Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Social entrepreneurs get their own forums

Internet savvy entrepreneurs have plenty of options when it comes to business forums - not least UK Business Forums which I look after. Thousands of social entrepreneurs are among those that utilise these networks to interact and promote their products and services but there's never been a forum dedicated specifically to businesses driven by social aims rather than profit. Until now that is.

Third Sector Forums launched on 20 November, Social Enterprise Day. I'd heard about the forums ahead of the launch after reading founder Ross McCulloch's posts on UK Business Forums so I was quick to sign up. I'm not alone. Less than a week since it went live the site has attracted 42 members and what's more the registrations have resulted solely from word-of-mouth rather than formal marketing efforts.

Some interesting discussions have already taken place - Is this the end of chuggers? and the value of Facebook for the third sector among them.

Despite the site being in its infancy, the popularity of TSF shows there's a need for such a network. It's important for us with a interest in the third sector to unite to demonstrate to those who don't already know the value of working with us and the huge benefits we can bring to the UK economy.

If you're involved in some way in charities, social enterprises or volunteering I urge you to get involved. Not only are forums great for interacting and sharing ideas with people on the same wavelength but Google loves them so get that link in your signature and start promoting all the great work you're doing. I look forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Social enterprise goes mainstream

If ever there was a day I had to post on this blog, it's today, Social Enterprise Day 2008. For the first time it's being celebrated all around the world which is fantastic.

Days like today are vital to get the word out about the benefits of social enterprise. It seems to be working with several of the mainstream press covering the event.

Speaking of mainstream I was delighted to be present at the National Business Awards earlier this week which as well as rewarding corporate and profit driven giants Rolls Royce and Diageo, handed out gongs to individuals who certainly don't have eyes full of pound signs.

Duncan Goose, founder of One Water, a bottled water company which ploughs all its profits into funding pump water system project in Africa took the entrepreneur of the year title and Harriet Lamb, executive director of The Fairtrade Foundation claimed the outstanding woman in business award.

The National Business Awards is a big deal. The likes of the Duke of Wessex and British Airways CEO Willie Walsh don't turn up to any old do but they were at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London's Park Lane on Tuesday night. But for me, mixing with royalty and business giants wasn't the highlight of the evening; it was the fact that socially focused organisations took some of the honours suggesting that at last social enterprise is beginning to be accepted as a legitimate business sector.

Yes, there are plenty of social enterprise-focused awards scheme but I think it makes more of a statement that a 'general' and mainstream initiatives includes them among its list of winners.

That's not to say social entrepreneurs should be complacent and believe there work is done. There's still a long way to go to convince everyone that social enterprise is the way forward.

I've spoken to many people about the sector and most respond 'don't you mean charities?' NO!! They're not charities; they're businesses. The difference is they make the world a better place.
Admittedly though it's not just public perception that needs to changes. Too many social entrepreneurs start up with a charity mindset and as a result spend too much time seeking grants.

Earlier this week, entrepreneur and social activist Robert Ashton sent me his thoughts on social enterprise. I agree with everything he said so I'll leave it to him to make the case for how the sector can go truly mainstream:

"One day all businesses will be social enterprises. But they will not be structured as they are now.

As public awareness of social responsibility grows so to will people's desire to do business with organisations that support the weaker members of our society. They will not compromise on quality, price or service. They will however positively discriminate in favour of the business that uses its resources in a positive and socially constructive way.

It is often easier to add value to your product or service by being supportive of others, rather than by increasing the specification to gain competitive advantage.

Too many of the people currently setting up social enterprises are starting with a charity mindset and background. This means their sole focus is the beneficiary group and they seek grants to subsidise their trading activity.

Tomorrow's social entrepreneur will focus on his or her marketplace, on satisfying existing and emerging market needs, whilst employing or supporting their beneficiary group."

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Ethical business at first hand

During my career as a business journalist, I've spoken to hundreds of entrepreneurs about the trials, tribulations and immense benefits of running your own business. But despite all the many articles I've written and words of wisdom I've learnt, I've never been directly involved with a new business - until now that is.

