Social Value Summit
On Monday we went to the Social Value Leaders’ Summit. Thanks to Livewell SW for supporting us to attend on your behalf.
This event saw the launch of a government consultation on Social Value in procurement. Oliver Dowden, Minister for Implementation, described how government spending could create diverse and safer supply chains, improve inclusion and wellbeing, reduce environmental impact and encourage development of employees. There was a timely BBC news story about it too.
These are warm words but the devil is in the detail and this is just a consultation. We urge you to put in your own response and PSEN will lead a collective reply to this as it seems crucially important and, potentially, a great opportunity for members that have business with government. It also sets the tone for a wider range of public sector organizations to follow. Here in Plymouth our local council has done some ground-breaking work on social value and we hope this can be extended across the public sector in the city. Other themes from the event were:
- Universities increasingly seeing themselves as ‘in service of society’ and well-placed as large anchor organizations to champion social value and procure with purpose
- How the local industrial strategies need to support re-structuring the economy to make it fairer. This is another consultation we urge you to get behind. There is an event on the local industrial strategy on 25th March you should attend if you can. Book here.
There is a report on the event from Pioneers Post here
Social Enterprise Places
On Friday we represented Plymouth – as the UK’s first Social Enterprise City – at the national Social Enterprise Places conference. This brought together some of the 30 counties, cities, villages, towns and zones that are demonstrating social enterprise at its best. The event was sponsored by NatWest and facilitated by SEUK. Key learning from the event:
- Need for the places to come together more strategically with SEUK in response to local economic policy making and sharing intelligence
- Need to raise public awareness of the social enterprise places movement
- Increasing market opportunities for social enterprise in the places through Corporate Buy Social and other campaigns
- Opportunities through NatWest on investment and local business support which we will share separately
- SEUK are launching some new videos with celebrity patrons in partnership with the Co-op. Watch out for these soon.
To stay up to date with where we are on your behalf please do sign up to the newsletter and follow us on Twitter.
There are two problems at the heart of Britain’s economy: that of driving fair, sustainable growth and that of boosting productivity. The focus has been, for too long, on the latter. We need a shift to investing in, buying from and supporting social enterprises.
We need an economy where businesses create decent work and the where the dividends of growth and prosperity are more equally shared. Check out your history books at the pages on Russia and France: if the rich get richer and the poor get poorer we can head, ultimately, into violent revolution.
The proceeds of growth are, too often, not shared fairly and this leaves many workers dispirited. Too many businesses are focused on minimising their tax bill, rather than contributing a fair share to fund public services. The largest social enterprises and co-operatives in the UK pay more in tax than Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Ebay and Starbucks combined.
Our local economic policy is fixated on productivity. It is a thorny problem: it takes us five days to produce something that Germans do in four. The reasons for this are vexed and no-one seems to be able to put their finger on what might be the problem and how to solve it.
We need a radical shift in the way we think about business and a move to a more socially enterprising economy. This is golden opportunity for the region to create productive, inclusive prosperity. Social enterprises not only create jobs and wealth, they do so more fairly and more innovatively than standard businesses and they also tackle social and environmental problems at the same time.
So, what are social enterprises? Simply put a social enterprise is a business with a good cause at its heart that dedicates its work and its profits towards achieving this good cause. My nine-year-old daughter described them as ‘businesses that help people’ which I thought pretty much nailed it. Nationally famous social enterprises include The Big Issue and Divine Chocolate. But did you know that there are social enterprise banks, book shops and bakeries? There are sport shops, florists, pharmaceutical companies and toilet paper makers. There are also gin, wine, whisky and beer producing social enterprises! Pretty much all sectors of the economy have a social enterprise in them somewhere. Although maybe not in the arms and tobacco industries.
Social enterprises can take many forms. They can be co-operatives, community businesses, trading charities, community interest companies or a myriad of other hybrid ethical structures. This can cause problems of definition but all are united by a common feature: that of using business to tackle social or environmental problems.
Here in the South West we are blessed with some world leading social enterprises. We have The Eden Project and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Restaurant in Cornwall. The University of Plymouth was the world’s first accredited social enterprise university and Plymouth was the UK’s first ‘Social Enterprise City’ – a virtual brand that has led to over £6 million of investment into the city in the last three years. Livewell Southwest operates across large parts of Devon and is one of the largest health and social care social enterprises in the UK. Plymouth Energy Community, which raised over £3 million to put solar panels on schools and Plymouth’s Life Centre, has revolutionised the way we look at local energy generation, investment and community ownership.
