Friday, October 31, 2008

Third Sector Leadership Centre - Do We Need One?

Well the answer for now is that we're got one. At least for a couple more years until its funding runs out from Capacity Builders.

I spent Wednesday this week at Henley Management College (worth a post in itself) in Berks along with 20 odd other third sector people to work out a potential future for this body.

Its name - The Third Sector Leadership Centre - is currently a bit of a misnomer. Its more like one of those academic `centres' than a service-deliverer. Its brief so far has been very broad - too broad - to raise profile, provide research, connect things together, etc etc. With about three staff.

As a result the TSLC has a pretty low profile, a weak brand and fuzziness around what it does. This isn't helped by the lack of a clear `offer' to organisations. One of its options will be whether or not to create a distinct leadership development offer to TSOs. Without this, one has to ask how it will earn a living.

The leadership question in the third sector is a tricky one. We need more, better leaders at all levels but there aren't the resources to send them to places like Henley.

So what do we do? Well, there's web-based peer-learning, something now being done commercially by, among other, Knowledge Peers. There's also leadership networks that could be supported by CVSs and schemes to hook promising third sector leaders with volunteer mentors or coaches.

Like a lot of blue sky sessions with third sector people, this one produced a lot of great creativity but all of it is a world away from what we have now - two and a half academically oriented people based at Henley. It was hard to make the imaginative leap from this to the vision of thousands of improved leaders that we all seek to see.

My instinct on all of this is that the money for TSLC may well end up in the new Third Sector Research Centre and that the squeeze on finance to all sectors won't fund a new programme to focus on developing capacity among our leaders. Therefore it will be a case of either crafting a paid-for offer, working in partnership with existing leadership orgs to reach high potential leaders in our sector and doing something useful online, like Knowledge peers, that inspires and connects people who are seeking to grow as leaders.

The M4 back made me understand why more people are choosing to emigrate. However, if you are one of those, visit Suffolk first. Britain's Best Kept Secret.

Let's Raise a Glass to the Recession

As a positive soul, I have just compiled a list headed "good things about the recession".

First, it will shake the tree. We'll now see a mass cull of thousands of dreadful organisations that provide very little except comfortable employment for their staff. We all know a few of these and nobody will miss them one bit. At least their funding can now go on something useful.

Second, we will see the sector become more accountable. For years we have got away with being the sector of great anecdotes. When asked about the difference we make, we often bang on about our best-ever success or offer improbable statistics that would do a Soviet-era government proud ("our two staff provide services for 267,000 people" and so on). In a tougher climate, those who properly measure and prove impact will thrive while those who bleat that it's all too difficult will sink.

Third, the recession could take our relationship with government to a better place. The past few years have been like the very early days of love: we've passed a lot of compliments and exchanged looks of longing before, eventually, taking them back to our place for coffee. The result has been the Office of the Third Sector, some great ministers and a place in the sun.

But the recession will quickly puncture the romance. Difficult things are going to be said. Government's doubts about us will come out ("can you really deliver?") and our resentments will come flooding through ("why does the hammer still fall on us first?"). As with any relationship, however, all this will simply have to happen. Emerging from this turmoil, I believe, will be a better understanding of our long-term usefulness to each other as lifetime partners.

And boy, are we useful. Society is about to be convulsed by pain on a scale not seen for nearly 20 years. As ever, we are often first on the scene. In the longer term, the pending catastrophe in the public finances will mean much faster public service reform. This won't only mean more business for our sector, but also more 'voice' as we push hard to ensure that services are shaped by users, not Whitehall.

OK, three is a short list, but I bet you could add to it. There's still plenty to feel good about, so let's raise a glass to the recession!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Love a Sales Meeting

Today I am in Nottinghamshire where we are tendering for a significant advocacy contract which, if we win, will strengthen our position here massively.

The meeting went well. There was myself, my excellent Director Business Development, Paul Morrish, and my Service Manager Reiz Evans. The aftenoon before was spent in feverish rehearsal, driven by Paul who, like a Director kept asking for just one more run-through until we were word perfect.