A few months ago, Lindsay Drabwell, a close friend of mine, revealed she was launching a new business and asked whether I could lend a hand. I was delighted to help and even more delighted to learn that Lindsay's isn't just any old business; it's a ethical business with eco-principles the basis of everything it does.

DaisychainBaby.co.uk is its name and it's the UK's newest purveyor of some of the finest ethically sourced, organic and Fairtrade baby products. But that's not where the ethics end.

Lindsay is committed to making an environmental difference and is applying her ethical principles throughout her business processes. DaisychainBaby's packaging is recyled as are the company's business cards. Even her web host is run on 100% renewable energy and Lindsay is also a member of Ethical Junction and 1% For The Planet.

I've been leading DaisychainBaby's PR efforts and despite the business being officially less than two weeks old, the press interest has been huge. Several websites have written about it including the Financial Times.

What my involvement in DaisychainBaby.co.uk has taught me is that not only is everything I've learnt about starting up during the past seven years true but, more importantly, setting up in business doesn't mean you have to compromise on your principles. In fact, it's the complete opposite.

I've always been pretty sure that ethical, social and environmental principles are the future of business but now that I'm involved with such a company I know it for definite.

Monday, 20 October 2008

The ethical 100

I admit I'm a regular reader of the Sunday Times Rich List. Finding out how much Richard Branson has made this year, how near the top the Queen has made it and in what order the millionaire Dragons appear is hard to resist. However while their success cannot be questioned what about what they're doing to benefit society or help the environment?

On that note it's great to see the excellent Striding Out has launched a search for the Future 100, entrepreneurs aged 18-35 who are demonstrating entrepreneurial flair and innovation in progressing a responsible business venture.

I don't think I need to tell you that the people like Striding Out are seeking are the future of business. and for want of sounding cheesy, the future of the world.

A friend of mine, who fits into the Future 100 age range, is just about to embark on her first entrepreneurial adventure. I can't say too much at the moment but not only are her company's products ethical but she's striving to ensure her entire business processes follow the same principles. From renewable energy in her web hosting to recycled business cards, it's all about ethical values.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with making money but why not, like Striding Out say, balanace economic, environmental and social goals to achieve business success? The current economic crisis demonstrates that simply striving to make money no matter what can often end in disaster - or a least a credit crunch.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

I can't get no satisfaction

I read with interest the news this week that England's Regional Development Agencies will soon begin measuring the level of "satisfaction" among social entrepreneurs using its Business Link services.

Anyone who reads my website BusinessZone.co.uk will know I'm generally not a fan of Business Link. I've been writing for and about entrepreneurs for eight years and a consistent theme throughout that time has been dissatisfaction with the government's flagship business support network. Admittedly, efforts have been made to improve it but we're still waiting for just how ministers are going to untangle the mess of 3,000 confusing, criss-crossing support schemes into the promised 100.

It's good to see RDAs are recognising that social enterprises need assistance but how and by whom is that assistance being given?

When responsibility for social enterprise passed from the DTI to the Cabinet Office a few years ago, concern was expressed that RDAs might conclude that social enterprise was "always about social inclusion, not about business". Is that still the case? I don't have direct evidence that it isn't but I'm worried that it might be if the criticisms of the "mainstream" Business Link services are anything to go by.

Entrepreneurs consistently complain that Business Link advisors lack business experience and even when they do provide advice it's very much early days, start-up stuff and they lack any expertise to supporting business growth.

Social entrepreneurs aren't different to traditional business owners in many ways - they need finances, they have to invest in marketing and must keep employees engaged. But they are different in that they have the power to change society and overcome its ills. How many advisors have got experience of that? How many social entrepreneurs has Business Link consulted in putting together its social enterprise strategy?

No doubt, the RDAs' first social enterprise 'customer' survey will show massive satisfaction levels - those sort of things always do but that won't convince me that Business Link's problems have been solved. It must engage with social entrepreneurs where they already are, where they meet, network and solve problems amongst themselves.

A survey I'm currently running on UK Business Forums, the other website I look after, shows it's other business owners entrepreneurs turn to first for advice with government services a poor third place in the popularity stakes.

