play musical chairs - I asked all of them to stand up and go and sit somewhere else before I began. For some, this provoked mild looks of concern: they'd spent so long in the same chair it had moulded itself to the contours of their bum and surely no other chair could be as comfortable... 
But very quickly they 'got it' and having a physically different perspective on their classmates and the room meant that they all quickly perked up and seemed to gain a refreshed excitement about engaging in the subject matter.

The lesson from this? Everyone who spends time regularly sitting in the same chair or position to engage in their work should periodically move to another desk or sit on the other side of the room. Gaining a renewed excitement for what you do can be as cheap and easy as changing the way you physically look at it - so what's stopping you? Start rearranging the future today!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

a taxing question for social impact reporting

Some of you will be aware that I recently made my debut appearance on the stage of the Comedy Store in Manchester - sadly not to tickle peoples’ funny bones (well, not purposefully), but to speak at the national Social Impact Awards. And as part of my encouragement and challenge to the participants, I took the opportunity to share and publish my annual social accounts for 2012/3 (don’t worry, if you weren’t there - they’re on line now).

The reasons why I’ve committed myself to this annual report on my social impact / value / achievements are written about elsewhere, but I wanted to share the reasoning why I’ve decided to start monetising one of my measures - specifically the cash value of the pro bono support I offer.

Like many other businesses that offer professional services, I offer some of my support on a pro bono basis because, well, because it’s the right thing to do: why should people be denied support and advice on the basis that they’re not in a position to be able to pay for it (or have it paid for)?
For the last 2 years, I’ve struggled with if I should track the extent of my pro bono work, and if so, for what reason - after all, as a freelancer I only have so many resources I can devote to monitoring and evaluation so I need to know that there’s a valid benefit from what I invest resources in measuring and reporting against.

And I’ve decided that I should measure it - to help me reflect on how much support I am able to offer to people who would otherwise ‘go without’, and to make sure that I’m keeping this in balance with my need to make sure that I’m still earning enough to pay the bills. Given that this pro bono can take many forms, but all are based around time, I decided that the best way to track this would be by monetising it. That then raised the question of what should I use as my proxy value? After all, different services can attract different fees and what I charge can vary according to client … so in trying to keep it simple and transparent, I’ve taken a national proxy from a survey of other consultant’s fees.

It’s too soon to say what the effect of this new measure in my social accounts will be in how they (and I) are subsequently received and perceived, but I’m already considering another indicator - that of tax.
Private businesses are facing increasing demands for transparency in their tax affairs, and I realise that my current measures don’t have anything that allows me to reflect on the extent of my impact on wider society (I’ve already got the local economy, environment, and 3rd sector covered). The proportion of my sales that are subsequently paid in taxes seems to therefore be a simple and effective way of strengthening my transparency and also reflect on how much I’m contributing to the benefit of the wider society in which I live (assuming that the bulk on my taxes and being spent on beneficial things such as training teachers, paying for healthcare, etc).

But what do you, dear reader, think? Am I right to be valuing my ’corporate love’ (pro bono), and should I really be talking about how much tax I’m paying with anyone other than the tax office given some of the cultural taboos we have in the UK around talking about how much we earn and pay in taxes…?

Monday, April 22, 2013

new support for local communities to raise startup finance from their neighbours

The, a small Co-operative Development Body (CDB) based in south Wales has recently set up a new website aimed at helping new and growing co-ops with their Community Share Issues.

Alex Bird, one of the partners in the co-op, realised after working with a number of community co‑ops trying to finance projects through share issues, that whilst they could market themselves easily to local people, communicating to the wider public wasn’t easy on a small budget. He and his colleagues have worked with community shops, community centres, pubs, football and rugby clubs, festivals, food co‑ops, bike shops, off-road cycle centres, recycling projects, gyms and energy co‑ops, and all had difficulty marketing their share issues. Many didn’t proceed with a share issues because they couldn’t see how they would get sufficient share sales and the activists involved looked to other sources of finance such as grants and loans.

