Nets, Networks and Networking to Create Collective Impact

April 1st 2015

This week I visited the West Country to speak to a group of people working or interested in working in social enterprise. I really wanted to have a day at the seaside and take a train along the Dawlish track which was the subject of such dramatic TV footage last year.

Train journeys (not commutes!) are for thinking and listening to other conversations and to muse over ideas. I engaged in a twitter argument with Keep Britain Tidy challenging them to become more visible and to stop Britain becoming knee deep in litter. Their excuse was that they were a charity with no government funding.  My, wasn’t that like a red rag to me?  I stopped short from sending apoplectic tweets about the importance of becoming a social business.
On the way down, I sat behind four graduates on their way to Totnes for a few days holiday. They spent the time drinking coffee, eating, gossiping and happily reminiscing about their time together at “uni”!  Sadly, nothing exceptional emerged from their conversation which I hoped could have been helpful to social entrepreneurial thinking, however they appeared to know nothing; instead they fussed about their hair and their clothes far too much. They also thought Tudor times were the 1800s, that the Victorian era definitely started in 1770 ”Definitely guys, I studied history!’ and that Jesus died on the cross on Easter Sunday ( ”Really?” “Yeah, cos that’s why its so special!) Clearly, they have learnt nothing from ‘Wolf Hall’, the Royal Albert Hall or depressingly, their own lecture halls!

Guys, you need to know your past in order to understand your present and influence your future.

Once in Plymouth however, I found that if I cast a net across the fishing waters of Plymouth along with pilchards (Yes I watch Poldark…who doesn’t ?) I would find a catch of up to 150 social businesses.  In fact Plymouth, is a ‘City of Social Enterprise’ celebrating this accolade with a series of social enterprise lectures sponsored by the great and good of the city. (lawyers, City burghers, Council and University).  To prove its point I was presented with a directory of 70 local social businesses, in a beautiful social enterprise building (Devonport Guildhall) run by a social business Real Ideas, enjoying lunch from Column Bakehouse (fantastic bread) hosted by a social entrepreneur Gareth Hart running Iridescent Ideas but also social entrepreneur in residence for University of Plymouth and Chair of the Plymouth Social Enterprise Network.

I always worry when social entrepreneurs toughened by the school of hard knocks (like myself!) are invited to talk to budding social entrepreneurs. Each of us has a personal starting point.  Many social entrepreneurs want to fix something that went wrong for them or build a business to address an injustice that angered them. But it’s not all about high principles but instead an ability to build an effective and successful business that makes enough profit to employ staff and contribute to the local community. Peter Drucker said that whenever you see a successful business, someone has made a courageous decision. Social entrepreneurs also do this by doing business by doing good. That means making a profit and using it well.  We must guard against being set up as a good policy idea or an attractive answer to capitalism. We have, in fact, been around a long time.  In 1911 Schumpeter introduced us as ‘innovative entrepreneurs creating new ways of doing things.’  We still hear that a lot and find ourselves operating on a continuum from superhero to business tsar, required to solve local and societal wide problems systematically in a way that eradicates the cause of the problem. Charles Leadbetter described social entrepreneurs in 1997 as ‘pragmatic, realistic, inclusive and compassionate; good at establishing networks, socially confident, driven by the need to address real problems and capable of dealing with people. Innovative, creating new services, products and ways of bringing people together to transform neighbourhoods and communities and open up possibilities of self-development.’ Let me add to that ‘having a sense of humour, willing to be a disruptive influencer, not frightened of going into the dark and becoming social network savvy.  In the end though for me it’s what Mohammed Yunus said at a Buy Social event in Westminster, social entrepreneurs need to be creating jobs by running successful businesses  and there are plenty in Plymouth.

Plymouth is very supported by the City Council and in the audience there was the Economic Unit Officer and three members of the Early Years Team.  Yes, they still exist outside of London.  The Early Years Team have set up a network of CIC nurseries which is the first to my knowledge. I think they could cast their net wider and make the network more visible with a stronger voice in the sector. LEYF is often a lone voice shouting out for social enterprise childcare and would value the support. Look what happened when we started the OBC conversation and the London Network of Men in Childcare, we grew a very successful and self- reliant network and collective impact that would make John Kania proud. Remember, you are never a prophet in your own land so build an external reputation nationally and internationally to be heard in your own back yard.

Plymouth can be pleased to be a social enterprise city, and has the wherewithal to do more to create change. We need a High Street of Social Enterprises with Mary Portas celebrating our wares. We must change the way we all do business and put the ‘social’ element into all entrepreneurs. So colleagues (with a particular shout out to Focus Oral Health CiC,)  keep your promise and learn to tweet. Create a noise at all levels and amplify the Plymouth Social Enterprise brand. Cast your net wide, build great networks and start networking like your life depended on it.