Business Link advisors may be able to tick more boxes on their evaluation forms now they're reaching out to social enterprise but the real question is are they giving social entrepreneurs the real, useful, practical advice they need to succeed?

Thursday, 28 August 2008

The Secret Millionaire: Social enterprise in action

As regular readers of my website BusinessZone.co.uk will know I've a big fan of business reality television. So much of a fan in fact that I've started a blog on the subject!

The posts so far have been dominated by Dragons' Den, which I love watching although the amount it teaches entrepreneurs about the realities of business is diminishing by the episode as the desire for Simon Cowell-style entertainment takes over.

But one show which entertains as well as teaches is Channel 4's The Secret Millionaire. For those who don't know, each week the programme features a rich entrepreneur who is sent undercover into a deprived area of the UK where he or see interacts with community projects and local people before handing over financial support.

The show has it critics with many find it uncomfortable viewing. I disagree. It's an hugely inspiring show and it demonstrates just how many social entrepreneurs - although many may not call themselves such - exist in the UK.

This week's episode was a case in point. Marketing millionaire Carl Hopkins was sent into the former thriving mining village of Easington which has been in steady decline since its pits closed in the 1980s leaving thousands unemployed and destroying a way of life which had existed for generations.

During his stay, Hopkins met Jimmy Egan and if Jimmy can't be called a social entrepreneur I don't know who can. The former miner bought a piece of land and developed it into a city farm. Encouraging kids off the streets and onto the land to take responsibility for rearing livestock and tending vegetables, he has transformed the area.

Like the very best social entrepreneurs Jimmy has thought out of the box. When his livelihood disappeared after the mines closed he didn't sit back and feel sorry for himself; he got out and did something. And rather than traditional public sector ways, he has taken a business like approach which has worked wonders.

Carl Hopkins, a man who has made millions getting people to buy stuff they don't really need, recognised his business acumen. "This is a man who knows his audience", he said. Exactly.

The UK is full of people like Jimmy but they just don't receive the plaudits like should. Things like The Secret Millionaire and this blog are aimed at putting that right but it's not enough. Embracing and recognising the people in our community who maybe don't even know they're are social entrepreneurs needs to happen. It will benefit us all.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Social enterprise and the Olympics

Well, the Chinese certainly know how to put on a good show. Today's opening ceremony of the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing was spectular as China pulled out all the stops and staged an impressive event. The attention now moves to the sport and after what will no doubt be a memorable 16 days of achievements, the focus will then be on London which will stage the Olympics in 2012. But what role will social enterprises play?

Organisers keep going on about the Olympic legacy but it is vital that social enterprise is a big part of it. Some work is being done as the government has funded a national social enterprise Olympics partnership for 2012 led by Social Enterprise London.

The group has recognised that London has been handed the perfect opportunity to stage the most socially, environmentally and community beneficial Games ever. But it’s not just about busing in some school children to watch the fencing for free or recycling rubbish left behind behind by spectators; it is so much more than that.

London 2012 mustn’t be seen as big business money-making machines like Atlanta 1996 which was dubbed ‘The Coca-Cola Games’. Organisers have pledged to avoid it but as ever the proof will be in the pudding.

Key to the whole thing is the supplier tendering process. I’ve spoken to a lot of experts about what’s involved in securing a contract and many fear it is unfairly weighted in favour of large corporates which will come out the true winners. But it is vital this doesn't put social entrepreneurs off.

The Games give them the opportunity to take social enterprise into the mainstream. The sector suffers from a common misperception that it’s full of grant dependent charitable tree-huggers. But if hundreds, even thousands, of social enterprises can win Olympic contracts and be seen to not only be highly efficient, value for money business operations but also providing social and environmental benefits, than the sector will be hugely boosted.

So how social enterprises get involved?

When I heard Sir Tom Hunter speak earlier this year he said he was disappointed that more social enterprises don’t come together and form partnerships. Ten voices working towards are a cause are so much better than one and the Olympics provides the perfect opportunity to make Sir Tom happy.

