The Social Business

Part of a thriving ecosystem? Or extinct by the summer?

There’s much talk at the moment in the world of social business, innovation and investment about the need to create a thriving ecosystem. I understand that to mean an environment within which the social ventures that we want to encourage are best able to start up and grow.

All sounds good. I assume the kind of thing we mean when we talk about an ecosystem includes effective, responsive business support, appropriate finance and, in general terms, a supportive environment within which to do social business.

Our business, Social Business Brokers CIC, supports people to set up and run social ventures. We do that, primarily, by working with people to explore ideas, get set up and keep on going. Traditionally third parties (such as Local Authorities) have paid us to offer free support to whoever they want to encourage.

We think most of the time we do good stuff. But in the last twelve months we found ourselves becoming increasingly restless. We were conscious that it was becoming ever-more difficult to do good quality work. Existing contracts demanded more outcomes for less money. New bits of work were increasingly elusive. And whilst we did good stuff, and got lots of nice feedback from people we worked with, we weren’t satisfied. We knew, deep down, that we weren’t having as much positive impact as we could be.

So we came up with a bit of a plan. We decided to try out a few different ways of supporting social ventures. The big idea was to focus on a series of specific social issues. Previously we’d worked with just about anyone and everyone who had a social enterprise idea. We thought focusing a bit more – specialising perhaps – might help.

So we identified a few issues:

that we felt could benefit from some innovative, socially enterprising thinking
that we knew a bit about/could quickly learn about
that we thought had potential for developing sustainable social ventures
that we cared about
that other people seemed to care about too

We started with empty homes. We’d read about the 15,000 empty homes in Leeds. We’d seen George Clarke on the telly. We knew 27,000 people were on Council waiting lists. So after a bit of thinking we came up with our Call To Action – an attempt to bring together all the people in Leeds – innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, funders, door-openers, encouragers – who could help us to make a significant dent in the number of long-term empty homes in Leeds.

The response was overwhelming. I can honestly say that in all the time I’ve supported social businesses I’ve never experienced such a positive response. People cared about the issue – but they also seemed to like the approach. And it’s created a real buzz around empty homes that, we reckon, could help us to stimulate approaches which will see hundreds more Leeds homes brought back into use.

There’s lots more to do. We need to make sure we get all the right people at the Call To Action – and we need to do work to make sure that Leeds is the best city in the country for doing up empty homes. And then we need to encourage sustainable social ventures to develop.

The aim is that we’ll get paid for doing this kind of work – identifying a social issue – understanding it – stimulating interest in it – bringing the right people together – and then making things happen. But this is where it starts to get complicated…..

Because the big question is: who will pay? Our theory is that we identify a key stakeholder or stakeholders for each social issue – people who want to see significant progress on solving that particular social problem. We ask them to pay us for doing the kind of creative stuff that we’ve outlined above. We think that theory is a good one. But up to now it’s just a theory. Because no-one’s stumped up any cash yet.

Things might change in the next couple of weeks. We’re looking for sponsors for the Call To Action. We’re charging a small fee for people to come along (next time we’ll charge more). And we’re talking to some people who might put in some cash. But I wouldn’t bet my house on us being successful – because, as you all know, money is very tight.

Money is tight, and there also appears to be a reluctance for anyone to pay for business support at the moment. Conversations with people who know more about the world of social investment than I do suggest that it’s hard to work out who will pay for the “social venture intermediaries” – the people like us. Investors would prefer most of their cash to go to the people they want to invest in. New ventures aren’t always the best source of income either. And whilst we’re open to the idea of taking equity stakes in new businesses we support, that feels like a long-term income source. Or maybe a form of payment on the never-never.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone owes me a living. But I also think that what we do matters. In setting up our social enterprise we’ve each taken a fair amount of personal financial risk -primarily doing lots of speculative work in the hope of future success. The hundreds of hours we’ve put into empty homes so far have all been unpaid. That was our decision, and we’re fine with that – but you can only do that for so long.

We’ve given ourselves till the summer. I think there’s every chance that our Empty Homes Call To Action will help us work out how to make a big difference supporting social ventures – whilst also making money. But I also think there’s a good chance that no-one will think that this particular Leeds-based social venture intermediary is worth putting significant money into. We’ll see.

Categories: Business, Green issues, leeds, Social Care, Social change, Social enterprise, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice

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  1. Wonderful things can happen when we stop chasing the money that the policy developers wave in front of us and start to focus on what matters to us and our neighbours. When we build common cause around what actually matters.

