Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Having A Hoop at Voice

I’m blogging at the national social enterprise conference, VOICE 10 here in Cardiff. It’ a great opportunity to network and like my Christmas party for the neighbors, it gets everyone together to celebrate community. It is also an opportunity to take a look at the direction social enterprise might be taking. I say might, because although the contributions have all been engaging, there is still an air of defensiveness from within the movement, a point eloquently made by Caroline Mason, of Investing for Good CIC. Speaker after speaker has criticised the market, as the title of the conference, ‘No More Business As Usual’ might have encouraged them to do. The reality, as my husband is fond of saying, is we need to ‘keep it light’. Our power is in inspiring consumers and workers, our leverage is the story of individual social enterprises with their profitability and bankable environmental impact. Yes, capitalism has taken a battering, but less for its core principles and more for its failure to sustain growth.

What the market is doing is looking round for new high value performers, and social enterprises can and must be in that space. At SEL, we learned at our lunch with the private and public sector leaders last week that they are looking. What they are trying to work out is the extent of our appetite for growth and the general public’s interest in our values... and so John Bird, Editor in Chief of the Big Issue’s call for a revolution last night, whilst being highly entertaining, was mistimed.

I think we are on a threshold, we can enter the cathedral of the market by accepting its principles and playing the game of capital investment versus output (in our case social and financial), or we can refuse to go in and carry on heckling from the outside. We can’t, I’m afraid, go in and then start throwing incendiaries.

I thought Ed Mayo’s comments on Government taking an enabling role in allowing people to choose the business models they prefer, such as football supporter associations, would speed up growth. Ed’s central theme was one of working together and achieving scale, as Co-ops UK have indeed done. That felt to me like a strong and welcome signal we should all follow up on. He also asked us to think about the social collateral we generated through community based businesses, again something of consuming interest to our political leaders, surely?

The serious feel this morning provided a dramatic contrast to last night’s carnival atmosphere – with some wonderful performers from No Fit State Circus performing death defying stunts involving hula-hoops, presumably chosen to mirror the logo of the social enterprise mark which was given a national launch at the event. As one Tweet asked during the session; ‘if you have just woken up, no you’re not at a Pink Floyd concert!’ Whilst Leighton Andrews, Welsh Assembly Member spoke to us the dry ice machine went into overdrive slowly but quite definitely obscuring him from his audience. The Tweets were priceless. Many thanks to Nick Temple from the School for Social Entrepreneurs who showed me ‘TweetDeck’ in operation. We had the event in front of us as we watched the acerbic commentary coming in from all round the auditorium. Soon all events will be getting their feedback live. We’d better be very slick!

The smouldering Mr Andrews followed a lovely Spaniard, Mikel Lezamiz ,the Director of Cooperative Dissemination of the very impressive Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa who outlined in excruciating detail the model and activities undertaken by his impressive set up in the Basque country, followed by John who did his usual barn storming rant, stopping only to remove his false tooth for the benefit of the front row and call a few people both in the room and without, ‘boring’. Oh dear.

All of this could be seen to be missing the point. Last night the Americans announced a deficit of $1.4 trillion. That has to be a heads up. That kind of borrowing, together with our own, means that debt is going to get very expensive, very soon. Let us hope not prohibitively expensive. There is simply no substitute for being profitable and getting on with growth, PDQ.

Philip Blond’s plural rating system was interesting to me, I am great supporter for the idea of a social stock exchange and hearing the man some describe as ‘Cameron’s brain’ advocating a rating system for a social enterprise trading platform was good. Philip also caused perhaps the biggest ripple at the conference by stating baldly the Tories will prioritise social enterprise if the voters do. That leads me neatly back to my first point, that what we have here is a selling job and as every marketeer will tell you, negative advertising does not work. Instead of denigrating our competitors the so-called 'big businesses' we need to talk up our advantages and broadcast our enthusiasm. Social enterprise is creative, liberating and sometimes even fun. As more people find out the water is fine, more will choose to swim with us.

I’ve just had lunch with my good friend Adele Blakeborough, founder of Community Action Network (CAN). We sat in the middle of the exhibition space and had great fun setting the world to rights and saying hello to people as they passed by. It was lovely to see Patrick Butler, Head of Health, Education and Society at the Guardian. Patrick is an influential, thoughtful journalist who is really interested in social enterprise and great at posing the tough questions. Something we will need much more of over the next 6 months.

The wonderful Antonia Swinson , CEO of Scottish Social Enterprise Coalition joined us, as did Matthew Thompson of London Community Resource Network, Mark Sesnan of GLL and Co-Chair of SEL, Duncan Sloan, Head of Commercial Banking at RBS and many more. It became quite a party and worked well for me as I had done that usual conference thing last night, of propping up the bar into the wee hours with colleagues from Triodos Bank (thanks for a delicious dinner Tracy), Social Firms UK, the truly delightful John Bennett, MD from Pack-It and Chair of the Welsh Social Enterprise Coalition, the lovely SEL staff, and felt grateful for the chance to sit down.

I’ve just heard Lord Victor Abedewale CEO of Turning Point call for the Right to Request to be extended to all forms of public sector activity. Right to Request was introduced into the Department of Health and gives staff the choice of setting up as independent service providers ie social enterprises. It has somewhat stalled since Andy Burnham took against it a few months ago, but I know Government and the Conservatives are looking at it seriously for the future. Lets hope they do. It’s a call we need to keep on making. Social enterprise needs growth markets like a fire needs oxygen. I bumped into Victor at the train station who didn’t know that the Tories are in fact interested in right to request and was very pleased to hear it. I think they will be hearing from him.

I’m looking forward to seeing the family. It’s great to get away and see everyone in the movement but even nicer to catch up with the troops back home. On Sunday our Sam got Silver Medal in his weight class in the County Judo Championships. Below is a film clip of his winning bout. We are so proud of him. He’s such a gutsy chap.

For full coverage of Voice have a look at the website of Social Enterprise Magazine. Finally Peter Holbrook in his concluding remarks to his inaugural conference as CEO of SEC told us Voice 10 was the highest twittered event in the UK this morning. I think that’s a well done to all us bloggers and tweeters and well done to the Coalition for once again setting out the welcome mat.

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