Too often, entrepreneurs – even the social ones – are scared of partnering up with what they perceive as competitors but why? Afterall, we’re all in it for the same reasons so why not group together and pitch for a huge contract which on your own you couldn’t fulfil but together you can?

A report by SEL claims that appetite exists among big corporate businesses to collaborate with social enterprises. These firms have the muscle to win the big Olympic deals so social entrepreneurs should be offering their services. Of course, a major motivator for the big boys for going down such a route is making them look good in the eyes of customers but this shouldn’t stop social firms approaching them.

I’ll be following up with the London organisers to find out how many social enterprises have already won Games tenders and will report back. But whatever happens, let’s ensure social enterprise goes for gold and wins it in 2012.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Social enterprise defined

Ask a group of people to define 'social enterprise' and you're likely to get different answers. I've experienced it myself on several ocassions. There's no one definition with social businesses meaning different things to different people.

The problem with that however means some individuals may set up what they call a social enterprise but might not been seen as so by others. Most importantly, investors may get confused which of course is bad for the sector as a whole, while at the same time entrepreneurs running organisations which actually could be classed as social enterprises may not see themselves as such and fail to attract relevant investment.

With all this in mind, I was pleased to spot an attempt at clarity. A report by Venturesome, the social investment fund established by the Charities Aid Foundation, puts forward what it says are three models for social enterprises:

Model 1: Enterprises operating a profit making trading activity that has no direct social impact, but they give some or all of their profit to a charity. Examples: trading subsidiaries of charities like Save The Children’s Christmas card business and companies which promise to give a percentage of their profits to charitable projects such as Belu water.

Model 2: Enterprises operating trading activities that have a direct social impact but manage a trade-off between producing a financial return and social impact. Examples: fair trade businesses like Caf├ędirect, microfinance funds, such as The Grameen Bank. Test question: can you increase the social impact of the firm by decreasing financial returns? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the organisation is a model 2 organisation.

Model 3: Enterprises engaging in a trading activity that has a direct social impact but also generates a financial return in direct correlation to the social impact created. Examples: Windfarms, FareShare 1st, farmers’ markets. Test question: Can you increase the social impact of the firm by decreasing the financial returns? If the answer is ‘no’ then the organisation is a model 3.

Venturesome also calls for a rethink about how social investors chose to invest. Many, it says, are beginning to recognise that economic forces can shape social problems such as market forces, misalignment of price incentives etc. As a result, the report claims, they should use a calculation of risk and reward which is different to purely commercial investors.

As Venturesome says the report should be used to provoke a debate in the sector. The issue wasn't so important a few years ago but with new social enterprises being set up every day as new social entrepreneurs enter the market it is important to nail exactly what they are doing and what they want to achieve.

It should also provoke government ministers into better supporting the sector. In particular, in my view, the Community Interest Company initiative needs to be reviewed. The excellent Nigel Kershaw of Big Issue Invest made a renewed plea this week for the kind of tax breaks enjoyed by traditional investors to be made available to those backing social enterprises. I couldn't agree more. At the same time, the dividend cap on CICs needs to be reviewed because, as I've heard from several social entrepreneurs, it is proving a dis-incentive to investors.

Let the debate begin!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Striding out for success

It's always great to discover something new especially when that something is making a real difference. Last night, I was introduced to Striding Out, the community interest company which supports young entrepreneurs.

The organisation has been around for a few years and I really wish I'd discovered them earlier! The people behind it are a truly inspiring bunch, no-one more so than Heather Wilkinson, the founder and managing director. I managed to grab a few words with Heather over a beer at London's new Club4Climate, Britain's first eco-nightclub.

Heather has been involved in social enterprise for eight years so is well qualified for all the services Striding Out provides. She has some interesting views on the sector and unfortunately we didn't get a chance to debate them in depth but it's something I hope to do in the future.

Heather works with many of the UK's social enterprise ambassadors and one of them, Liam Black, who founded Fifteen with Jamie Oliver, gives her a glowing reference: "Passionate. Sharp. Highly professional. We need more like her!" Here, here!

