Geof Cox's Blog

Impact2 Social Enterprise Conference

Impact2 at the Hotel de Ville de ParisImpact2 at the Hotel de Ville de Paris

Just back from the Impact2 Social Enterprise Conference in Paris.  Like many big-name conferences it was rather spoilt by the shameless self-promotion of 'speakers' from big banks and the likes of KPMG.  It's so transparently cynical, isn't it? – they pay their sponsorship and get their advertising slot.  There is I suppose a question of who's kidding who: the suits get put up on the platform alongside the predictable politicians and real social entrepreneurs, and think they gain a bit of credibility by association; we think we're taking their money and seeing right through them.

Not So Grim Up North (or Why Regional Social Enterprise Partnerships struggle in the South but thrive in the North)

Why is it that while regional Social Enterprise Partnerships in the South of England are dropping like nine-pins, those in the North seem to be going from strength to strength?

I was at the North East Social Enterprise Conference yesterday where the irrepressible Val Jones, who leads Social Enterprise North West, set out the exciting programme for the coming year across the North of England, including the development of Social Enterprise North - a new body to co-ordinate work across all of Northern England. which will share experience of the big ERDF social enterprise development programmes across the North, and carry forward a number of other progammes, such as Shared Growth – at last the social enterprise movement thinking seriously about replication – and the Northern Social Enterprise Academy – itself a replication learning from pioneering work still further north in Scotland.

I would appeal to the remaining regional Social Enterprise Partnerships in the South of England – some of which I know are struggling – to visit Social Enterprise North East, North West, or Yorkshire & Humber to help work out the secrets of success – and to social enterprise organisations in the regions that have closed down to look at developing new more viable regional bodies, modelled on the good practice in the North.

My own suspicion is that the very factors which favoured the South a few years ago – especially closeness to government – made it more difficult for them to weather the change in government and funding environment.  As Val said (I'm paraphrasing): 'It's tough, but so are we.'

Leicester Co-operative & Social Enterprise Development Agency's 30th Birthday

Last night Leicester Co-operative & Social Enterprise Development Agency celebrated it's 30th Birthday.  When I worked there, in the early 90s, it was one of nearly a hundred 'CDAs' – Co-op Development Agencies – across the UK.  The fact that it has survived when so many others haven't was reason enough to celebrate – and although there are many better reasons – all the people and enterprises it has helped over the years for example – I found myself thinking first about this simple fact of its survival.

Leicester CDA was always extraordinary.  When I joined at the start of the 90s it was already well known for 'the Leicester Model Rules' and other innovations.  Its first cohort of development workers – the likes of Andrew Bibby, Paul Gosling and Mick Taylor – were already established as leading experts in the social enterprise world, or beyond it as writers, journalists, etc.  It had set out on one of the earliest municipal bus company buy-outs – Leicester CityBus – a process which later formed the basis of my own first book on transformations to social enterprise, Turnarounds – and threw up one of the balls I have kept in the air ever since.

Guardian Blog

This is the full text of the blog piece on the most difficult social enterprise of all published in the Guardian Online earlier today...

The basic business proposition of social enterprise is pretty crazy: to go out into the market place and compete, but with one hand tied behind your back – by your higher cost base.  Most of the 'social value' we add has some kind of cost implication. It might be the higher environmental standards of green businesses, for example, or paying more to suppliers as in fair trade.  The trick, of course, is to find a business model that can realise the added social value in higher prices or cost savings elsewhere.  Green and fair trade businesses usually do charge a slight premium, sell into sympathetic markets, and fair trade usually shortens the supply chain too.  In fact there are many ingenious ways social enterprise realises the social value it creates (in my training sessions I delineate 5 basic strategies, but within these there are many more options).

The Senscot Bulletin


The Senscot Bulletin is easily the best source of information and discussion on social enterprise in the UK, but 2 of the links in the latest I think led readers in contradictory directions.

The first was to a recent Guardian article by Andrew Bibby on the Mondragon co-operative group.  I'm old enough to remember well the inspirational 1980 Horizon television documentary on Mondragon which led to much soul searching in the then just blossoming UK worker co-op movement, both because of the spectacular business and social success it portrayed, but also because unlike UK worker co-ops at the time Mondragon demanded equity investment from participants, paid dividends on profits, and was not completely asset locked (or 'common-ownership' in the preferred jargon of the time).

Structurally, Mondragon was and remains a sensible and pragmatic compromise:Mondragon

Social Investment – or the Emperor's New Clothes

From the point of view of the voluntary sector the hype surrounding social enterprise in recent years can look very like the emperor's new clothes – after all, charities through their trading subsidiaries, or directly through 'primary purpose' trading, have been earning income for social purposes for years.  Scottish social enterprise guru Laurence De Marco recently estimated that 90% of Scottisn social enterprise is still done by charities.

But if there's one area that can match social enterprise for hype, it is social investment.  Social investment is less passive than ethical or 'socially responsible' investment – which merely tries like Google to 'do no evil'.  Instead, social investment is about actively backing social outcomes.  The current flavour of the month is the social impact bond, which produces a financial return directly proportionate to social gains.  The casual observer might easily run away with the impression that such social investment is really happening – right here, right now.

It is in this context that the recent BCG / Young Foundation report, Lighting the Touchpaper, makes such sobering reading.  Because outside of community co-ops and local community share issues – which like the voluntary sector predate the hype - social investment doesn't really seem to be happening at all.

The Performance of Socially Responsible Investment

Two keen bargain hunters go out to get some good deals. Shopper A decides to only look in John Lewis.  Shopper B is less particular: he'll look in Lewis', of course – also anywhere else he might get some better deals.  When they get home their partners want to know how well they've done.  Of course they assume Shopper B must have done better – since he looked at the best deals in Lewis' and everywhere else, wheras Shopper A only looked in Lewis'.  Surely the result is a foregone conclusion...

Yet strangely enough when they look at the actual goods bought there doesn't seem to be a great deal of difference in the deals each has got – in fact if anything it is Shopper A who has done best.

How can this be?

A passing economist doesn't seem surprised: “It seems that restricting our shopping to John Lewis may not result in any statistically significant bargains.”


Reading research on the results of ethical investment is a bit like this.   Late last year for example Emma Sjöström published a review of recent academic studies, which concluded that of 21 published research papers...

Such a definitions mess that NOBODY can now clear it up?

A few years ago I was asked a question by a lady who had worked for years at a high level in social enterprise - actually for one of the employee ownership apex bodies - and who was also then researching her Masters in Ethical & Responsible Tourism. Quite an expert in social enterprise in fact. She wrote:

I'm going to the Social Enterprise Conference in Cardiff next week.  On their registration form they have Charities and Social Enterprises listed in different delegate fee categories.  I thought that Charities (or more specifically their trading arms) are SEs?  Am I easily confused?

Of course I was already aware that the social enterprise movement had got itself into the most awful definitions mess – but it was this question that really convinced me of the bigger tragedy we were creating.  We had actually succeeded in taking our wonderfully clear and simple and popular message - that you can do business to do good - and muddying it up so thoroughly that hardly anybody could understand it.

This week I find myself once again mulling over the tragedy that is our movement's failure to communicate what 'social enterprise' really means.

A Guardian Online piece this morning worries that 'social enterprise' can mean more than one thing'. 

There's a big Linked-In discussion going on, set up by the question -

Syndicate content