And perfect we were. Today, we were in `the zone' - that space where you lose track of time and space and you know you're performing to the max. As a sales piece, it was strong. They definitely liked us. We were credible and we were in tune with their agenda.

Our downfall is that we are not strictly local. Always a negative, especially with local government commissioners but not necessarily fatal. Its a bit like starting one-nil down in a game. You need to quickly draw level and from there its anybody's game.

Of all the things I do, I think I like sales meetings the best. Up there with public speaking and writing. I know I am good at it and I know I can help bring the best out in the people around me.

Today's commissioners were pretty good, I have to say. Their questions were relevan and they tried hard to engage with us in the right way. We are facing heavy local competition. Weaker competition but I sense their relationships and networks are good.

So let's see how this goes. Before we went in I gave us fairly long odds. Now I think its 50/50. Let's see what happens Friday.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Not Britains Most Admired CEO

Just been to Britains Most Admired Charities Awards at Barclays in Canary Wharf.

As we glided up to the thirtieth floor and then looked out it was incredible to see the scale of the City and to imagine the ructions now ripping it s firms into fragments.I was up for 'Most Admired CEO' which was won by Clare Tickell of Action for Children CLare was accompanied by a young woman who looked just like her who I assumed, when I spoke to Clare, to be her daughter only to learn with that awful reddening of the fauxpas that this was her sister. Oh God, why did I need to say anytbing?

Clare is a worhy winner. As was Matthew Thomson of London Voluntary Recycling. Saw several people I like including David Carington, David Cutler of Barings and Stephen Bubb of ACEVO who was really encouraging of m whicb was very nice to hear.

Earlier I met Patrick Butler of Society Guardian over a good lunch. Patrick has been incredibly supportive in recent months and placed several pieces in the paper. He will go a long way, perhaps all the way. He combines a critical mind and a sharp eye of the hack with a good heart and an integrity that draws you in.
Once a year we bring everyone at Speaking Up together under one roof.

The Big Day Out 2008 was I am glad to say a perfect expression of Speaking Up at its best.

There were two highlights for me. The first was our 'marketplace' where we recreated the sights and sounds of an East End market. Spivs wandered round with watches hanging off the insides of their coats. Traders bellowed from their stalls. Buskers played for coins. The place just buzzed while people swopped info and found reasons to talk with colleagues they had never met.

This idea came from a mad lunch I had with some staff. Totally unplanned but an indicator of how much better things are when you throw away the rule book now and then.

The second magic moment came when our African drummers didn't show up for their workshop. Two of our staff, Jo and Vicky, ran to the kitchen of the venue, borrowed a heap of pots and pans and ran the workshop themselves, based on something they had been to before.

We talk internally of 'The Speaking Up Person'. This kind of thing confirmed to me that we still do attract the kind of person you don't often encounter. Making Speaking Up the kind of place such people come to and thrive within is a big personal goal.

What does this mean? It means that you communicate in a real and genuine way with people. That you level with them and don't talk to using the language of KPIs (even if you have them). It means that your organisation is a place where good things can happen without undue complication or hassle. It means that you very clearly indicate,as managers, about both the mission and the plan. Finally it means you celebrate not only what you are achieving but also how you go about it. Because this is where the DNA of your organisation is located. The How.

When you think about your strategy, remember that in this crowded sector, the how is almost as important as the what.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The End of Capitalism? Come off it Andrew!

The Guardian today was full of stuff on the downturn and what it means for the Third Sector. Geoff Mulgan thinks it the era of chasing public sector contracts will be replaced by more organisations getting involved in the real economy as happened in earlier eras with mutuals and so on. Andrew Simms of NEF, who writes well, talks about the current crisis of financial capitalism as the equivalent of the end of Soviet Communism.

Personally I think the latter, though a great line, over-does it a touch. The end of Communism was the end of the idea of the planned economy in which markets played no meaningful part. The events of recent week are not its equivalent in reverse. As Simon Jenkins says, also in the Guardian, just because the car drives too fast and crashes doesn't mean we should ban driving.

