The Social Business

Category: Business (page 1 of 17)

If David Attenborough came to Leeds, I reckon he’d head straight for Manjit’s Kitchen.

If you live in Leeds, you’ll probably be aware that we’re in week 2 of Leeds Indie Food Festival – a celebration of our city’s amazing independent food and drink businesses.

What I think makes the festival interesting is that it’s all about collaboration. It’s not just about a restaurant or bar putting on an event themselves. It’s much more about local businesses teaming up to run special events – chefs collaborating on one-off menus, that kind of thing. That makes things interesting for customers – but also helps to build the kind of network that makes the local food scene stronger, and Leeds a more interesting place to live in and visit.

And from my perspective, an even more interesting theme this year has been around sustainability.

I was part of a panel discussion at the launch of the Festival, and I was amazed at the level of engagement of people who were there, on issues such as food packaging and food waste. I think if we can act collectively on these issues we can really make progress in Leeds – and the network of food and drink businesses that make up #LIF18 is a great place to start. Through Zero Waste Leeds, we’d love to help wherever we can.

You might have picked up a LIF18 brochure if you’ve been out and about in Leeds. And you may have spotted an article I wrote exploring this issue in a bit more detail. If you haven’t seen it, here it is.

 


 

I’d like to think David Attenborough is a fan of decent street food. And my guess is, if he found himself in Leeds, he’d head straight for Manjit’s Kitchen.

A man so well travelled would instinctively seek out the market. He knows he’d get good value and he knows he’d find local flavour. He’d do right seeking out Manjit.

But there’s probably more to it than that. He’s recently pretty much given up on meat, so he’d be alright there.   And once he’d chosen from the menu, his eye would probably turn to the packaging – was there any sign of plastic?

But he’d be fine there too. Like so many of Leeds’ indie food businesses, Manjit’s on top of this, with compostable straws, cutlery and takeaway packaging. Not to mention the stainless steel thali dishes for your curries, and, of course, proper glasses for your beer.

It’s fair to say David Attenborough is responsible for one of the most dramatic shifts in public opinion that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

Blue Planet II has brought the issue of plastic packaging waste into the mainstream. Some early adopters – like many in the street food scene – have been on top of this for a few years now. But most people weren’t that bothered. They are now.

This shift presents all sorts of opportunities for Leeds indie businesses. Informed consumers will seek out traders who are doing the right thing – replacing single-use plastics with compostable, biodegradable or recyclable packaging. They’ll stay loyal to people who they see making an effort – and increasingly they’ll avoid those who aren’t.

There are other opportunities too. Refill – a scheme that started in Bristol to encourage cafes to promote the fact they’re happy to fill up your water bottle – is going national this year. We’ve been working with local campaigners Refill Horsforth, and city centre café The Greedy Pig, to get things going in Leeds – so that we can help to cut down on the number of single-use plastic bottles we get through in Leeds.

We’re looking at other ideas too – such as a new initiative called Cup Club – where reusable coffee cups can be used – then dropped back for washing – at various venues across a city.

And of course, packaging waste isn’t the only issue. Food waste is, if anything, an even more pressing concern. Through the pioneering work of The Real Junk Food Project, Leeds can rightly boast of being a city that’s leading the way on tackling food waste. Junk Food Cafes have now sprung up all over the world, and thousands of children, in Leeds and beyond, enjoy free breakfasts every day thanks to Real Junk Food’s sister project Fuel For School.

Needless to say, you can get a taste of all of this during the Festival. The Real Junk Food Emporium supermarket will be in the centre of Leeds throughout May – redistributing on a Pay As You Feel basis food that would otherwise go to waste – and they’re also hosting three 5-course bistro nights.   Meanwhile, Hyde Park Book Club have joined forces with neighbours Rainbow Junktion to explore issues around food waste over bowls of ramen – made – of course – from salvaged ingredients.

If we’re going to tackle social issues as challenging as packaging waste or food waste, we need to get creative. And that’s where the Leeds indie food scene has a vital role to play. People don’t respond well to being lectured, and whilst many may want to consume more responsibly, they’d prefer not to compromise on the quality of the experience that they enjoy.

Indie businesses, working creatively, and engaging their customers in what they’re doing, can lead the way on stuff like this. The Festival gives us a great opportunity to showcase what’s already happening – whilst giving us the chance to think about what more we could do as a city.

 

 

Our plans for Zero Waste Leeds

I’ve written previously about our plans to get involved with local approaches to tackling climate change in Leeds.