I met a couple of Striding Out's coaches who exude the same energy as the organisation's boss. I come across a lot of business advisors, coaches and mentors in my line of work - both from the public and private sector - but those I met last night appeared so much more committed, so much more passionate and so much more determined to boost enterprise in all its forms. It says something about traditional business support services I think. When entrepreneurs support entrepreneurs, the best results are achieved.

I've got my own ideas for businesses but I was disappointed to spot that at 32 I am too old to use Striding Out's services. Fortunately, Branching Out, a spin off group for us over 30s exists. I'll certainly be taking advantage of that one!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Unrepresented? Become a social entrepreneur

Government and opposition ministers alike continually bark on about supporting unrepresented groups such as women and ethnic minorities in getting involved in enterprise but often their actions don't seem to back up their words. Alistair Darling for instance in his budget earlier this year focused on boosting female entrepreneurship - great - but announced the governnment is investing a paltry £10m to do it. A tiny amount in the scheme of things.

As a result, it seems these unrepresented groups are taking their backs on the authorities' limited efforts and doing it for themselves. Happily, given the subject of this blog, it's social entrepreneurship they are turning to.

New research from the excellent Social Enterprise Coalition shows black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have higher levels of social entrepreneurship than their white companies. In addition, while women are only half as likely as men to be mainstream entrepreneurs, they are equally or more likely than men to be social entrepreneurs, the report revealed.

The findings demonstrate the power of social enterprise and its ability to allow individuals who have struggled to get on the business ladder using traditional methods are able to do so by setting up a company which benefits society.

It is this which ministers should be focusing on. If they really want to promote entrepreneurship among all, boost the way social enterprise is supported and developed. As Jonathan Bland, chief executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, said: "This data shows the prevalence of social entrepreneurship across the population and re-affirms that social enterprise is a sustainable business model essential not only for positive social change, but for the UK's economy."

Saturday, 26 July 2008

A billion reasons to listen

Ok, I know this post is a couple of few months late but good things come to those who wait! Since my last blog, life in my day job running BusinessZone.co.uk has been pretty hectic. We got involved in the Bristol Design Festival and ended up running a hugely successful Dragons' Den-style competition called The Pitch. More about that another time.

In this post I fulfil my promise of outlining my experiences at Good Deals, the UK's first conference focusing on financial investment in social enterprises.

The highlight by far was the keynote address by entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter. It's not often I'm in the presence of someone who's worth £1.05bn so I made sure I paid attention!

Listening to his speech, I was struck that the 47-year-old Scot doesn't look like someone who's worth an amount of money I can't even imagine; he's wasn't dripping in bling, he didn't ooze arrogance and he wasn't tracked by a string of staff tending to his every need.

That's not saying he's not hugely confident and he must have a strong element of ruthlessness to reach the sort of heights that he has but despite all that his main passion in life is clear; he wants to give his money away.

He is already well on the way to doing it. Among the millions donated through the Hunter Foundation he set up with his wife in 1998 are £6m to Band Aid, £1m to Make Poverty History and £1m to Children in Need.

All very impressive but that's easy to do you may say for a man who founded the Sports Division chain and sold it on for £290m. However, entrepreneurs running businesses of all sizes have a lot to learn from Sir Tom.

He believes that those who make money have a duty to give something back. The words of Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a trustee of the Hunter Foundation, were key in sparking him into action. "If you're lucky enough to amass a great wealth, to die with it is a great waste," he told him.

Philantrophy in some circles is a dirty word - it's seen as the super rich writing cheques which while they benefit the causes are really aimed at boosting the public profile of the donor.
Sir Tom is different. He views his giving like a business transaction.

"Treat every philantrophic investment as you would a business investment", he explains. In business you want a return on investment so why should the same not be true for charitable donations?

If your only contact with a cause, campaign or scheme is handing over a cheque how do you know whether it has done any good? How do you know whether the cash has been used wisely and invested where it should be?

Leverage your money, Sir Tom advises. He explains that he takes the flack if an initiative he sets up fails but if it works, it's up to local authorities to take it on. "We are no substitute to the taxpayer," he proclaims.