Some projects they’ve worked with have been very creative in their share issues, linking up with credit unions and CDFIs to enable people to get lines of credit or save up to buy shares, but they still find it difficult to contact their diaspora, and you can only raise so much from local people.

Many projects have a wider appeal than just their immediate neighbourhood, and there is a large body of people across the UK and further afield who don’t have a project nearby but would like to support one.  Real ale pubs, vegetarian and vegan shops, football clubs, and of course ecological and green energy projects are examples of projects with a broader appeal, but many such projects weren’t getting through to their potential share buyers, and at times weren’t hitting their finance raising targets.

After many discussions about who wasn’t doing what and whose job it was to sort out this problem, and why “they” should be doing it, did what co-operators always do in the end – got on with it themselves. Using the well-known open source software from WordPress and with the help of Co-operatives UK Internet Services they have set up a .coop site from their own resources.

The new website is up and running at and features all the Community Share Issues they know about free of charge in a classified style listing, plus lots of advice and guidance. The site is presently entirely self-funding, although as it develops they hope to bring some sponsorship on board in order to raise income and grow the site, so they offer paid for features as well as the basic free listing.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

why being a charity isn't always the best way to 'do good'

The recent news about Charity bank giving up its charitable status to better allow it to gain access to investment in pursuit of its social mission caught my interest - it challenges the accepted norm that charitable status is always the best form to adopt to gain revenues in pursuit of achieving social goals.

I’ve always cautioned start-ups with a social mission about the risks associated with charitable status: it can be limiting in allowing you the flexibility to change your focus and activities in response to changing needs (owing to the strictures of charity legislation); it enforces limits within your governance that prevent you being able to be led by beneficiaries or employees; and as to the argument that you have to be a charity to access grants - many grant making trusts and public funding programmes aren’t concerned about your having a charity number. 
Finally, some feel that being a charity is a vital part of their business model in allowing them to gain business rate relief, but I’d suggest that any business model that is dependent upon securing rate relief is perhaps far too fragile to be able to survive in an increasingly competitive environment.

So - well done to the Charity Bank for recognising that being a charity isn’t always the best way to pursue a social mission: a salutary example to the wider sector.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

when email accounts get hijacked...

It transpired that earlier this week, my yahoo email address (which I’ve been using for well over 10 years) got ‘hi-jacked’ by a ‘spambot’ – an automated programme that seems to have it in for yahoo by the looks of how many other yahoo mail accounts have also recently started to send out ‘spam’. Fortunately I noticed it within a few minutes as was able to quickly reset all the security stuff on the account which seems to have stopped it. But not before it sent an email to several hundred email addresses that contained only a cryptic link to an usual looking web address.

Now, I know most people are pretty sensible and will have recognised this for what it was if they received it, and happily deleted/ignored it (I once received a spam email from the then chief executive of what is now Social Enterprise UK!). But I appreciated those who got in touch by email and phone to check I knew and was OK.
It happens all the time: we get odd emails saying we’ve won the Nigerian lottery, promising miracle weight loss, or from people asking for help as they’ve been mugged on holiday and asking to wire money to an offshore account to help them out... most of the time our email programmes filter them as spam, but when they come from email accounts we know and trust, they tend to land in our inboxes.

It seems to be a symptom of living in the modern technological age that sometimes despite best efforts, things go awry – twitter was massively ‘hacked’ a couple of years ago, facebook got ‘turned off’ once, and a certain high street bank’s system shut down unexpectedly leaving its customers unable to access their accounts, make any sorts of payments or withdraw cash for several hours...

I’ve heard of lots of people who are now giving up on yahoo and moving their email accounts to other providers. But I think that in doing so, they’re missing an opportunity to show some solidarity and support for a service provider that offers us access to some of the joys of the World Wide Web without asking us for any payment as its users. Just about every email provider suffers problems at some point from attacks by hackers and ne’er-do-gooders, but it we all bolted at the first sign of trouble from any group, organisation or person that caused us embarrassment or upset, without offering them the benefit of the doubt and a trust that they’ll make things better next time, we’d very quickly all end up living as hermits in caves.