You may remember that I  joined Leeds Climate Commission last year, and that the Board of the social enterprise I help to run gave me some time to explore a range of different environmental business ideas – to see if we could identify an opportunity to get involved with tackling an issue locally.

In short, we looked at three ideas – community energy, transport, and waste & recycling.

Whilst we were very interested in community energy, we reached a stage where we needed more money, and greater expertise, to really take things further, so we stopped exploring that before Christmas.  Having said that, we’re always open to ideas – and it may be that this is one we pick up again in the future – perhaps working with other people with greater sector-specific expertise.   Please contact us if you want to chat about opportunities around community energy in Leeds.

Transport is a fascinating one for me personally, as you’ll notice if you scroll through the #LeedsTransport hashtag on Twitter.  I joined the local Transport Consultation Sub-Committee at West Yorkshire Combined Authority, and I work hard in my own time to keep up to speed with interesting ideas around transport & sustainable cities from around the world.

But,  realistically, this was always going to be an issue for us to campaign on, rather than explore from a business perspective.  I’ll keep exploring it, in my own time, including looking at issues around transport poverty with Leeds Poverty Truth Commission.  And if there are pieces of work that people would like our input into, I’d be interested in being involved.

Waste and recycling proved to be an issue with many more opportunities to explore, as I outlined in this post.  Since we met up with over 30 people working on this in January, we’ve continued to explore ideas under the Zero Waste Leeds banner – whilst we’ve also been working hard to build up a following on Twitter and Facebook.

Our plan is to pilot a range of ideas over a nine month period  – around a number of themes – looking at opportunities to help Leeds as a city to waste less, whilst also reusing, repairing and recycling more.

After a funder expressed an interest in what we were doing, we’ve put together a proposal for the pilot, focusing on the following five areas of work:

  • Engaging social enterprises in the Council’s new Waste Strategy
  • Marketing, communications and community engagement
  • Collaboration, business development and innovation
  • Proving social impact
  • Securing long-term investment and funding

We’re keen to chat with other potential funders, sponsors and investors, so if you are interested in our work, or you have ideas on who we should contact, please get in touch.

We’re confident we can make something happen here.  We know how big a social issue this is – and it feels like there’s an opportunity that wasn’t there as recently as six months ago.  The whole Blue Planet II phenomenon – and the interest it’s generated in plastic waste – has raised public consciousness on issues to do with waste.  We want to capitalise on that interest and turn it into a range of practical actions in our city.

We know it won’t be easy, but we’re confident that  the way we work at Social Business Brokers – tirelessly tapping into our networks to explore ways we can collaborate with others  & change things – gives us a good chance to make stuff happen.

We’ve done it before – most successfully with Empty Homes Doctor – which started with a text conversation between me and my social business partner Gill when we were each sat at home watching George Clarke talking about empty homes on Channel 4.  We took an idea – spotted an opportunity – and turned it into a sustainable social business – that, with Leeds City Council support, has brought back into use nearly 300 long-term empty homes in the last five years.

And – working with a wide range of other people – we helped to take Leeds Community Homes from an idea and establish it as one of the UK’s first urban Community Land Trusts – which raised £360,000 through a pioneering community share offer.

We don’t know exactly what will emerge from Zero Waste Leeds, but we’re confident something – or more likely some things – will.  But, to be frank, we’ll need support to get it going.  We’ve funded our work on this so far ourselves, and we can probably only commit to it for a couple of months more.  If we’re not successful in securing some funding or investment for a pilot, Zero Waste Leeds may have to go back on the “nice ideas” shelf.  I for one would be really disappointed if that turned out to be the case.


 

If you’re interested in what we do and may be interested in supporting our work, please get in touch – our contact details are here

Car hire companies: I’m not a cyclist – I’m your regular customer

We’ve not owned a car for around seven years now.  But that’s not to say I never drive – on average we hire a car around once a month.  Sometimes for weekends, often for holidays, and on the odd occasion for work.

It works well for us.  Neither of us routinely needs a car for work – and our journeys to work are pretty easily made on the bike or on the bus.  My son, whose seven years at school have coincided with those seven car free years, walks the 30 minute journey to school.

But a car is there when we need it.  Both for longer hires from car hire firms like Avis and Enterprise, and for shorter rentals, from our local car club – now owned by Enterprise too.

There’s lots that I like about organising how we get around in this way.  I like the fact that, by and large, we choose the most appropriate mode of transport for each journey.  So when walking makes most sense, we walk.  When cycling fits the bill, we get the bikes out.  Heading into town as a family?  The bus, usually.  Longer weekend journeys?  The train when it makes most sense (practically and financially) – and if not, a hire car.  A small, cheap car if it’s just us, and a bigger car or van if we need the extra room for bikes, Christmas presents or camping gear.

