Friday, May 23, 2008

The Great Debate

My final posting of the week. Bury St Edmunds is bright, warm and sunny. Earlier I sat outside the Abbey Gardens, absorbing the heat, sipping a Mocha and reading the Spectator. Life felt almost as sweet as my drink!

Yesterday was the great debate at Anglia Ruskin down in Chelmsford, an event put on `Third Sector Futures' headed by the likeable and capable Andy Brady. The gig? Me versus Debra Alcock Tyler.

The motion: Is Social Enterprise the future of capitalism or a load of old hype?

The format was a winner. The voluntary sector of Essex had come in their droves to listen - about 100 in all. I was up first. I told them how the state in this country was killing innovation in charities and how new combinations between third sector orgs and corporations could change the world picture long term. While there were a few nods, I could tell my message was not what people wanted to hear.

Debra played the crowd like a salmon. They whooped and cheered as she told them how `bloody angry' she gets at people who say that charities need to be more like businesses etc. It was like one of Jeremiah Wright's livelier sermons. At the end, Debra got at least two thirds of the votes, more than at the beginning when a show of hands showed a more even split.

Clearly I was bested in debate. But what worried me too was how it was Debra's weakest arguments - her thinly disguised contempt for business, her glorification of small-for-small's sake, her blind championing of grants for everything - had so much traction with the audience. Every lost cause, every discredited, outdated notion she put forward was greeted wit fervour by the audience.

This was an audience made up chiefly of the local voluntary sector and, granted, very preoccupied with the business of survival in a very tough time. But Debra's arguments were a reheated version of old fashioned voluntary sector Entitlement.

This says `Let's shield the voluntary sector from any form of challenge or competiton'. `Let's assume that big organisations are all bad and small local ones are really good and connected to their communities'. It really was heads-in-sand stuff, the sort of bollocks I encountered when I first entered the sector 12 years ago and I thought, misguidedly, was on the way out. I came away a bit depressed.

The evening was a revelation. Put the kids to bed then my first serious bike ride since Ruby was born 2 years earlier. Four of us raced through 30 miles of countryside. Cockfield, Lavenham, Lawshall, Hawstead, all blazed by as the Suffolk sun slowly set. The greens, browns and yellows of the fields all looked bright and then subdued as dusk fell, our lights came on before we rolled back into Bury at nine with nightfall pending. Arrived home ravenous and exhilarated.

Friday has been pretty delicious too. Spent most of the morning on the phone. A good conversations with my MD, a banker from Coutts who thinks he can help us and someone I am speaking for in a few weeks time.

This afternoon took the personally entrepreneurial step of setting up as a sole trader so I can do `Naked Entrepreneur' work - writing, speaking and consulting - in my own right, outside of Speaking Up. Now that my board have OK'd this I am setting up my own thing, which actually feels very good. As Luke Johnson said in Wednedays' FT, `being an entrepreneur is the most fun you can have with your clothes on'.

So off I toddled to the bank to set up a business account and to see an accountant to set tax affairs straight. There's something very special about money you generate as opposed to getting wage packet. I felt this when I paid in the cheque I got for writing my book. It feels like a prize, somehow. And you feel that little bit more reluctant to give half of it up in tax...

The day's news is of Labour's crushing defeat in Crewe. A 7000 majority is now an 8000 Tory majority. Fraser Nelson in the Spectator says that the Tories are now pulling resources out of marginals and putting them into the previously `unwinnable' seats (like Crewe) in order to achieve a landslide in 2009/10.

This, coupled with the local elections, is compelling evidence that we're heading towards a Conservative government. One more crushing by-election defeat - or a further polls slide for Labour - and we'll be back to 1995-7 when the only question was how much the Government was going to lose by.

Personally, I am not dreading a Tory government though I am seeking some assurance from them on social policy and help for the less well off. I think they are sensible enough not to want a repeat of the 80s Thatcher government and its `greed is good' mentality. If the Tories do what they are talking about on public services - greater contestibility, more use of the voluntary and private sectors - this will be good. But it will all take place in the context of financial cutbacks. Because the cupboard is bare.

I sometime wonder how Speaking Up will fare under a Tory government. Some aspects of what we do resonate heavily with Conservatives - self-help, personal empowerment, social enterprise and so on. However, a lot of the work we do will probably be viewed as `politically correct' and therefore less valued. I clearly remember meeting Greg Clarke, the Shadow Charities Minister, who seemed genuinely disturbed at the idea that learning-disabled people could be parents.