What we have seen isn't the same kind of failure of that of Communism, which was based on a totally flawed concept of how people are. Rather it was a failure to properly managed a system based very much on how people are - if just left to just get on with it. Better road-signs and more traffic cops are needed. Not an entirely new way of getting around.

The State is Fashionable Again

The state is fashionable again. Government played a blinder and saved us all from capitalist Armageddon. While as relieved as the rest of you that we appear not to be melting-down, I worry about effect all this will have on the new consensus. Previously, virtually everyone was of one mind that the state had gotten too big and couldn't deliver the kind of social change we all wanted. Today, it feel like the `activist state' is back on the political menu, indeed as a Special of the Day.

As someone who has always felt ambivalent about the state, I currently feel on the back-foot. The silver lining in all this for me is that this could be, as Rod Schwartz was saying last week in the Guardian, this could be the big chance for the social economy. People currently don't trust the private sector, not, in many cases should they. And the state continues to deliver mediocrity, in the main. The social economy - which is, at its best, human-scale, trustworthy and responsive, should experience a lift.

But whatever you say, it does feel like the world has changed. The state did (as it should in extreme times) ride to the rescue. My fear is that just because the state came in to sort the banks means that its got to get stuck into all parts of the economy.

And that public services rather than being opened up remain failing monoliths, safe from the influence of market-forces, even when it is patently obvious, as in the case of nearly all services for people with learning-disabilities, that the state does far too much and keeps hold of too much of the money for its own projects and services.

For many people with disabilities this will continue to be a personal disaster.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Top-Down-Bottom-Up Solutions

My early days at Speaking Up were spent on the front-line in Cambridgeshire. Today I was back there looking at how we go about setting up a `User Led Organisation' for Cambridgeshire and a Centre for Independent Living.

The main problem is that we are doing it in what i called a `Top-Down-Bottom-Up' way. Meaning that the decree from the Top-Down was to do it in a `Bottom Up' way. The kind of Doublethink we are all so used to these days.

The Top-Down thing works like this. In effect, the Goverment and the Council is (possibly) hanging some money out if a successful collaboration between disabled people's organisations comes off. Which is fine except how much money nobody knows. In the current climate this could end up being very little. Our particularly Bottom-Up problem is we belong to no-one. The semi-powerful woman from the council who got us all here is now gone and, it seems, she didn't tell anyone back at Shire Hall what she was up to. The bloke who was supposed to replace her didn't even show up today. Which means when it comes to full council, 100k for this versus four threatened teaching assistants wages won't require much of Members' time.

What about the Bottom-Up problems? Well, we aren't, as organisations, really that skilled, or sufficiently well-resourced to work up really fantastic new propositions from nothing. It can, after a few meetings, seem like a lot of hard work for a poor return. Much easier just to fix on the stuff you know you can do without all the argy-bargy. Which leads to the kind of ultra-fragmentation we have now and, of course, need to move away from....Which is why, when I sat and thought about it, I was there today.

Where this one will go I don't know. I see a few potential partners in the room. Much smaller organisations that could, I reckon, work with a bigger one if they could trust us not to pulverise them. The elephant here is that you really need one organisation with superior resources and know-how to run hard and for the others to fall in behind it in a lesser role.

But this involves a ceding of power and control which runs against the assumption of equality underlying these types of meetings. My worst fear is that if the larger orgs, like us, will have to carry the responsibility for delivery without the power of efficient decision-making - meaning we will find ways of doing it on our own.

Which, of course, doesn't solve the problem that both Top and Bottom would like, ideally to solve. Let's see what comes of this one. I remain, for some reason, hopeful.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Beeting the Downturn

The word `Meltdown' summons all kinds of images. Icecaps, nuclear reactors. Never, till now the financial system which underpins our whole economy and society. What it could mean for charities and social businessses is only just beginning to be considered.

We exist, largely, on the wealth of society and the state. None of us had planned for an era in which this wealth wouldn't be there. The bailing-out of the banks, though necessary, has used up all the Government's borrowing capacity. No money to shore up the economy through massive public works or tax cuts. Savage cuts in public spending will follow all this as day follows night.