Sir Tom also believes that it's vitally important key performance indicators are set for any community giving an entrepreneur undertakes. If it's not working, stop, he stresses; there are plenty of other good places where your money could be going.

Finally, one of the billionaire's biggest bugbears is there is not enough collaboration going on. "In the third sector, there are lots of people doing the same thing. In the traditional business world, if that was happening, we'd consolidate it and make sure everyone who should be is benefiting."

A hugely inspirational speech from an hugely inspirational man. Yes, he can afford to say it, of course he can, but put that out of your mind. There are immense problems in local communities all around the UK that aren't being solved using traditional charitable or public sector techniques.

Entrepreneurs hold the answer by approaching the issues with a business-like attitude. Being ruthless enough to halt projects when they're not working, setting people difficult targets and investing money where it should be invested will go a long way to overcoming society's ills.

So next time you write a cheque for the local church appeal or to fund a Scout group's new minibus, think about how you could actually do more. How could you get involved directly so you know exactly where the money's going and who it's helping. If it's not finance you provide, what about giving your time, your contacts, your experience?

You may not have billions to give away like Sir Tom but if every entrepreneur gave something, the world would certainly be a better place.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Deals that make a difference

I'm off to Good Deals tomorrow. The conference, organised by the Office of the Third Sector in partnership with NESTA, is the first to focus on financial investment in social enterprise. About time too!

Like social entrepreneurs themselves who are using previously unexplored ways to solve social and environmental problems, investors are recognising that they too can make a difference by structuring investment platforms in such a way that society will benefit.

The event features some interesting speakers particularly Sir Tom Hunter, who will be giving the keynote address, and Liam Black, board advisor to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Foundation and the conference chair. Real life pitches are also planned with social entrepreneurs including Divine Chocolate's Sophie Tranchell set to face the 'dragons' live on stage.

The conference is set to show that the main ambition for thousands of entrepreneurs is not making millions to fund their retirement in the south of France; it's doing good to benefit local, national and global communities.

There have been several high profile social enterprise conferences over recent years which demonstrate the rising interest in the sector. But we need more to show these type of firms are the future of business. Good Deals goes a huge way to putting that right.

I'll post my experiences on the conference later in the week.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Social enterprise: Serious business

This blog celebrates the UK's most exciting, dynamic and inspiring business sector: social enterprises.

Social enterprises are businesses which devote all or a large part of their profits to social or environmental causes.

And before you say it, they're not charities! They are businesses through and through; run by drven and ambitious entrepreneurs who are using business principles to make a difference.

As a small business journalist, I've met and interviewed many entrepreneurs but time and time again it's the social entrepreneurs that inspire me the most. So much so, that I'm currently planning my own social enterprise. I've been thinking about it for a while but what convinced me to actually turn my idea into reality was my attendance at Voice 08, the annual conference of the Social Enterprise Coalition in Liverpool earlier this year.

Around 1,000 delegates were at an event which oozed energy. "Nothing can hold us back", proclaimed the coalition's CEO Jonathan Bland as he wound up day one of the conference. "We are here to harness the power of the market to create the social and environmental change our world needs," he continued. An over the top statement from a tree hugging hippy you may think but I beg to differ.

They are not tree huggers, they are not even charities but what they are are businesses. Proper companies who care about making money, who want to make a profit. The difference is the revenue raised doesn't go to faceless shareholders; it benefits society. The UK is currently home to 55,000 social enterprises turning over a collective £27bn and employing 500,000 people. Think they're tree huggers now?

In the past, the call to bring about community and environmental change has been driven by the public demand for ethical products. But now it's businesses which are driving the revolution. Social enterprises aren't new; firms have been doing it successfully for years - The Big Issue, Cafe Direct and Divine Chocolate to name a few. That record looks set to continue. Can 1,000 people at a single conference in Liverpool be wrong?

You may accuse me of overstating the situation but I'm happy to argue my point. Social enterprises are reinventing the rules of business and competing in mature markets with corporates that have been playing the game for years. That trend combined with the public's ever increasing desire for ethics and transparency from the companies they deal with, means that far from being the exception, social enterprises are likely to one day become the norm.