Monday, 10 January 2011

Liam Black on home truths and horse shit

Welcome to the first in a series of guest blogs from some of the world's leading authorities on social enterprise, related or indeed unrelated fields. I might not share these or other views but I welcome the debate. SEL has always provided space for the development of new thought around our movement where all views are welcomed. In that tradition I share with you reflections from Liam Black, co-founder of Wavelength and former CEO of Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Foundation.

Dear Allison

I’ve long been a fan of your passion, relentlessness, honesty and your jolly hockey sticks good humour. You’re a gal who divides opinion. And that makes you my kind of gal! You’ve asked for my advice.

I'm no longer part of the ‘Social Enterprise Sector’ but I am a fully signed up member of the Movement of the Socially Innovative and Enterprising. One of my mantras for years has been ‘socially enterprising is what socially enterprising does’. Ownership models in themselves do not make one either less or more socially responsible or enterprising.

I love helping entrepreneurs who want to change the world. Some of these are running ‘not for profit’ social enterprises others have opted for private companies. I’m so over social enterprise theology. I focus on providing the world’s best leadership development, to enable them to hone their business skills, build their confidence and expand their connectivity into new places and markets to increase sales, profitability, good governance, verify impact and build resilience. Simple as that.

So I mentor, I hook people up, I get them inside really cool places to meet people who have much to teach and I take them to where the action is which could be with Yunus in Dhaka or the leading innovators in Silicon Valley. Wavelength members include leaders of well-known brands like Wise, Eden and Divine, and upstarts from the likes of Livity, MyBnk, Sidekick Studios and Bikeworks.

The other members are leaders from big businesses such as John Lewis, Deloitte, Vodafone, Molson Coors and Centrica. I operate a cross subsidy business model which means cash strapped entrepreneurs can get equal access to the world class inspiration, education and connectivity typically only open to senior executives from the private sector. The business has no public sector subsidy, was started with our own money and our goal is to keep dreaming up stuff which people wont think twice about wanting be part of – and thus pay for. I would rather close than take a penny in grant money. Seriously.

Allison, put at least as much energy into creating and sustaining relationships with the private sector as you do into impressing and sucking up to the Cabinet Office and assorted ministers.

Be very very careful about this whole ‘social enterprise can run public services better than everyone else’. Get over yourselves. Some might, some might not. Who knows because there is very little independent verified data to prove it one way or another is there?

And beware, Allison: under Labour – which let us not forget kick started the social enterprise sector which the coalition wants to co-opt. – there was plenty of money about. Intermediary bodies sprouted up everywhere and much horse shit and awful service poured forth!

Now with no money about (and a coalition which contains some very unpleasant Thatcherite types), you must be careful not become simply the tool by which the welfare state is gutted and poor and vulnerable people hurt again. The unions do have a point here which needs answering rather than writing them off as Stalinist brontosaurs who don’t get the whole cool Etonian ‘big society’ vibe.

So, Allison, keep up the good work, stay close to your customers and members and make your new year’s resolution to combine passion and skepticism in equal measure.

And obviously tell all your members they should join Wavelength. But in 2012 because we are sold out for this year!

Lots of love

Liam x


  1. Dear Liam,

    Thank you for being my first guest blogger and sharing with us your thoughts on where we are and where we should be going. As always you did not pull your punches or spare us from controvercy. As you know I am an advocate of social enterprise delivery in the public as well as private sectors, so I have to disagree with your scepticism there.
    But I do agree that we need to work more closely with the private sector and that 2011 should see us make unequivocal gains towards heightened entrepreneurial activity.
    Thank you for being my first guest blogger, the idea is to provide a space for some of the leading thinkers in our world and related fields to address the big issues in social enterprise. In the coming months we shall be hearing from Sophi Tranchell, Sir Stephen Bubb, Colin Crooks, Claudine Reid and Mark Sesnan to name a few.
    I can’t wait to hear what they have to say. Given the rising popularity of this blog it is a pleasure to be able to use it to hear from those who always have interesting things to say.

  2. The horse shit I remember. I'd not recognised it as such at the time but as the years passed I grew increasingly aware of the support infrastructure promoting itself rather than help social enterprise. SEL was the exception as I've written before of our dialogue back in 2004.

    We'd come from a private sector background and aimed to leverage investment for growth which would render profit to CDFIs. It took a little while to realise that we were a minority as a 'profit for purpose' entity.

    When I could see what was being done locally under the banner of healthcare social enterprise trusts, I spoke out about it and then pledged solidarity with Unison's position. That's one advantage perhaps of not being part of the grant funding gravy train, that one can speak one's mind.

    In fact what we've done a lot of is speak our minds, typically about graft in the overseas context of our work where social endeavour is often co-opted into silence. The same sources, which might be described as asocial enterprise tried to bully us into silence and now they're focused on Muhammad Yunus, accusing him of defamation.

    On the other hand we'd been speaking out about applying capitalism to serve a social purpose and may have helped throw the switch that brought life to the monster of Cameron's 'capitalism with a conscience' which manifests now as dismantling the state under the new banner of Big Society.


  3. I hasten to add that I am not in fact Margarita as stated above, nor am I seeking a grant to become Margarita.

    Jeff Mowatt

  4. Jeff, I have to say we are all appalled at what is happening to Muhammad Ynus, and we and our members are approaching Government to ensure that questions are asked of the Bangladeshi PM, Sheikh Hasina during her visit later this month.
    I think you're right, the social enterprise genie is out of the bottle. The question remains, will we be the means through which the state is privatised by stealth or will we enable state sponsored services to better connect with the communities they serve by using business skills that combine, to great effect in my view, with public service ethics? I don't know the answer, but am obviously working to ensure social enterprise is given the freedom to deliver the latter. PS I have to ask why Margarita?

  5. Allison, Ethics in my view are going to be vital in whatever form our innovation takes. We should not assume that the public sector is any more ethical than business. From experience of public sector dishonesty at both local and national level, I have many examples.

    We're committed to the business driven approach which will direct profit to fund innovation. At the same time I can see the potential for that which is as Yunus describes 'less than full cost recovery'. The holy grail is perhaps the marriage of both, or at least some kind of harmony in co-existence.

    PS Margarita was someone who dropped by to borrow my PC for Gmail use and I forgot to log back in as me :-)

  6. Allison, If I may, rather then dwell on the obstacles I'll explain briefly what we've been doing to promote self-sustaining social purpose business.

    14 years ago this month, our founder made the decision to publish the concept on line in synopsis, free to use. It was to argue the case for replacing the charitable approach with an alternate form of capitalism, pointing out that whereas charity would be spent once and gone a new kind of business would allow funds to flow within impoverished communities.

    The paper had been presented to President Clinton the year before and it was this connection that led to the opportunity to source a development initiative in Russia leaving behind 10,000 new microenterprises and a flourishing communitiy bank.

    In Ukraine, we present on the topic of Economics in Transition at the Economics for Ecololgy conferences at Sumy State University and it was Ukraine where 4 years ago we'd presented a strategy to deploy on a national scale, to share online the following year.

    In the part of that paper which focusses on social enterprise, you'll find the concepts of 'capitalism with a conscience' which David Cameron adopted 3 years later and the prescription for the concept of what is being called the Big Society Bank. You'll also find the call for investment in social enterprise as a soft power alternative to continuing war in Iraq. All of this hit home after the economic crisis of 2008.

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  9. I hasten to add that I am not in fact Margarita as stated above, nor am I seeking a grant to become Margarita.
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