Across Devon and Somerset there are well over a thousand social enterprises. Their combined turnover is £1.5 billion per year and they employ close to 33,000 people. That’s big – and small – business but, despite being a significant part of the economy that is better for all of us, it is still marginal in government policy making.
So back to why investing in social enterprise is an answer to solving the knotty problem of a fairer economy. Here are some killer facts. Social enterprises are more likely to innovate and are more profitable than standard businesses. Social enterprises are more likely to be led by women. They are starting up at a faster rate and are operating in the most disadvantaged parts of the region: where we most need businesses to work to create productive growth. Critically, social enterprises are also much more likely to pay more fairly: over three quarters of social enterprises report paying the living wage to their employees.
Social enterprise shows us that we can create a vision of a better world driven by business. And this is a pro-business and an unashamedly ‘for profit’ agenda. The more profit we make the more good things we can do with it.
It is social enterprises that are building the inclusive, prosperous, productive economy we need to rejuvenate our high streets, treat workers and pay women fairly and tackle deep rooted social and environmental issues.
Business can make us noble or be a tool for oppression and control. Increasing unfairness can lead to deep societal problems. We need to enhance and protect our environment whilst creating decent jobs. I think social enterprises can create solutions and offer an alternative, compelling vision. One based on business.
PSEN Director Annette Dhami attended the POP+ Conference earlier in the year and talked about how PSEN founders came together to launch the network, and what this action has gone on to create.
It went back 8 years.
Michelle Virgo from Dartington School for Social Entrepreneurs, Dave Kilroy from Social Enterprise Outcomes, Ed Whitelaw from Real Ideas Organisation and Gareth Hart from Iridescent Ideas CIC sat around a kitchen table on a windy autumn afternoon over coffee. One year before, a research study had been done to see whether Plymouth’s growing social enterprise sector would benefit from a network that could support it. The study found that it could. In 2010 an event was run to discuss getting one started, but representation from the social enterprise community itself was low, and the ball didn’t start rolling. Without Plymouth social enterprises taking the lead, another organization from Exeter was awarded a pot of funding to try to get it going, but – not being based in Plymouth – traction didn’t take, and when their contract ended so did the activities.
Over coffee, Michelle, Gareth, Dave and Ed had a question to discuss: did they, representing their various social enterprises, feel that they could get a Social Enterprise Network for Plymouth going? And where on earth would they start?
They knew that there were things on their side: they were all passionate about social enterprise and the type of inclusive and sustainable economy that it could help to build in Plymouth. They were all committed and willing to chip in. They represented social enterprises in Plymouth, so who better to do it? They decided to try.
Plymouth Social Enterprise Network was formally constituted in May 2011 and began its work by arranging regular meetings of 10-20 people. Learning quickly, a Board of Directors was soon set up to change the focus of these meeting from ‘how do we run a network’ (now done by the smaller voluntary board) to ‘these are the great things are happening in Plymouth and let’s celebrate them’ (with growing participants to do so). Before long, they secured funding to run a large conference – now run as the annual Social Enterprise Festival – and launched the first directory of social enterprises in Plymouth. They conducted research into the state of social enterprise in Plymouth, and started to reveal information about how important the sector was becoming. As this was being published, Plymouth University announced itself as a social enterprise, adding even more weight to the sector. £500 million income and 6,000 jobs were identified from the sector in Plymouth, securing coverage from national press.
They ran an event asking: ‘Social Enterprise City: What, Why and How?’, wondering what it would mean to be a city that champions social enterprise approaches. National speakers became to attend events, recognising the buzz in Plymouth. They began to organise bigger conferences, including the next social enterprise festival, this time a week long.
In 2013 Social Enterprise UK launched their Social Enterprise Places badge, looking for hotspots of activity in the country where social enterprise was thriving. With all the work done in previous years, PSEN was able to quickly evidence the case for Plymouth and over a few days worked to pull together a bid. It was successful, and in September 2013 Plymouth was announced – along with Bristol – as the first Social Enterprise City in the UK. Plymouth was put on the national map as a go-to place for social enterprise, and international universities, major funders and large organisations started to travel to Plymouth to find out more.