Compare that with what tends to happen when you own a car.  It’s sat there on the drive, waiting to be driven (some studies suggest they spend up to 95% of their life doing nothing).  So when you need to go somewhere, the car is the obvious choice.  It appears convenient, and it appears cheap.  £4.30 return for a 2 mile bus journey – or perhaps a notional 20p in fuel to drive?  It’s obvious what choice most people will make – even if the true cost per mile is much higher.

I would say that is one of the main problems with our current ownership model for cars.  Individual ownership makes traveling in a car the default choice for most journeys many of us make in cities – when, for some of those journeys at least, another mode of transport would be better all ways round.

So I’m hopeful that over time we’ll move away from individual ownership of cars – and move more towards a model where we “buy mobility”.  This is the emerging Mobility As A Service model where, easily organised via your phone, it’s easy to jump on the bus, book a taxi, pick up a dockless bike, hire a car for an hour, buy a train ticket – whichever mode of transport makes most sense for that particular journey.  In a small, low-tech, much-more-difficult-than-it-needs-to-be way, that’s what we currently do as a family.  And on balance, I love it.

But today I’m focusing on cars – prompted by a tweet from car hire company Sixt.

I’m not pretending I was “offended” or anything like that.  I just thought it was a poor piece of marketing.  In large part, because of what I’ve outlined above.

I am 100% their target customer.  I don’t own a car and spend over a grand a year on car hire.  And, in their eyes, I’m a “cyclist” – the customer group they’ve clumsily targeted.

But that’s where they’re wrong.  I am not a cyclist.  I am someone who wants to get from A to B, and I choose the most appropriate way to do that.  I mainly cycle precisely because for the majority of my journeys, (peak time commutes in Leeds)  it’s the quickest option.  I want to go faster.   Effortlessly gliding past queues of stationery cars and getting to work on time is the ultimate performance boost.

Yet I do need a car from time to time, and whilst I’m very happy with a lot of the service I get from the hire companies I routinely use (in particular the consistently excellent staff at Avis in Leeds),  it fascinates me that they don’t better serve the regular, “multimodal” hirer.  This clumsy piece of marketing points to a wider inability to make the most of a growing customer group.

For example, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve turned up a car hire places, on my bike, and asked where the bike parking is.   I find it bizarre that they seem surprised that someone, who, by definition, is in need of a car at that precise moment, may have turned up by another mode of transport.

If they thought it through properly, there’d be all sorts of other opportunities too.  More electric and hybrid cars are an obvious thing to think about.  Reviewing the classification of cars – and giving people the option of not having a diesel car (it’s still often sold to you as a premium vehicle – because of better fuel economy) could be good too.  As would not always assuming that an upgrade (to a bigger, more expensive to run car) is what the customer wants.  A bigger car is sometimes handy, but I’m buying mobility, not a mobile status symbol.  And don’t get me started on the hard-sell of Collision Damage Waiver insurance….

I care about this because I can see the enormous potential of easier access to on-demand cars, rather than ownership of them.  Our cities could be transformed if more of us chose the most appropriate mode of transport for our journeys, rather than routinely jumping into the car.  We could also stop wasting so much of our disposable income on an asset that sits idle more than half the time.  And I think there are big business opportunities for the companies that get their heads around this emerging market and serve it well.

How can we improve recycling rates in Leeds?

I’d never been to a hack before – and then I’ve ended up at two in the last week.

I spoke at an event on Friday which is exploring how to improve mapping of cycle routes in Leeds.  There are two more “warm-ups” and then the Hack My Route event itself – in the next few weeks.  There’s £4500 up for grabs for whoever comes up with the winning prototype.

Yesterday I went to what was termed a Recycle Hack – a Leeds City Council event, facilitated by Abhay Adhikari,  looking at how we can improve how we deal with domestic waste in our city.  Attendees were primarily council staff – plus a few people who do clever stuff with data, and a couple of interested observers, including me.

There’s a lot going on in Leeds with regards to sharing data more openly – and that was the starting point yesterday too.  The council have gathered together a range of data relating to domestic waste, including:

  • Bottle banks – locations and amounts of glass collected, by colour
  • Amounts of different types of waste collected at Household Refuse Sites
  • Information on bin wagon routes
  • Data on amount of waste collected on each household waste collection day
  • Information on contamination of recyclable waste

The data doesn’t seem to be online yet but I assume it’ll be published soon on Leeds Data Mill.