My yahoo email account being hi-jacked was an annoyance and slight embarrassment. But it happens to people all the time. We have a choice for how we respond – get angry with the wrong person who’s suffering with us, or stick together to try and ride it out, creating some more trust in an increasingly fragmented world.

Monday, February 25, 2013

an uncomfortable truth: bad businesses are just as successful as good ones

Many people argue that businesses should be ‘a force for good’ - adopting behaviours and practices that would be widely recognised as ‘good’: minimising environmental impact, being generous employers, supporting local community initiatives, and so on. But research from the US would seem to suggest that the correlation of doing good on the success of any business is…zero. In order words, it doesn’t matter how ‘good’ you are, ‘bad’ businesses are just as likely to prosper (and they’ll likely spend a lot less money in the process too).

Now, when I shared this research finding on twitter recently, lots of people responded with alarm, suggesting that the research must somehow be flawed, that it didn’t ask the right questions, or that it somehow doesn’t matter because it looked at US companies only.

I took a different perspective on the findings of this research: I used it as an opportunity to reflect on the way that I try to do business in an ethical and values-based approach, and if/how its worth the effort of my continuing to do so.
I know from surveying my clients that my business practices make no difference in their decision to award me contracts - my (professional) attractiveness is perceived through the lens of the quality of the service being offered, not the ethics of the enterprise offering them. However… I also know from the same surveys I undertake that clients tend to maintain the relationship with me because they like what they see and hear about me (which ‘doing good’ helps to re-enforce). And, as a micro-enterprise, knowing that I’m making a positive impact helps to assure me that I’m ‘living out’ the values I ascribe to, and so keep me motivated.

The real benefit from this research from the US is therefore perhaps an encouragement and reminder that we shouldn’t be ‘doing good’ in our businesses to make us more profitable and commercially successful, but to ensure that we remain honest with ourselves (both our strengths and our weaknesses), and we’re able to continue contributing to a generally shinier, fluffier, lovelier world for all of us.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why pubs are the best place to grow your business

Most of you will already know that I offer support to enterprises, charities and individuals through a range of services and programmes (- my favourite of which is probably ‘beer mentoring’).
What many probably won’t  know is that I used to manage a loan fund for local co-operative enterprises, and am regularly invited to sit on panels to assess applications from start-up and growth businesses to decide whether they should be invested in.

As such I have a perhaps uncommon insight into financing issues as a business advisor, and find myself being asked to speak at various events on alternative sources of finance to the traditional high street bank for business start-up and growth. And it struck me recently that most of these alternatives might be best pursued not in an office, or over the internet, but in the pub as they’re all based around relationships and local knowledge, rather than institutions and ‘risk ratios‘:

  • Angel Investors (think dragon’s den but without the scathing comments): people who are going to invest their money into you and your idea. They want to be assured that its not only your idea that’s a great one, but that you’re the best person to be leading on it - they want to get to know you. And what better why  to do that than over a drink?
  • Loan stock (think interest only mortgages): this is where other people and businesses lend you their money with the expectation that you’ll pay them back at an agreed future date. These are effectively ‘private loans’ so you can choose where you discuss and agree them - and what more conducive environment could there be to negotiate terms than in a friendly pub?
  • Community shares: where local people in a town or village all invest their own money in a common cause (usually buying the post office to keep it open, or installing a wind turbine to create free/cheap electricity for everyone). It can take a long time to knock on everyone’s door to make your pitch to them, so far better if there were a communal place where most of them are regularly assembled…pub?