In the last five years PSEN has leveraged this opportunity to develop the support for Plymouth’s social enterprises further. It launched a paid membership model, to ensure that trading income was at the heart of its work and that the network would be financially accountable to social enterprises in the city. PSEN Board members began to be invited to influence governmental policy, sitting on the Plymouth Growth Board and the Plymouth Inclusive Growth Flagship; at the Local Enterprise Partnership level; and working with Social Enterprise UK, national government and other powerful players to champion social enterprise as a way to create a more inclusive and sustainable economy.
Between 2013-2015 PSEN ran even bigger social enterprise festivals, with – for example – over 2,000 people attending over the course of two weeks.
By lobbying for support and raising awareness increasing funding was secured to support social enterprises in Plymouth. Power to Change, the Seedbed Incubator Programme, Esmee Fairbairn, The Rank Foundation and Plymouth City Council are among the supporters that have funnelled over £6 million of finance and support into social enterprise support as a result.
With support for social enterprise growing, social enterprise is increasing its contribution and influence in the Plymouth economy. Progress has been notable, but there is more work to do. We want to see an economy with social businesses not at its periphery but at its core. Whilst we continue to be run by passionate and committed people representing a range of social enterprises in Plymouth, we will continue to try.
Come join us for the 2018 Social Enterprise Festival to learn more about the exciting things happening in social enterprise in Plymouth and ways to be involve.
Plymouth is the national flagship city for compassion but what does this mean for our social enterprises. Tam Fowles, Director of Hope in the Heart CIC explains about how compassion can help your business thrive and more…
We need to talk about compassion. This is a conversation that needs to take place in many contexts. We also need to talk about why people in business don’t talk more about compassion. Too often I have heard “there’s no place for compassion in business”, and this belief is reflected in the practices and policies of many corporations. But social enterprises are often born of compassion and there is much to be learned from this source of inspiration that could positively affect all businesses, and significantly increase their productivity.
What is compassion? Neuroscientist Dr James Doty, of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), describes it as “the recognition of the suffering of another with a motivational desire to alleviate that suffering”. Global character education programme, the Virtues Project, says “Compassion is deep empathy for another who is suffering or living with misfortune…and a strong desire to ease their distress.” Many social enterprises are founded with the express purpose of alleviating suffering and easing distress. An article from the Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Marketing states that “a commitment to helping others … encourages individual entrepreneurs to devote more time and energy to creative and flexible thinking than if they were making decisions to benefit only themselves” and that “compassion…acts as a prosocial motivator of cognitive and emotional processes that are preconditions for undertaking social entrepreneurship”
There is a link between the business world and the research world, suggests Emma Sappala, Associate Director at CCARE, as “research on compassion is setting a new tone for the workplace and management culture.”
Having worked with numerous groups on the subject of compassion, I have seen first-hand the change that can take place when individuals are encouraged to focus on compassion. Noticing incidents of compassionate action taking place in their various environments, and looking for opportunities to make the compassionate choice in every situation can change a person’s perspective on the world, replacing the cynicism born of negative media bombardment and general daily stress with a sense of hope, potential and achievement. When this happens throughout an organisation, the positive change is magnified and the culture can be transformed.
When compassion is a conscious aim, with appropriate boundaries and policies in place, leaders, employees and service-users find a shared focus which can provide a sense of unity, purpose and belonging. Respect and mutual consideration are high, and a general feeling of wellbeing is likely to permeate the business. Modelling compassion within the local community can create a ripple-effect, as others are attracted by the positive feelings and outcomes generated by the compassionate business. Employee health is increased and staff are likely to stay in their role longer. Customer service is improved with a corresponding positive effect on production.
Since its inception in 2008, Charter for Compassion International has engaged hundreds of businesses on many continents, in its business sector and across 11 other sectors.
There are opportunities for businesses in Plymouth to join the global compassion movement, increasing their focus on compassionate action and reaping the considerable benefits while helping to build a critical mass of compassionate businesses intent on changing the culture of business in their communities. Plymouth was registered as a Compassionate City with Charter for Compassion International in January 2017, and has become the flagship city for compassion in the UK, with several projects being piloted that will contribute towards a “Plymouth Compassionate City Model” for other UK communities to follow. Hope in the Heart CIC is currently leading the Compassionate Plymouth City Initiative, whose steering group includes representatives from The Zebra Collective, Lifeplay Learning and St Luke’s Hospice (the latter has also introduced a separate end-of-life focused Compassionate City Charter to Plymouth).