After a brief run through of the data (more about what data there was, rather than what it showed) we split into groups and began to explore what we might try to do with the information in the spreadsheets – with a focus on working out ways to improve how the city deals with its waste.

Our group focused on what information we thought it might be interesting to study in greater detail.  Pretty obvious things – like how different bin routes compare in terms of amount of waste collected, and percentage of waste sent for recycling.

We’d learnt earlier in the morning that all Leeds’ recyclable waste is sent for manual sorting to a privately run facility in Beeston, south Leeds.  One data set relates to the level of contamination of recyclable waste – for example by people putting general waste in their green bin – which (if I understood things correctly) in extreme cases can mean that a whole wagon-load of recyclable waste can be rejected and sent to landfill.  I left wanting to understand this more.  On which routes is there more contaminated waste?  Does “contaminated” mean “dirty” or does it mean “too much of the wrong sort of non-recyclable plastic”?  How is this dealt with?  What solutions might there be?

Another set of data I’d be interested in looking at more relates to areas of Leeds (around Rothwell) where households get food-waste collections. I’d be interested to see what impact that has had on recycling rates – and the amount of non-recyclable waste that’s collected.

In truth we didn’t have loads of time to explore things before we broke for lunch.  But we worked with one of the developers, Nick Jackson, (who’s also working with Leeds Empties on this open data project) to explore a few ideas – including improving the page on the Leeds Council website which lets people know when their bins are collected.  Apparently 40,000 people visit that page every month – so that’s a significant audience – potentially for information that may encourage people to recycle more.

As you’d expect, as you start to get into detail you realise that there are limitations to the data too.  There’s a natural desire to compare performance across the city – how does the prosperous suburb of Adel compare with inner-city Cross Green?  But in reality it’s more difficult – as the data gathered about waste collection relates to routes – which take in a number of neighbourhoods.  But as the data is explored in more detail other possibilities for better analysis may become apparent.  And, with time, there may be possibilities to gather data in different ways.

After the event I got into a few interesting conversations online.  I tweeted a picture of a leaflet that we’ve got on our fridge.

 

 

The leaflet was produced by Leeds University Union – and is aimed primarily at students in the city.  The issue that I mentioned before – about green bins being contaminated with non-recyclable waste – is a particular problem in student areas.  The leaflet shares information – in an engaging way – about what can and can’t be recycled in Leeds.

I learnt a lot myself – I now know that plastics with numbers 1 2 and 4 on them can be recycled in Leeds – but not others.  So, for example, most yoghurt pots can’t go in your green bin, whilst a lot of bottles can – but lots of bottle tops can’t.

Response to the leaflet on Twitter suggested that I’m not alone in being a bit confused about what you can and can’t recycle.  So maybe amidst all the talk of data we’ve found one low-tech solution – better information shared with all households.  A couple of local councillors picked up on the tweet so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

So it was an interesting day.  My main interest in this is environmental – but there could be clear financial benefits for the city too.  I don’t know the exact figures but dealing with the city’s waste clearly costs council tax payers a lot of money – at a time when the council’s budgets are under severe pressure.  So reducing the amount of waste we produce – and recycling more of it – makes sense for all sorts of reasons.

When I get more information about next steps – and when the data is shared – I’ll share it here and on Twitter.

 

 

A day with Bristol Together and Triodos

It’s been a busy few days. After Monday morning’s inspiring session with Muhammad Yunus I spent the afternoon with 150 others at the Empty Homes Conference.

The highlight for me was listening to Dan from Revolutionary Arts – the man behind the Empty Shops Network who brings a refreshing perspective to the use of empty space. His talk challenged me to think about empty shops – up to now we’ve steered clear of shops and stuck to homes. And I think that focus is still correct – but we should at least look into ways to make the most of empty flats above shops. Which, in some cases, may mean looking at new uses for the shops themselves too. There are people who know much more about this stuff in Leeds than we do – so we’ll be contacting them soon.

From London, on to Bristol for an event at Triodos Bank. The event at Triodos was run by Bristol Together – a social enterprise that’s been up and running for about a year now – and recently won a start-up of the year award. They provide work for ex-offenders by buying, renovating and then selling empty homes.

One of the intriguing things about them is that they’ve managed to raise £1.6 million through a bond issue organised by Triodos. The bond offers a return of 3% to investors – and is repayable in full after 5 years. Investors can also benefit from Community Investment Tax Relief – which turns a 3% return into an 8% return.