    Even more wonderful things happen when the planners and the policy makers stop trying to impose their leadership and instead choose to facilitate and respond to good work being done to build better futures. However this is a big step – and seldom taken!

    This is true bottom up development. Find issues that blight people’s lives. Build groups around common cause. Accrue power. Force change.

    DisPovLeeds, Elsie, Progress School have all been my attempts to try to develop this kind of practice.

    But I suspect we must get used to doing it without the financial support of the traditional funders…because traditional funders like to buy pre-specified ‘ends’ delivered through evidence based ‘means’. And bottom up facilitation often produces surprising ends (unintended consequences and innovative means – not always ‘evidence based’ but based instead on a deep understanding of ‘local’.

    But also if we make ourselves dependent on the financial support of traditional funders – they will get to call the tune. They will still own the game. And they can call it off at any time.

  2. Well, Rob, if you’d just stated this post at a meeting of fellow social entrepreneurs, my prediction is that the first few people to respond would mumble something about how they were having similar problems themselves – followed by a brief silence before an overly self-assured, slightly drunk, bloke piped up and energetically explained a new concept he’d just heard about/invented called Corporate Social Responsibility where companies give people loads of money to do great social projects.

    Back on planet earth, I don’t see a paying customer for this sought of thing other than a local council.

    Although, if you haven’t already, it could be worth approaching NESTA.

    There’s always grants… or, at least, there’s sometimes grants.

  3. Thanks David. Yes, I certainly recognise that caricature – having recently been told by someone who should know better that I should just approach “a big company” because “lots of them struggle to spend their CSR budget”. It’s tough living on planet earth.

    Yes, we’re in touch with Nesta. I’m hoping their social venture intermediary fund will reopen this year. The stuff we’re doing on empty homes – alongside other stuff – is all part of an experiment to work out how best to support social ventures. But I’m under no illusions – and Nesta we’re usefully very honest when they came to Leeds for the day – there is currently little appetite in the social investment world to pay for the intermediaries.

    We seem to be living in a time of backlash against business support – and given that so much business support over the years has been pretty dire then that’s not totally a bad thing.

    But I do think we need some kind of intermediary – stimulating interest, pointing to opportunities, putting people in touch with each other, offering support etc etc.

    All I know is that I’ve never done such good work as I’m doing now (I don’t mean that to be arrogant – it’s just true). But I’ve never found it so hard to earn a living. Either we work out a way to make a living – or I change career!

  4. Casey Morrison

    April 2, 2012 — 7:16 pm

    I don’t know if this is useful, but Big Lottery’s changing way of funding intermediaties might be a useful parallel. They have moved from one extreme with the BASIS programme (in which infrastructure in itself was an outcome) through the Office of Civil Society’s Transforming Infrasturcture (with it’s emphasis on different methods of business support, sociel ent & CSR) to som unknown new programme which will be about making a market for business support – with voluntary groups choosing their provider.

    The new model is about choice, which as you say is fine. But when front line orgs are being squeezed they are not investing in support. And unless these new ventures have an instantly sustainable arm (which they mostly won’t) it’s hard to know where any support is coming from……….

  5. I was thinking, loosely related to this, that following all the cash that’s gone into helping social entrepreneurs write business plans over the last five years or so, it might be worth someone funding a series of workshops on what to do after those plans haven’t worked.

  6. Hi Rob

    As someone who facilitates an SE hub on Nottingham the big question of who pays is really pertinent.

    your article really resonated with me. I have also done some great work recently but most of it free.

    We’ve taken the tack with the City (who did fund us) that our work produced jobs for less than £1k a piece, whereas they are currently spending £11k per job for their Future Jobs Fund (yes, Nottingham have carried that on!!)

    This has caught their attention but it remains to be seen if monies promised materialised.

    Social Enterprises don’t seem keen on paying. It appears that they are so used to getting this kind of support for free that they are pretty appalled when you say that’ll be £100 please!!

    I’m currently trialling a couple of ways:

    1. Pay what you think I’m worth. (just waiting for the first payment, so we’ll see how that goes!!)

    2. Payment by results (easy when it’s a funding bid, harder when its start up (though have just done a % of turnover deal)

    3. Pay a monthly amount for a year to get support over the year, with more work at the start. This has picked up some interest!!

    Interested in seeing how you do!! If you’re interested I’ll keep you up to date with my attempts!!

    Hope you are well.


    I admire your approach. It seems to make sense. But as ever, who pays.

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