Geof Cox's Blog

The Guardian Social Enterprise Conference

I'm fresh from the Guardian Social Enterprise Conference where I was leading the 'clinic' on different forms of social enterprise / legal structures. Although tied up in the clinics most of the day I was amused in the opening plenary to hear one speaker contrast social enterprises and charities - and literally a minute later the next speaker almost opening with the words 'we are a social enterprise and a charity'. I've already shared my thoughts on this recently on the Guardian Social Enterprise Network - and also elsewhere on this website - so I won't repeat them here.

But there was another contrast that struck me in the Guardian plenary:while one speaker focussed on the importance of local action and local community control, others talked only about 'getting to scale' and working with big business.

Am I the only social enterpriser out there worried by the apparent thoughtlessness with which we slide around these perspectives?

Don't they relate in a very interesting way to a bigger political divide: that between the environmentalist and anti-globalisation 'small is beautiful' tradition and the old rightwing unlimited growth/freetrade orthodoxy?

Lets be clear: part of what social enterprise is about really is local responsibility and accountability.  Within our rejection of business models based on greed and exploitation, I believe, there should also be a decisive rejection of the BIG BLAND BRANDS culture of globalised business, the monocultural high street and remote call-centre.

Does this mean we can't grow or replicate?  I don't think so; but it DOES mean we can't grow in the same way as financially-driven businesses.  In this area, they have little to teach us.  I've argued elsewhere that our growth and franchise models need to develop our own social enterprise intellectual property standards - and organisational structures that combine efficiencies of scale and coherent image with elements of local participation and ownership - and supply chains that rely on local sourcing and fair trade, not just bulk deals - and a deep and detailed understanding of what can simply be replicated - such as an IT infrastructure - and what really needs to be local and quirky and individual.  This is complex stuff - and you'll be a long time looking for answers in the world of conventional business management and professions.

For me you see social enterprise is not just about solving particular social problems - although I agree this is the starting point of most social entrepreneurs - it has also to be about modelling new and better ways of doing business.  Any business.  All business.

Let's not forget in this unrequited love affair with 'scalability' what we all really know - don't we? - that the obsession with 'economic growth' actually has to end The real questions are: how should social enterprise grow richer in experience, not just income?  bigger, but less hungry for resources?  more widespread, yet more local?  familiar, yet still really extraordinary...

What do social enterprise and chocolate have in common?


The failure of the school bus to turn up this morning and consequent need to drive my youngest in to school gave me the unexpected pleasure of a few minutes after 9 listening to Radio 4 - and hearing Deborah Cadbury talking about her latest book The Chocolate Wars.

In this discussion, in this particular history, there was much to learn about social enterprise.

Many know that the great names in English chocolate – Frys, Terrys, Cadburys and Rowntrees - were Quakers.  George Cadbury once worked for John Rowntree!  And many people in social enterprise know that Quakers have been crucial to its history too – Scott Bader for example.   But few are aware either of the extent of Quaker enterprise or the extent to which it was driven by Quaker / social enterprise principles: that wealth creation should fund social benefits, that fair trade is essential, that reckless debt is destructive.

These were the principles that once drove the growth of such household Quaker names as Barclays and Lloyds in banking, Clarks shoes, Wedgwood pottery, Bryant & May, Huntley & Palmer – not to mention Sony and Oxfam!

From Albania Again

Today in Tirana I chanced on the Commonwealth War Cemetery.  A surprise to find so old and intimate a link with home.  At random I read some of the near identical stones.

Sargeant G N Brookes   Pilot   Royal Air Force   7th November 1940   Age 24   In proud and loving memory of George, who made the supreme sacrifice.

Signalman D W Rockingham   Royal Signals   20th October 1943   Age 21   Always in our thoughts.

My own thoughts were taken by the loving mother and wife, who wrote 'sleep on dear one, until we meet again' – a mother no doubt already met, and a wife perhaps an elderly lady now, looking back on another life, perhaps another family.

Little children laugh and play on the grass beside the rows of graves.

Most moving perhaps though is the fact that these graves are still cared for, and fresh wreaths laid at the cemetery gates. By whom?

Yesterday the European Parliament voted to allow Albanians to travel to the EU without obtaining a visa. It's not the final decision, which presumably has to go to the Commission and Council of Ministers. But it was enough to make it a good day in the Oxfam office here.

I don't know how the British MEPs voted, but I would have challenged any of them to stand before these well tended graves of young British men dead these 70 years, then vote against Albanians.

Guardian Social Enterprise Summit

I've been asked to lead a session on legal structures at this year's Guardian Social Enterprise Summit.