There’s a mix of investors in Bristol Together – from institutional investors such as the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation through to so-called High Net Worth Individuals. A couple of the individual investors were there, and spoke about their experience. They were clearly pretty engaged investors – both were on the Board of Bristol Together – and one commented that of all his investments, the Bristol Together Board is the most impressive he’s part of. It made me think I need to widen my network to include a few more thoughtful High Net Worth Individuals…

The £1.6m investment gives Bristol Together the cashflow to act as a cash buyer in the housing market – buying houses at auction and through Estate Agents. They’re also keen to explore a closer relationship with the Council which might see them find a way to buy unwanted properties from them. Clearly part of the return for investors comes from this ability to move quickly to secure a sale.

They reckon around 90% of the work to renovate a home is done by ex-offenders – with usually around 5 or 6 people working on each house. Obviously more difficult tasks – tanking a cellar, sorting out the gas supply– will be done by specialist traders. But much of the rest is done by the people for whom Bristol Together exists.

Each renovation is co-ordinated by a Project Manager. As you can imagine, the Project Manager is key to keeping the job on track and on budget. A big part of their role is juggling the desire to be supportive to people finding their way back into the world of work with the need to get the job done as planned. Not an easy task, but it sounds like they’ve recruited well.

Bristol Together are an ambitious bunch. They plan to scale up their work in Bristol whilst also expanding into other areas. Next up is the Midlands – with a Midlands Together business currently in development. A number of potential partners for the new venture were there – and it sounds like that’ll be something that develops over the coming months – accompanied by a £5 million bond organised by Triodos.

My main reason for making the trip down was to see if there was potential to develop something similar in Leeds. In the short term, I’d think it’s unlikely that Yorkshire Together will happen – as the next step is to develop in the Midlands. But it certainly felt like something we should explore in the medium term – particularly as there appears to be a strong commitment to working to developing each Together with local partners. We’ll be watching the development of Bristol Together and Midlands Together closely, and we’ll obviously do all we can to help them to identify appropriate local partners if they do decide to work in Yorkshire.

Then there’s the investment angle too. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I’m sceptical about much of what’s happening in the world of social investment. But today it made sense to me. Engaged investors, who have a good relationship with a social business that has a business model which can generate financial returns alongside social returns. The financial return (3% plus tax relief) seemed fair enough to me. And Triodos – well known as a values-driven organisation – felt like a Bank you could do business with.

So could we explore something similar in Leeds? Perhaps with Triodos, or perhaps with another intermediary? What do the investment opportunities look like in Leeds? Could we develop a bond which allowed social ventures in Leeds to act as cash buyers, to do up homes in ways that brought lots of extra social benefits, to ex-offenders, long-term unemployed people or whoever? And could we find a few High Net Worth Individuals of our own?

If you’ve got any thoughts on how to take things further, it’d be great to hear from you.

Social innovation Grameen style: “Look at ice-cream. The cones are edible.”

I’ve been in Nottingham this morning for a breakfast event hosted by Capital One with Professor Muhammad Yunus, the man often described as the Godfather of Social Business.

Prof. Yunus is best known for Grameen – who in turn are best known for offering banking services to poor women in Bangladesh. He’s in the UK for a couple of days – with Friends of Grameen President Liam Black by his side – to talk with a wide range of people – including the UK Government – about social business and, more specifically, the problems the bank is currently facing thanks to the unwelcome intervention of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Prof. Yunus made it clear, with the answer to Liam’s first question at this morning’s event that he didn’t want to “waste time” talking about Grameen’s current problems. Instead he wanted to focus on social business – so that’s what I’ll do here too.

It’s easy to feel a bit starstruck in the presence of someone who has achieved as much as Muhammad Yunus. He’s an interesting mix of zen-like calm and steely determination. This isn’t an ivory-towers academic who’s dipped his toe naively into the world of business. I get the impression you wouldn’t mess with Professor Yunus. But his generosity, warmth and humility are immediately apparent too.

Liam introduced Prof. Yunus as a man who’s “best known for asking questions that turn things on their head.” This for me was the theme of the talk, and something that in my own little way I try to bring to my work too. Many of his questions, of course, concern poverty and its causes. “Poverty isn’t created by poor people. It’s externally imposed. It comes from outside.” A statement such as this challenges – and immediate invites questions. Who/what is imposing poverty? How do we respond?