It was weird mulling all this over today on a perfect October morning as I stomped across fields of sugar-beet while tractors raced around us moving the beet from the soil to the steaming processing plant five miles in the distance. The beet gets, I am told £23 per tonne. Prices are lower than farmers expected. So the job has to be done quickly and I will probably be walking through wheat next year.

Brilliant, clear days like this offer comfort because they remind you that most of what truly matters to you is the stuff you don't pay for. The smiling baby in the backpack. The health which propels you effortlessly across heavy fields. The browns and greens of the early Autumn made bright by the pale October sun.

As I scanned down the hectares of descending fields overlooking Bury St Edmunds, I saw a landscape barely changed in decades. Stability running long into the future. But it feels like the mental-maps we have all used to understand the way our world works have been lost and that, for now, we are working without a new one. Even the opinion-formers seem to be unable to bring together the forward-prospect.

This is particularly so in the third sector where most people are either in denial or fighting the last war (the early 90s recession) and waiting for the weather to change. My own feeling echoes that of Rod Schwartz of Catalyst Fund writing in the Guardian last Wednesday that we are possibly going to emerge from this into a new period of capitalism based not on profit-maximisation with some subsequent disbursement to `good causes' but a blended model where firms' create both financial profit and other social outputs all at the same time. In other words, social business.

I only hope he is right.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Where Has Our Money Gone?

My week started with a vague unease about where our reserves were kept. I had a hazy recollection of an account set up by my former FD which placed our reserves in foreign accounts. By Wednesday and news broke about Iceland's banks I started to quietly panic. I phoned my new FD and asked her to check out exactly where our money was that day. She found out and thankfully it is spread among 35 national banks all rated A-Pure by some ratings agency. Just one going down would see us lose 1/35th of half a million quid.

Bad but not as bad as the the three charities which between them appear to have lost 25 million for now. The real figure will, of course, be a lot higher. There must be loads of CEOs like me who don't really know where the money is and haven't yet got round to finding out.

Apparently the crisis is so bad that the voluntary sector is finally, for the first time ever, speaking with one voice to Government. All the main bodies went together (yes, TOGETHER) to speak to Treasury Minister Paul Myners today. Tonight on `Any Questions' Harriet Harman gave a massive hint that the Government will help the most affected charities. Charities have been all over the media. I hope the various heads of our sector take note of what happens when we come across as a united force and not a bunch of squabbling squirrels nicking each others' nuts.

Which is just how a bunch of organisations in Leicestershire looked this week when the county council there, after two years waiting for a sector-led proposal, ending up putting a big piece of work out to tender for them to fight over. In typical fashion, we ended up looking like people who prefer arguing to helping people. No wonder, as Sir David Henshaw said in a recent speech, councils prefer dealing with the private sector. They may be tough and commercial but at least you know what you're dealing with. We are completely un-predictable - and in business-terms, that's deadly.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

How to Build an Empire Without Taking Slaves

Stuart Rigg is CEO of Advance Housing and Support. It sounds like a monolith and, on one level, it is, with a turnover of around £25 million. However, its approach to expansion is anything but monolithic. Rather than grow organically or via take-overs they have instead partnered with smaller organisations, allowed them to keep their name and what made them special in the first place, but brought them clearly in the Advance family of companies.

What's the deal then? And why partner with Advance? Well, take the example of HILT in Hackney. HILT was a successful local charity doing very interesting work with disabled people but which had real problems around its back-office functions and its financial management. Enter Advance. All of these functions are now performed at Advance's business support centre at Witney (Oxon). In addition, HILT can now call on the balance sheet, cashflow facilities and credibility of Advance when dealing with commissioners. No longer is it viewed as a vulnerable local minnow with poor financial control. Commissioners feel much safer.

And for Advance? Stuart's philosophy is the opposite of the standard business advice which is to find your core product and stick to it. His is housing and support, both mature, `sunset' sectors with little to play for. Instead, he advocates diversification. So you see Advance moving into personal budgets, shared ownership, community-based health care and so on. All are bets on the way the future is going but Stuart knows only one or two will come off. Therefore he has placed several.