Any business, organisation, school, group or institution can become a partner of CCI and Compassionate Plymouth, at no cost and with many benefits. These include visibility on the CCI website and the opportunity to network and share resources with other compassionate businesses in many locations, as well as a chance to play an active role in the development of Compassionate Plymouth as a model community for the UK. Several local social enterprises and others have already registered. Hope in the Heart has funding from the Esme Fairbairn Foundation, via POP+, to deliver a number of half-day workshops introducing CCI and CP to representatives of organisations interested in knowing more or becoming partners, with free or subsidised consultation also available if required. Please contact email@example.com if you would like to know more, or attend or host a workshop
We need to talk about how compassion in Plymouth businesses can contribute to radical social change and model a more proactive way of working for the benefit of all. If you would like to be part of that conversation, please get in touch!
Tam Martin Fowles
Founding Director Hope in the Heart CIC
UK Ambassador Charter for Compassion International
PSEN attended the Social Enterprise World Forum in Edinburgh last week. What an event! We’ll provide a fuller report of our experience and how the conference applies to Plymouth’s social enterprises at our network meeting on 25th September. A quick summary:
It was a fantastic, energising and stimulating week. Attended by over 1,400 people from nearly 50 different countries the event was a huge celebration of social enterprise alongside lots of politics, debate and discussion on many themes. It was chance to re-connect with old friends and make new ones. There was even some dancing at a Scottish ceilidh (less said about the attempts at this the better!)
We were able to share the work of many of our social enterprises in various events. We went to the launch of Callander as Scotland’s first social enterprise place. We also attended events on building strong networks; tech for good; marketing social enterprises; procurement and supply chain; the UN Sustainable Development Goals and more. Some salient points were:
1. There was an expressed need for more digital social enterprise businesses.
2. We need to create a compelling vision of a better future – one where social enterprise is the ‘norm’.
3. We need to engage with wider audiences (creatives, corporates, small businesses, public sector, schools, general population, etc) – we can’t just talk to ourselves.
4. The importance of political support – Scotland’s ministers seemed to really ‘get’ social enterprise and see it as integral to their economic strategies. This has led to investment and the development of a good ecosystem of support.
5. Getting large businesses to spend more with social enterprises – this will increase impact rather than putting money into CSR initiatives.
6. That social enterprise ‘structure’ and the ability to be held to account were seen as marginally more important than ‘impact’.
The most powerful moment was a brilliant talk by Bruktawit Tigabu of Whiz Kids in Ethiopia. The country struggles with low literacy and Bruktawit said that two thirds of young girls in the country think that domestic violence can be justified. A shocking statistic that illustrates why her work is so desperately needed. Ethiopia will host the 2019 Social Enterprise World Forum.
There was also a great talk by Lord Victor Adebowale, Chair of SEUK. He reminded us that as a sector we need to be more joined up. We need to make alliances in the social economy and with the private sector.
The SEWF reminded us that if we want to create a better future we need to lead or the future will be created for us. Social enterprises employ more women, people from Black and Minority Ethnic communities, young people. Social enterprises work in areas that need economic development. Social enterprises pay more fairly. We should be unashamed of this and we need to BE business. Not charity but business.
Last week we were please to be invited to join The ‘Social and Creative City Economy of the Future Roundtable’ discussion facilitated by Social Enterprise UK and the British Council.
As the first Social Enterprise City in the UK we understandably have a lot of thoughts and expectations around the future of a city and what it should look like. Developing ideas around those concepts is core to our decision making and the development of the network. We know that Plymouth is making huge leaps and doing incredible work, we spend a lot of time travelling around events and discussions just like this talking about Plymouth’s example. We go armed with statistics, data, and plenty of passion, ready to explain what we do to anyone who will listen. So when we introduce ourselves and find that we are instantly greeted by national representatives and vision makers from industry with not only recognition, but praise and excitement… we know that we are in the right room.
The event was hosted and facilitated by The British Council and Social Enterprise UK. The primary task being to explore a collective vision for the UK’s urban social and creative economies in 20 years time. Passionate advocates of social change and participants from numerous socially enterprising organisations from across the country filled the tables and workshop spaces. It was an inspiring place to be.