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

His social business journey began in 1976, as an academic who, in his words, was “growing tired of teaching theory whilst people died outside.” He looked around in Bangladesh – and saw big problems with high-interest moneylending. So he decided to be begin lending money to the poor – the poor who most people believed (still believe?) aren’t worthy of banking services.

From those humble beginnings, Grameen now runs more than 50 social businesses – many in collaboration with multinationals – Danone, Veolia, Pfizer, Tesco and more – in a range of markets from microcredit to mobile phones to yoghurt. One of the things I find most fascinating about the Grameen approach is that none of the businesses distribute profit – yet many are run in collaboration with some of the world’s most successful profit-generating corporations.

That challenges me in a number of ways – with regards to my attitude towards who our business collaborates with – and some of my thinking about profit. Yet I’m not saying that Professor Yunus’s attitude towards taking dividends from social business (he suggests business is either selfish – profit maximising – or selfless) isn’t problematic either. But it’s a useful challenge….

He talked quite a bit about Grameen’s collaboration with Danone – a relationship I know a fair bit about having spent a couple of days with Danone at an Innovation Lab in Paris a few years ago. Together, Grameen and Danone sell high-nutrition yoghurt – with the double benefits of “health through food” (Danone’s mission) and plenty of jobs for people selling the yoghurts.

He told a story of product development. Execs arrived from Paris with sample products – in, of course, plastic pots. Cue one of Professor Yunus’s questions.

“Why is the pot plastic?”
“Because that’s what we sell yoghurt in around the world.”
“We haven’t set up a social business so that we can litter Bangladesh with plastic pots.”

They went away, and came back three months later – pleased with themselves of course – with a biodegradable, corn-starch pot. Professor Yunus looked at it, and asked another series of killer questions:

“Is it edible?” No? Why is not edible? People are paying good money for this product – why can’t we produce a pot they can eat? We eat ice-cream cones – so why not yoghurt pots?”

That’s innovation in action, right there…..

But is he – and Grameen – being used by multinationals hungry for good CSR stories and access to bottom-of-the-pyramid markets? Markets that are easily accessed by partnering with a social business with the incredible reach that Grameen has in countries like Bangladesh? Yunus responds to this question – which is asked all the time – primarily by journalists – with mock surprise. “They’re using me are they? Well, I never knew. I thought I was using them….” He’s delighted to be “used” – if being used means that a social business is developed that helps people out of poverty. But as I suggested earlier, Yunus is no naive Professor – I doubt you’d get far if your aim in collaborating with Grameen was purely selfish.

Too soon it was all over, and I had to dash to get my train to London, to catch the second half of the Empty Homes Conference and for a series of meetings to help us to develop Leeds Empties – an enterprising, collaborative approach to tackling the waste of empty homes so that more people have somewhere decent to call home. I travel down inspired by Professor Yunus’s indefatigability (to borrow a mis-used term). Fifty social businesses later, he’s still hungry for the next start-up. These final words stick with me:

“Social business is problem-solving business….. Every time I see a social problem, I set up a business to solve it.”

Inspiring stuff for all of us trying to make a difference through social business.

Leeds Empties & The Great British Property Scandal

This one minute video, produced by Tiger Aspect, the people behind George Clarke’s Channel 4 series The Great British Property Scandal – will give you a feel for our Leeds Empties Call To Action:

And let’s not forget we also made it onto BBC Look North – empty homes was the lead story on Look North all day – and I made my debut on the sofa with Harry and Christa:

You can read more about the Call To Action – and what we’ve done since – on this post. This guest post on the Great British Property Scandal site, alongside the Leeds Empties microsite will also give you some background info.

Where are we up to now? We’ve spent the last few months developing some of the ideas that were explored at the Call To Action – and we’ve come up with the ten point plan for bringing more empty homes back into use.

In summary, we want to try out a range of approaches – working alongside the Council’s empty homes team – and working closely with some of the great social enterprises, like LATCH, Canopy and Gipsil who already bring empty homes back into use.

Our main proposed service – an Empty Homes Doctor – will see us working intensively, on a one-to-one basis, with people who find themselves with an empty home (perhaps through an inheritance) but who don’t know what to do with it. We reckon our approach, over time, can help to bring back into use hundreds more Leeds empty homes. And as a result, more Leeds people will have a decent place to call home, and fewer Leeds communities will be blighted by houses that are eyesores and magnets for crime and anti-social behaviour.

Other things we want to do include working with social investors and funders to bring more money into Leeds for empty homes, finding ways to do green retrofits of empties in Leeds, alongside work to make sure that we make the most of job & apprenticeship opportunities in empty homes refurbishment.