But rather than setting up his own version of things, as many third sector organisations do, he's gone about things differently. By partnering with the likes of HILT, he's bringing the best of Advance into organisations and approaches that could thrive while, quite hopefully, finding the key to Advance's wider future in the process.

Its a different approach, less imperialistic and one which allows for smaller organisations to keep what is special about them (including their particular identity) while, at the same time, allowing the good things brought by a larger organisation to work their magic.

We ended up talking about the pros and cons of having four children (he was in Cambridge visiting his youngest daughter). He felt very lucky to have `had it all' - career, good standard of living, four great kids. I said I was only just coping with two and that four would mean I would definitely be buying a shed.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sharp Elbow

For the first time since Ruby was born two and a half years ago I have been to a gig. Elbow. Winners of the Mercury Music Prize. Critically acclaimed, commercially struggling.

What I like about Elbow, as well as their music is a) that they are old (mid-late 30s) b) that they are from Bury, where I grew up and c) that they took a long time to come good

Yes, you guess it, they remind me of myself, while at the same time making me feel that although I am 39 it is still possible, in a parallel universe,to have Glastonbury eating out of my hand. I like Elbow in much the same way I loved Teddy Sheringham for still scoring the odd Premiership goal at 40.

The Corn Exchange in Cambridge was sold out before the Mercury Prize was announced so only true believers were present. The band didn't disappoint. To leaven their immobile, older selves, a string quartet of sparingly-but-tastefully dressed women occupied the rear of the stage at various points.

Elbow is really about Guy Garvey, the porcine singer and songwriter who combines a versatile voice with a passionate stage presence. But he is no swaggerer. Garvey is un-remittingly nice, at one point stopping a song dead in order to take girl out of the crowd who had passed out.

Garvey's songs reflect the rainy skies under which he grew up, the pubs he drank in and the web of relationships that make up a life. Longing and connection are both big themes but underneath you always feel the sadness of wet streets on an aimless Tuesday afternoon in the North West.

Elbow are `alternative' but have an unusual sound that makes itself known through a mixture of a slowish rhythm and a certain songwriting style coupled with some very interesting arrangements. They are loud, often drawn-out but never fast or poppy. `Weather to Fly', `Starlings' and `One Fine Day' - all from award-winning `Seldom Seen Kid' - were the show's best moments.

As usual I was relieved when the lights came up (an hour is usually enough for me) but felt glad I had bothered. Its good to a band clearly appreciating that this is their moment and having the wisdom the play it to the max.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Road from Rikers Island

Peter Mason who I met yesterday took a year to build a social business which now turns over 4.3 million pounds (it took me ten to do the same).

Secure Health Care provedes nurse-led health services to inmates at Wandsworth prison. His is the first outsourced health service in the UK and next he is tendering for four more. If successful he will have about 1000 staff and a urnover of 30 odd million.

So what is his USP? Peter offers a model which doesn't make a take profit out of healthcare and uses a model of employee ownership, a sort of John Lewis Partnership for health.

He is swimming with the sharks in that his private sector competitors (Serco for example)circle manacingly looking to legally challenge his use of public funds.

Social entrepreneurs don't come a lot bigger and better than Peter. He is operating at a scale most eschew and his capabilities and ambitions place him in the top tier.

I like meeting people like Peter because he reminds me that e do have serious players who can operate and win at scale who are also able to infuse what they do with the right values. This is a man who regularly gets on his nurses uniform to show people about what his vision means on the ground. This is real leadership, something people in the cynical, tired and institutionalised prison health sector can believe in.

Coupled to this is the business nous and ruthlessness to tackle competitors and poor quality.

I came away from our meeting refreshed. I would love to see Peter's story out there and for him to be on the platforms. But as he says himself, he is immersed in a business and that is where he is needed.

What started as a nurse in Rikers Island penitentiary in New York in the nineties will I hope end in health care system across in UK jails which is a quantum better than we have now. Then,he tells me, he will write his book, 'The Road from Rikers Island'.