This was all set in the context of the fact that cities generate 80% of Global GDP, but are facing huge challenges around meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If you’re not familiar with the SDG’s, They are the blueprint laid out by the United Nations to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. They are a powerful and creative vision of how society should function by 2030. You can read more about them here. The outputs of this round table event will help to inform the Global Parliament of Mayors Annual Summit which is taking part in Bristol in October.
One of the points that came from discussions and stuck with us was The issue of the creative industries being easier to conceptualise and communicate than social enterprise and the social economy. There was a recognition of the challenges this can present when trying to persuade Local Authorities to procure more goods and services from social enterprises. This lack of comprehension of social enterprise is something that we’ll be addressing at events in the Social Enterprise City Festival in November, if you have thoughts or want to hold an event to look at that in your sector then get in touch.
We note with interest the demise of payday lender, Wonga which has gone into administration. It would seem that the fines imposed by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for unfair debt collection practices, orders to repay over £35M to customers as a result of “unfair practices”, introduction of caps on administration charges and criticism over sky-high interest rates in excess of 4,000 per cent have finally taken their toll. They even suffered a data breach in 2017 and warned that personal data of up to 245,000 customers could have been compromised, incurring the wrath of the information Commissioners Office (ICO).
So what are the alternatives? Certainly people looking for loans should look carefully at the terms of the loan to make sure that the administration charges and interest rates are not exorbitant as is the case with many payday lenders. They should also consider whether these short-term loans are the answer to their financial problems. Taking out a loan for, say, £500 for a sudden unexpected expense like a car repair to be repaid when the next salary or benefit payment at the end of the month comes in means that there is £500 less to spend next month. And the temptation is to take out another loan for £500 plus the administration charges and interest that were incurred with the previous loan. This leads to an ever increasing debt spiral which is very difficult to get out of.
So what is our advice? Take out a longer term loan. Spread the repayments over several months, that way you don’t have to pay back all the money borrowed with your next salary or benefit payment. Look at ethical borrowers like Credit Unions – they are restricted by law to an absolute maximum interest rate on loans of 3% per month, just over 42% APR – the chances are that the interest rate charges will be even lower. There are no administration charges and loans can be paid back earlier with no penalty. For the full picture, why not visit our web site at www.cpcu.co.uk.
City of Plymouth Credit Union
We need to talk about anarchism. Once you get past the often misleading, negative, bomb-chucking stereotypes of the proceeding centuries, many of the ideas contained within the, by definition, very broad church of anarchist thought are quite sensible. Indeed, in many cases emphasizing balance and moderation. They also have the potential to provide at least part of the answer to society’s infinitely complex growing list of challenges, from political disenfranchisement to growing inequalities, aging populations, environmental degradation and shrinking public services.
This was the AGM report for 2018, delivered by our Chair, Gareth Hart.
Our aims remain simple: we want to support our members work and raise awareness of social enterprise in Plymouth. We rely on membership fees and member engagement to do this. We think being a member of PSEN is excellent value for money and hope you will continue to be involved.
PSEN believes that social enterprise is a fundamental way to help Plymouth become a better city to live and work in. Imagine if every business in Plymouth were a social enterprise – it would transform the health and happiness of residents and workers in the city. This means a Plymouth where:
• Wealth is generated sustainably and stays here to improve the quality of life for all
• Everyone has access to meaningful work – work that they can see makes a difference to their community, the environment and the world
• Good ideas are generated and entrepreneurialism encouraged
• Social enterprise is central to the way we do business
• Social enterprises are able to thrive
• Social enterprise is understood and where people think of it as the model of choice when setting up a business
• Social enterprises have access to the very best business advice and investment
We want to see our economy grow in a way that creates these conditions, not hinders them. Developing business that has ethics at its core and exists to improve our social and natural environment (social enterprise) – rather than personal profit – is needed to make this happen.
What we’ve done in 2017-2018
Social Enterprise City continues to frame a lot of our discussions and work. In 2013 Plymouth became the UK’s first Social Enterprise City (part of the SEUK ‘places’ scheme). This has led to over £6 million of investment for social enterprises in the city, it has led to the Council developing better commissioning and procurement practices for social value, it has led to national organizations like Power to Change, Esmee Fairbairn and Rank Foundation wanting to come and invest in Plymouth. The Social Enterprise City brand has undoubtedly helped us achieve a huge amount on behalf of members but it is still a brand with more potential.