It’s not been easy to get funding or investment – and as a result we’ve made slower progress than we’d hoped. But, with a fair wind, we reckon we’ll secure some initial investment in the next few weeks to try out the Empty Homes Doctor service and some of the other ideas we’ve got – such as finding ways to secure further investment for empty homes refurbishment in Leeds. Then, a few months down the line, we’ll have a good idea as to what works – and we’ll look to expand the service across Leeds.

If you’re interested in finding out more, please leave a comment below or get in touch with us – or follow me on Twitter. We reckon Leeds has got what it takes to bring hundreds more empties back into use as homes, and we’d love to have you involved!

Leeds Empties – we’re ready for investment

I do most of my work these days through Social Business Brokers, a social enterprise I set up a couple of years ago with Gill Coupland to bring people together to find enterprising solutions to some of our big social problems.

We came up with a new way of working this year.  We developed a five-stage process for making progress on whatever social issue we were focusing on:

  1. Look for clues – researching, understanding the issue we want to solve
  2. Create a buzz – get people engaged through using traditional and social media
  3. Get together – gather together a wide range of people at a Call To Action
  4. Build momentum – take ideas explored at the Call To Action and develop them
  5. Make things happen -­‐ achieve sustainable social change through supporting social ventures to grow

The first issue we decided to focus on was empty homes in Leeds.  We’d seen George Clarke’s programme on TV talking about empty homes being a scandal.  And, like most of you, we’d wandered around our city’s streets, spotting empty homes and wondering how on earth they could stay empty for so long.  Who owned them?  Why were they empty?  How would we go about getting them back into use?

So we looked for clues and we created a fair bit of buzz – including this full page feature in the Yorkshire Post.  And George Clarke got in touch to say he’d love to come to our Call To Action.  That, as you can imagine, created a lot more buzz – and before we knew it 100 people had signed up to come to our Call To Action.

And what a day it was.  We’d done all of this for free – and countless other people had chipped in with their free time, their venue, their contacts and lots more.  100 people  – including property professionals, senior Council staff (including the Chief Exec), social entrepreneurs, campaigners and people looking to buy their first home – came together for a day to think creatively about how to get more of our empty properties back into use as homes.  It was a brilliant day, which also got tonnes of media coverage, including this in the YEP and this on BBC Look North (my TV debut).

And if you’re still not convinced, have a look at what people said about the Call To Action on Twitter

That was in May.  What happened next? The truth is that whilst I can now confidently point you to our “five stage process” (outlined above) we were, in reality, making things up as we went along.  We knew we needed to do something to help turn the ideas that were explored at the Call To Action into real, live, interventions which would help bring hundreds more empties back into use.  We just didn’t know what that something would look like.

But that’s OK.  If we knew, we – or someone else – would have already done it.  The whole point of our approach – which is essentially about bringing other people together who know far more about an issue than we do, and who are better placed than we are to solve it – is that we don’t know the answers yet.  But together we can find them….

So we’ve spent the last six months talking to people, listening to people, continuing to look for clues and to put some meat on the bare bones of the ideas that were explored on that sunny day at Greenhouse in May.

What we’ve come up with is a plan for prototyping Leeds Empties.  We want to learn by doing – and we want to learn quickly.  We’ve identified ten areas of work that we believe – having talked to a lot of people – could make a real dent in the numbers of empty homes in Leeds.  Here they are:

  1. Communicating with the right people
  2. Empty Homes Doctor – intensive one to one support for empty home owners
  3. Development of business models and investment vehicles
  4. Private sector engagement – Civic Enterprise
  5. Understand and review current Leeds City Council empty homes processes
  6. Opportunities for green retrofit of empty homes
  7. Support for new and existing self-help schemes and social ventures
  8. Identify and secure funding and investment for Leeds empty homes
  9. Identify work, volunteering, training and apprenticeship opportunities
  10. Explore how to get involved in Leeds City Council’s locality based approach

It’s probably hard for you to grasp exactly what we mean by all of this.  I’ll try to explain it more over the coming weeks.  But, in essence, we want to get stuck into the detail of each of these areas of work over the next six months, so we can work out what might work best in Leeds.  

And then, six months down the line, we believe we will have a much better sense of what Leeds Empties can be.  Which is when we can go for some serious investment – which we believe will pay huge dividends – more decent homes, more jobs and training opportunities, fewer communities blighted by derelict houses, and much, much more.