All these ‘alternative’ forms of finance are based on people investing their own money (not someone elses') and as such there’s a different criteria that these investors are using: they’re interested in you, in building a relationship with you. And that’s something that’s hard to do in a posh office, but far easier over a drink… but they’ll still want to know about your business and be assured that they’re not going to be wasting their money, so you still need to know your numbers - however in a pub setting, you need to know them even more intimately than for a bank: a bank manager will expect you to have lots of notes with you, spreadsheets, etc. But in a pub, if you can’t give people an answer straight away off the top of your head, you’re sunk.

So, pub finance - perhaps a better alternative to the traditional high street bank? but it’ll demand that you know your businesses figures and detail inside out, and able to cite them more instantly than a bank manager would expect… On the up side, all your investors will be rooting for you and doing whatever they can to ensure your success (as its their money at stake!) and the interest you’re paying on the money is going back to other local people and fellow businesses, rather than in bonuses to  bankers…

UPDATE - 04.01.2013
my local paper, the Todmorden News has also just written an article based on this idea  - and in any of you are wondering, yes: I did buy my own pint!  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why everyone needs Thomas the Tank Engine to help them manage their enterprise

I was recently invited to speak to a roomful of small business owners about the various options open to them to finance their ambitions for growth. One of my fellow panelists  John Daly stressed the importance of good robust financial management reporting. He argued that all enterprises needed sound financial reporting to support their success that should fulfill 3 specific criteria.

As I was listening, I realised that I knew these criteria already - not from any text book, or discussions with finance directors, but from one of my kids’ favourite TV shows: Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas always introduced himself as being 3 things that made him the best and most successful engine on the island of Sodor: “I’m really useful, really reliable, and always right on time”: the same criteria that John argued that financial management needs to be: relevant, reliable, and regular.

So next time you think you see the Fat Controller at a business seminar, look again - it might be John Daly marshaling the trains; as for me - I’m off to watch TV with my boys to brush up on my management skills!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

chase the money and don’t worry about keeping it legal – the new world of Charity Trustees...

I generally have a lot of admiration for Charity Trustees: people who are willing (and able) to commit their time and energy in pursuit of a dream of a supporting a better community, without expectation of reward or recognition of any type.
There will always be odd ‘rogues’ who see being part of a Charity’s governing body as a means to add a gloss to their career aspirations, but such people are usually the exception, and don’t usually stick around long enough to do too much damage...

However some recent research published by the Charity Commission suggests just how far Trustees of Charities are feeling compromised and pressured in a context of government cuts, recessionary pressures, and generally rubbish weather (2012 being one of the wettest on record!):

  • last year, the biggest cause of complaints investigated by the commission (86%!) related to charities’ governance: how well (or not) they’re acting within their legal powers and rules, as well as those of the wider legislative framework that charities exist within. You’d therefore imagine that Governance and the law would be the area that most Board of Trustees are concerned with? Wrong – they list support with fundraising as being the most important thing. And 1/3 don’t offer new Trustees any support in understanding their role or responsibilities.
  • it also appears most charities are also recruiting new Trustees from within their own staff and volunteers (always highly risky owing to the heightened associated risk of conflicts of interest, amongst others...) . This means bad habits, mis-information and stagnation are all therefore likely becoming increasingly rife in charities as there’s little ‘fresh blood’ to challenge long-held assumptions that  may no longer hold true, or practices that need to be changed.

Is it any wonder then that charities’ reputations are increasingly under scrutiny and their reputation and place being questioned? Especially when a wealth of support exists for charities to recruit Trustees with little/no cost, and inductions for new Trustees can be structured very easily and cheaply using the materials freely available from the Charity Commission.

So what’s going wrong? Why aren't charities making the most of this (free) support? Why are bad practices emerging on such a large scale that risk damaging this sectors’ credibility? Could it be because the world they’re used to – the world where there were local funded advisors who would pro-actively keep them aware of issues, opportunities and risks through the likes of CVS’ is fast disappearing and they've not realised just how bad the fallout could/will be? Or more frighteningly, have charities always prioritised the money over compliance, and it’s only recently that we've noticed it due to more insightful research being undertaken and published?