The approach of the Tories to the third sector generally will be interesting to see. While they see a bigger role for us, they are oddly old-fashioned in some respects, harking back to a 1950s view of charity as being about volunteers and jam sales. IDS in particular is very worrying and I sincerely hope he doesn't get a job in any new Government.

How the big names charities and sector bodies deal with it will also be intruiging. NCVO, ACEVO, the OTS and many of the big names in the quangos and top charities are known to be Labour people. I can't see some of them actually staying.

A sign of things to come, perhaps, is the appointment of a Conservative banker and prospective Parliamentary Candidate to the Chair of Futurebuilders Investment Committee. This person will also be writing the Tory policy on social enterprise so it will be very interesting to see how that all goes.

Anyway, I am hearing `Daddy, Daddy' in my ear to it is time to join the real world again and say goodbye until next week.


Ian said...

I really liked this post, Craig. Who would have thought people would travel all that way to debate social enterprise if they just thought it was rubbish? I wouldn't go see Kasabian in concert just to reaffirm my opinion that it's music by morons for morons.

I read some pseduo-research that says, if you give people logical reasons why their belief is wrong, you only entrench their belief further.

It's counter intuitive. That's why I remember it.

What's the alternative to using reason and logic? The author of the book containing said insight, Stephen Denning, says you have to go for hearts first. For that, you need to use stories.

Storytelling is a big deal in marketing right now. The trick is to do with honesty and authenticity - not qualities marketing is renowned for.

Andy said...

Glad you enjoyed (?) the day Craig and thanks for the kind words.

We will put some photos up soon at - let me know if you want any.

Andy said...

isvcrzgClick on my name above to check out some photos of the '3rd Sector Futures' event, including the debaters...

Anonymous said...


Good to see you last week.

A very good event put on by Andy & team.

Good to hear your views supporting social enterprise.

Kind regards,

Gareth Gault

jon dixon said...

Hi Craig
I thought your argument was quite inspiring, I work for a local charity developing social enterprises. I fortunately have a forward thinking board of trustees & management team who allow me to develop plans/ideas that will lead to income generation to support the core work of the trust, as well as those who work within the enterprise.

I hope to be able to someday generate enough income through trading to allow us not to rely on grants etc to fund our excellent work

Also thanks to andy and his team for a good day.

Tim said...

Hi Craig

I was at the 'Great Debate' and enjoyed it immensely :-)

Your description is pretty accurate - I think you know that you were always going to have to persuade people away from their starting points, whereas Debra had the relatively easier job of reinforcing what many already believed. Both of you made excellent points.

Craig, at the end I voted against the motion - despite basically being aligned with your views on contestability and entrepreneurship: the problem was the motion - "Is Social Enterprise the future of capitalism or a load of old hype?'. I don't think that SE is especially the future of capitalism......but I would have happily supported something like "Is Social Enterprise the future of the Third Sector?".

Myles said...

Hi Craig/all
Agree the debate was good, but perhaps you could have brought to the party some of your blog comments...however, there was not a middle ground, that social enterprise (or whatever you want to call it) might be the future of business, or certainly be a more mainstream way of doing things. Yes, there will always be a need for some activity to be "charitable", in much the same way there will always be self interest (capitalism). Perhaps we all should spend less energy/time/effort in discussing definitions, and more time in "doing". But as a starting point, I enjoyed the day (even if I struggled a little to stretch my 10 min workshop slot into an hour).
Big thanks to the organising team too. Regards

Shirley said...

Hi Craig, I enjoyed the conference but didn't find either position on the debate convincing, so decided to stick with my initial vote, which was in itself a wild guess. Tim's right - the provocative debate question was problematic.

Having had dealings with Business in the Community, I was impressed with the thought and concern about social enterprise in very large businesses but can see the almost insurmountable hurdle of cynicism from the public and the media. A major problem with social enterprise is how to market the principles effectively without looking as though lots of money that could have gone to direct support has been spent on advertising or management.

Mr Strop said...

Northern Rock wasn't a small voluntary organisation. I have my mortgage with the bank and a couple of years before everybody became aware of their inadequacies I had to organise a change of mortgage with them. More than once I felt like saying that if the small voluntary organisation I worked for was as incompetent as they were, then people might have an argument for accusing us of being hippies with open toed sandals. People in suits aren't automatically good at their jobs.