For now, we need just over £50,000 to prototype Leeds Empties for six months.  So this is an open call to anyone who can help us to make Leeds Empties work.  We’d love to hear from social investors, philanthropists, Trusts, and whoever else who could invest in our prototype.  Please get in touch if you’re interested. We’d love to tell you more.

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.

Tackling prisoner re-offending – should we get involved?

I do most of my work these days through Social Business Brokers, the social enterprise I set up in 2010 with fellow Leeds social entrepreneur Gill Coupland, founder of Angels Community Enterprises.

We’ve decided to change how we work this year to focus on particular social issues.  Issues that we think matter.  Issues where we think there’s a need for some socially enterprising thinking, and where we think there are opportunities to develop social ventures.

The main issue we’ve focused on so far is empty homes – based around a Call To Action that we’ve organised for the middle of May.  But, on a smaller scale, we’re looking at other issues too.  One we looked at today was prisoner re-offending.

We decided to look into this issue after reading some stats about the re-offending rates at our local prison.  More than 60% of prisoners who are released this month will be back inside within 12 months.  That’s an incredible loss of human potential, not to mention a massive cost to us all with regards to the cost of imprisonment and the personal and financial costs of crime.

We also heard about a Payment By Results trial at Leeds prison – so we decided that we’d see if we could get a few people together to explore the issue in a bit more detail.

Eight of us got together for a couple of hours this morning.  The format was simple:

  • What do we know and believe about prisoner re-offending?  What do we need to find out?
  • What do we think needs to change?
  • What opportunities exist/can we create to change things?
  • What are we going to do next – and can we do that together?

The discussion was really interesting.  We had a mix of people whose day job was to do with prisoners or offenders – whilst the majority of people were interested in this issue – and keen to work out if there were ways that they and their organisations could make a difference.

It’s hard to summarise the conversation, but it’s fair to say that there was a good amount of discussion about the need – in an ideal world – to tackle causes as well as symptoms.  We talked about some interesting initiatives we’d heard about – particularly around employment and skills – but also questioned whether isolated initiatives can make much difference – without a more profound rethinking of the prison system, and its balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

We then discussed what we might do.  Some ideas emerged – again a fair few with an employment and skills focus.  I’m sure plenty more would have been developed if we’d had more than the couple of hours that we’d given ourselves.

I left not knowing whether this was an issue that we would work more on.  Let me explain my thinking.  I think this is an issue where there is a massive need for social innovation.  And, on the face of it, there appear to be opportunities emerging to do things a bit differently.  Leeds Prison has shortlisted half-a-dozen providers (one of whom joined us today) for the Payment By Results pilot.  Other prisons are thinking of different ways to reduce re-offending.

Yet there’s a part of my that wonders how much of a difference we could make.  Politically, it feels like a tough one.  The political narrative – informed by much popular opinion – is that the role of prison is to punish.  And of course that’s an important role.  But that narrative doesn’t leave a lot of room for creative thinking around how we make sure that people don’t just end up offending again when they come out of prison.

Similarly, I worry about how effective initiatives like the Payment By Results pilot at Leeds will be.  It’s telling that all of the six shortlisted providers at Leeds are Work Programme providers.  The very same Work Programme that I – and countless others – have criticised for sidelining smaller organisations like many of the social enterprises that we work with.  Experience suggests that I shouldn’t expect the Ministry of Justice to learn much from the Department of Work and Pensions – particularly when the DWP doesn’t seem to think there’s much wrong with the Work Programme.

There’s also the issue about how hard it can be to engage with a big beast of an organisation like a prison.  I’ve rung the Prison – to speak to a specific, named person, four times in the past week.  I still haven’t been able to talk to – or even leave a message for – the person who, Leeds Chamber would have you believe – is running a groundbreaking programme of engagement with the Leeds business community.  We waste a lot of time working at the pace of people in the more bureaucratic wings of the public sector.  To be honest we can’t continue to waste that amount of time chasing opportunities.

So I’m a bit torn.  Do we engage with one or more of the shortlisted Prime Providers at Leeds – to see how we can connect them with innovative local organisations?  Or do we take the judgment that the kind of people we work with are better left out of a Payment By Results pilot which – you’d fear – would put them under severe financial pressure as risk is passed down the supply chain?

We’ll see how things go over the next few weeks.  Maybe our meeting – and the discussions opening up as a result – will see us getting more involved in this issue. Maybe I’ll finally chat with the guy at the Prison.   Or maybe we’ll decide it’s one issue where we can’t make much difference.

But if that’s the case, isn’t that a wasted opportunity – and shouldn’t people like those who joined us today have a decent opportunity to change the prison system for good?

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