Over the last year, on behalf of our members PSEN has:
• Consulted and provided information to the LEP to create a more inclusive Productivity strategy
• Supported the delivery of the Enhance Social Enterprise programme for business advice
• Delivered another great Social Enterprise City Festival in November
• Secured national coverage for our members in the Guardian
• Co-delivered the Power to Change Empowering Places programme in the city
• Worked with the Rank Foundation to secure investment for Plymouth’s social enterprises
• Finished off our Social Enterprise for a Sustainable and Inclusive Economy programme – funded by Awards for All
• Worked strategically to ensure Inclusive Growth is a priority for Plymouth
• Delivered a number of events for Social Saturday
• Represented Plymouth social enterprises across the country – in Oxford, Sheffield, Salford and even internationally in Lithuania
• Developed a new logo and new website
Some facts and figures
• We now have about 70 members
• Collectively these social enterprises bring in around £555 million of income and employ around 7,500 people in the city.
• The sector is hugely diverse – you only have to look in the online directory.
• But we think there are nearly 200 social enterprises in the city – we need to find them and get them involved! If you know a social enterprise get them to join. Together we are stronger.
• Work with the new council
• Developing our proposition and a clearer offer – social enterprise includes coops, community businesses, mutuals, charities, CICs and more.
• We need more members
• Hold more regular meetings
• Conduct better member consultation
We’d like to thank everyone who served on the PSEN executive committee this year – without your largely voluntary efforts none of this would be possible. Thank you to Jess who tirelessly delivers our newsletter and all the social media work and more. Thanks to all our strategic partners – Plymouth City Council, Rank Foundation, Power to Change, SEUK, the other networks in the region and Devon County Council.
Also, thanks to you, the PSEN members – we only exist because of your great work. You are Social Enterprise City and without you we couldn’t achieve any of this.
Anyone who’s worked in the third sector for some time will well understand both the value and challenges of third sector infrastructure organisations. On the one hand, they have been critical to the success of the sector over the years; campaigning as the advocate and voice for the sector; levering vital resources and funding; providing for peer learning and affirmation; and delivering for the really practical, from work space to training, from business advice to marketing.
On the other hand, when they go wrong, wow, do they go wrong. Sometimes with a spectacular bang, but more often incrementally over time, in a barely discernible way, until they become as much the problem than the solution.
The root of these challenges tends to lie broadly in two places; firstly, the issue of business model and secondly, issues more associated with wider human motivation and nature. This is how things so often play out.
Adam Smith characterised business as a great act of human cooperation and all around us we see the explicit embodiment of this, for example in Chambers of Commerce and organisations such as the Federation of Small Business, these are well established and generally well regarded organisations operating largely on a traded membership model. In any given area, there are plenty of customers, often with the income to well afford an annual membership fee. But when it comes to the third sector (and this is the ‘sweat’ bit) the numbers are different – fewer customers and less disposable cash. Hence third sector infrastructure organisations serving a range voluntary and community groups and/or social enterprises, that rely wholly on membership fees often struggle – its hard work. Though some, particularly within the more business focused social enterprise sector do make it fly, the national Social Enterprise UK and Plymouth Social Enterprise Network, of which I am a director being two good examples – though none of us would claim that it’s easy.
It is for this reason – the challenges of making an independent business case stack up – that most third sector infrastructure organisations, historically at least, are in some way reliant of some form of service contract or grant funding.
There are many, possibly countless, examples of great infrastructure organisations across the country, that make a real difference to their members and subsequently the communities and beneficiaries they serve, but I bet you, we can all think ones that we view in a less favourable light (this is the ‘blood’ bit).
When fallings out and blood lettings occur around infrastructure organisations the origins are often associated with a perversion of incentives, driven by survival instinct and good old motives of money and power. The last two are more obvious so we’ll start there.
The episcopal high churches of old drew much of their power (and money) by being the link to, and, in practice, the barrier and gate keeper between the people and god. Similarly, within third sector infrastructure, this can translate to being the organisation between the members they support and policy, local and national government, in practice managing, if not controlling, the information and sometimes the money. It’s not hard to see that the incentive of working solely to support your members in this situation can, over time, begin to become perverse with the gaming of data and information and the top-slicing of funds – more one ring to rule them all, than one organisation to support them all.
