Saturday, February 9, 2008

Trying to become an Ambassador

Last week I attended my first proper job interview for a very long time.

Along with four other nervous people, I turned up to exceedingly funky offices of innovation company `!What If? to see if I was wanted as a Social Enterprise Ambassador.

At 9am an impeccably positive young man bounced up, checked who we were and led us past a life-sized plastic cow decked out as Superman and into a natty loft space to meet the panel, a kindly group of well turned-out people from the World of Social Enterprise.

One hundred and twenty nervous minutes later, I signed out of the What If building (with a fake-fur twisty pen), and stepped out into the mid-morning sunshine.

What happened in between was a pretty intense, highly courteous grilling about what we would actually do if appointed as an Ambassador. In addition, I sensed, to immediately shaving off our beards, if we had them.

The challenge, for the Ambassadors was threefold as I saw it. Firstly, we need more `normal people’ to become social entrepreneurs.

At the moment, social enterprise is a fringe activity, a bit like Bridge or taxidermy. However, if it is going to make a dent on the economy and society of the 21st century we actually need it to be the next Facebook. Everybody needs to be at it, particularly bright young things.

But they need to be persuaded that social enterprise, rather than the City or Law, is a great place to start a career.. Sure, bright older things are needed too (of course!!) but it’s the youngsters we really need to go after. That’s task number one.

Secondly, we need to achieve buy-in from the UKs under-performing and over-resourced public sector. For the most part, the public sector is still off-limits to social enterprise organisations.

In late 2007, life for those poor sods working directly in `partnership’ with the state, especially at local level, is pretty bloody. Believe me on this - I am removing buckshot every night over a large bucket of wine.

Getting a contract in the first place is still hard because their unions don’t like us, their managers have no power and their commissioners don’t yet understand what we offer.

Keeping contracts is hell because we are expensive and complicated compared to in-house workforces or normal companies.

Although Gordon Brown knows that he has hit a worrying ceiling of achievement in public services, those operating the delivery arms of the state are, sadly, a long way behind him.

So, yes, we are political too, albeit with small p. My guess is that GB sees our sector as reviving those parts of our society which our failing public sector will never reach, however much cash you throw at it.

We’re also more palatable to voters than American corporations when it comes to running health and social care.

Finally, he also knows we are excellent at involving communities in service delivery, something (credit to him) he really likes.

But GB also knows there is a massive culture change required before any of this can happen. Hence the Ambassadors. Fostering such a change in culture is a rock-hard task, but a worthwhile one, I feel.

The third challenge is make social enterprise intelligible to the masses. Relatively few people beyond the readership of this magazine even know what the term `social enterprise’ means.

It is plagued by a lack of a fixed image, unlike, say Fair Trade or Organic food. Like the clay character Morph, we take many forms - from the swanky Soho mineral water business giving profits to Africa to the grant-aided community café in Scunthorpe run by former drug users.

Therefore, it is hard for the public to fix on what we really mean when we talk about social enterprise.

While we’re never going to get round that completely, the challenge for the Ambassadors will be to `boost the brand’ in the public mind by telling some great stories social enterprise in action. After a while, people will `get it’. We hope.

Whoever gets picked to do be an Ambassador will need to be damn good. Although there’s a fair wind for social enterprise at the moment, it won’t blow us far beyond port.

From then it will be about how the Ambassadors – and the wider sector beneath - perform. So if I do get chosen from the 200 applicants, I will be suitably scared.

Not only will I have to go and be impressive twelve times a year, I will also need to find somebody to mind shop while I am away. And leave two small babies at home with their Mum while I swan around the UK.

Indeed if it is to be `Yes’, it I may be having to get my own Superman suit….

1 comment:

Gemma Chambers said...

There are so many exciting social enterprise projects out there, they need promoting to bring awareness to them and the work that they provide that benefits the community as a whole.