Given the topic, I couldn't help wondering about the event pricing structure:

Private sector organisations £495 + VAT (£581.63 inc)

Government departments and agencies, local authorities £350 + VAT (£411.25 inc)

Voluntary sector, not-for-profit, charities £250 + VAT (£293.75 inc)

How about a quick poll of 'social enterprises': which category would you put yourselves in?  (Honestly now!)

 - or for another view look here!

A conflict common to many co-operatives...

I've been asked to help resolve a familiar situation in a co-operative:

A founding group has put much time and effort into building a successful business, which now has the opportunity to expand rapidly - which will require admitting new members.

Some of the founders are happy to do this, but others do not want to dilute their own control and investment (mainly time - but obviously it does have a financial value).

Luckily it is a share structure and it is possible to reward the 'sweat equity' - but it is also a one-member-one-vote structure so although there will be a probationary period ultimately control will be shared.

Obviously I'm aware of both the technical mechanisms that can mitigate problems like this - that's why it's a share structure! - and also the arguments for bringing in others to allow and boost growth (it's better to have a smaller share of something really valuable than the lion's share of very little).

However, for those who are happy to share ownership and control, the disagreement has raised questions about the others' commitment to co-operative principles - perhaps they were never heart felt principles at all - just a convenience to cohere a good team?

Given that this is such a familiar difficulty - which I know has broken co-ops in the past - I wonder if anyone knows of case studies, or just has their own story, of how co-operators involved in such conflicts have dealt with them - more especially how they have dealt with the feelings involved?

Social Enterprise in Albania


Monday 10th May     Tirana to Shkoder

In addition to my social enterprise development work for Oxfam in Russia, I'm also now helping to restructure the Oxfam country operation in Albania as a social enterprise.

To give me some idea of their work here, this morning Oxfam drove me out from the capital, Tirana, to the far northern town of Shkoder (pronounced Shkoddra) where we transferred to a big Landrover Defender – there are no made up roads out to the isolated villlages where Oxfam works – and subsequently to the even bigger and more rugged Landrover of one of Oxfam's partner NGOs, the Albanian Permaculture Resource Centre (which Oxfam actually set up). We were soon among horse and donkey-drawn farm traffic and – despite the valley heat – snow-peaked mountains.  Little boys with sticks encourage solitary cows along the track that challenges even the Landrover, until we abandon that too alongside the most beautiful river – the water turquoise under the white rock and sun. We make our way on foot across the valley, over a bridge only passable in summer (though in Albania this is most of the year!) - where you look far down into a deep gorge under the water - then up the other side of the valley to the little farm we are visiting here.

Back to Moscow

Despite appearances, and perhaps reputation, Russian food is in fact delicious...Despite appearances, and perhaps reputation, Russian food is in fact delicious...

Read from the first of my February 2010 blog posts from Russia here.

Russian restaurants, outside the big cities at least, are very different from those in Britain. In the evenings most have live music, and everyone - all ages - dances. It was in such a restaurant that we spent our last evening in Rybinsk, and drank vodka Russian style.

Victor was the master of ceremonies. He doesn't usually drink vodka in fact, but this restaurant had a particularly fine Siberian vodka – unfortunately not available in the the UK – for which he made an exception. First, a small glass is filled with vodka, and a second larger one with tomato or orange juice (most Russians prefer tomato). Then the toast, made in turn by anyone present who feels moved to initiate it, and the vodka is knocked back in one, followed straight down by a large gulp of juice. The other essential, after a few of these, is water: Sergey had the forethought earlier to give us all a bottle of water for our rooms - I drank the whole litre as soon as I got back, and woke up the next day feeling fine.

Day Two in Rybinsk: -18°c

By way of background I gave Helen a copy of the Wikipedia article on Rybinsk – unfortunately her eye was drawn unerringly not to the town's illustrious past or many architectural treasures, but to the article's apocalyptic warning that...

the giant Rybinsk dam, which holds the Rybinsk Reservoir (until recently the largest man-made body of water on Earth) places the town in imminent danger of the dam breaking and the reservoir flooding the city

Hopefully the fact that the reservoir, and most of the huge span of the Volga, are almost entirely covered by ice at the moment makes the danger a little less imminent!

Many people in Rybinsk have other pressing problems. In soviet times this was a closed town, and they still manufacture aircraft engines and components, but during the collapse of the soviet system in the 1990s most military work here ceased, and about 80,000 people lost their jobs. Only about 20,000 new jobs have been created over more recent years – this in a country where welfare benefits are not really enough to live on at all, let alone achieve any quality of life.

My social enterprise development sessions – which sometimes seem to revolve entirely around discussions of the impenetrable workings of Russian customs – are thankfully interspersed with Helen's story development workshops.

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