The above is not hard to envisage, when budgets are tight and you need to survive. However, it is often when an infrastructure organisation establishes, with an initial healthy cash injection and they acquire a set of fixed costs – staff, offices, etc. that the root of the problem is seeded. These ongoing financial bottom lines can lead to incentives shifting from supporting members to the need to feed the beast. What has been seen (no names mentioned!) is that often on start-up, an infrastructure organisation wins, say a three-year contract to provide support services etc., and, as soon as any organisation or entity is created, being people driven, like all entities it wants to survive. What happens, in a cash strapped world, when grants and contracts dry up and income generation opportunities are limited? Something a whole lot more bloody – they start competing for work with their members – not just cannibalism, but infanticide.
Infrastructure organisations are both vital and desirable, and arguably should be properly funded, particularly in the case of more voluntary and community based organisations for the key public service they provide. But when, as we’re seeing, that is just not happening, how do we keep them from slipping into becoming the problem instead of continuing to provide solutions?
In the context of distinctly different social enterprise, and the now growing community business sector, something new is emerging.
For some time, social enterprises have become comfortable with the balancing act of holding the tension, and creating a synergy, between producing economic value (paying your way) and social return (having a positive impact on the world). Coming to terms with, in an honest way, this existential challenge – something for me and something for the world – has been one of the hallmarks of the social entrepreneur. Understanding the value of both cooperation and competition, or ‘cooperatition’ being a business and social purpose organisation has allowed for new thinking to develop.
The isolation of graphene – a new wonder substance – in 2004 and its subsequent journey into popular debate has provided some inspiration; what is learnt in science can so often inform society. Graphene is ultra-light, flexible and tough; it is flat, one atom thick, colourless and see through and; due to its structure – a hexagonal network of carbon atoms – it is also a great conductor of electricity. Isn’t this what we want from an infrastructure organisation: light touch, flexible and responsive; resilient, strong and non-hierarchical; transparent, well connected and highly networked?
Plymouth Social Enterprise Network (PSEN) aims to be a focal point for the social enterprise sector in the city. The network is a vibrant marketplace for exchanging information, ideas and expertise. It promotes enterprise, learning, collaboration and commercial opportunities for social businesses in Plymouth. It represents the interests of social enterprises and helps develop of the sector, everything you want from a sector infrastructure organisation.
To achieve this, form has followed function and now into its sixth year going from strength to strength, the network has managed to avoid many of the above pit-falls, in a large part due to what we call graphene management or graphene structure. Though graphene literally is rocket science, it isn’t when translated a management principle – but it is a bit different.
What this looks like in reality is a philosophical position, a legal structure supported by the right policies and a set of conventions and values.
PSEN is more a flat network between, than an umbrella organisation above. It is purely a sum of its members, recognised social enterprises trading within the Plymouth travel to work area, who annually directly elect a board from within its self to a core CIC structure. Coupled with a positive culture of ‘yes we can’ this has ensured that the network has remained non-hierarchical, grass-roots and hyper connected and networked with multiple access points.
Philosophically, being purely a sum of its members and for its members, PSEN only seeks to plug holes, never undertakes work that could be delivered by one of its members and this is further ensured by a convention of being asset free – having no fixed costs, no office, no staff. Having no set costs to meet every month, there are no internal incentives to potentially pervert and skew the mission – it can survive almost on thin air. This makes it flexible, resilient and responsive, it can be as quiet or as active as required in response to members or external needs.
This is not to say that the network does not take action, it led the successful bid that saw Plymouth recognised as the UK’s first Social Enterprise City. This is enabled via a set of policies, which help further lock-in this light touch, asset free approach. While the Network receives regular income via membership, this is topped up by sponsorship, contracted and commissioned work – running a festival, undertaking research, an events programme, international projects or acting in a strategic capacity for example. It is here that the dispersed nature of graphene really comes into its own. Through procurement policy and transparent practice all work, even key admin roles, are parcelled out to members as contracted, paid or freelance work. The staff are the members, the organisation is only the members, in practice there is no third-party organisation and no fixed overheads. There are no perverse incentives. Not an organisation, a genuine network and, if you spent much time in Plymouth you’ll know, increasingly a movement.
Ed Whitelaw is a director at Plymouth Social Enterprise Network and Head of Enterprise and Regeneration the south west rooted social enterprise group Real Ideas Organisation RIO.