Sunday, March 29, 2009

Venturing North

To Cumbria. At the invitation of Dan Heery of Cybermoor, a technology-based social business. Dan is also Chair of Cumbria Social Enterprise Partnership.

Last Monday, Cumbria felt a long way away. I wasn't looking forward to the drive or the pile of email on my return. But I was glad I went. Cumbria, on a bright morning, is a blessing. I wound through Ambleside then Grasmere, home of Wordsworth. I can now see where the poems came from. My heart soared too, quite unexpectedly. There is something heavenly there.

I arrived in Keswick along with about a hundred others. The Lakes cover a massive area but people know each other and there is a villagey atmosphere - in a good way. My speech seemed to go down well. My message about the recession is to beat it by seeing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to push the social business message. And, of course, to create a brilliant new offer for our times. Times when people are crying out for something they can trust.

During one speech I drift a little and start reading Liam Black's piece in Social Enterprise. He's clearly as spooked as I am by what's going on, where it is all going and what's going to happened afterwards. Plenty of social enterprises are going down he says and, of course, he's right. Because we are no better prepared than anyone else for what's coming. The final bubble to burst will be Government spending. That will be the one which hits us hardest because, at the end of the day, loads of us either do business with the Government or (still) get large subsidies from it. Liam generally calls things right. He also writes brilliant stuff and should, in my view, be writing for the Times or FT.

The best bits of the day happen during my `surgery'. I am set up at a table where people can come to discuss their challenges. Here I meet two elderly women (both at least 75)from Workington who saved the town's museum by taking it over from the council who were about to closed it. `We have a few dinosaurs to slay' one of them tells me before asking me to email a pdf of my presentation to her.

Then I meet Carl Hodge, a former RAF man who is business development guy for South Lakeland Society for the Blind. He's asking me if I think he should do an MBA. Judging by what he's achieved in a short time, I think he should be teaching on one. He's set up three trading companies, including a braille translation business which he bought out. He should be a case-study to send to charities who don't think they have any commercial potential. The word social entrepreneur could never be better applied.

Friday and I am in the North West, seeing the irrepressible Rob Harris of Advocacy Experience. Rob owns this business but is is very much a blended value entity - a social business in my view but it probably wouldn't get the Kitemark. Rob and I exchange views about how our own sector will come through the coming public sector recession. He shares my views about the lean times ahead. We both believe we're going to have to reinvent advocacy services that offer the same outcomes and quality but for at least 20% less cost. Its a tough square to circle but we both have ideas we're excited about.

Lunch with the excellent Matt Stevenson-Dodd at a lovely eaterie in the unlikely environs of suburban Warrington. There is a lot to do at his place and a lot hangs on how the organisation fares this next year. His quality will, I think, see him through, but its a tough assignment and he will need nerves of steel to deal with deep-seated issues, topped off, of course, by the recession.

On the way back, the phone rings. Its my exuberant business development director Paul Morrish. We have won another major tender, this time in Suffolk, in partnership with Out and About, a brilliant charity based in Eastern England. This brings to £2 million the new business Paul and his new team have brought in this quarter. After two extremely poor quarters this is a big relief. Paul is, of course, a big factor in this, though he would, being him, share the credit generously. To keep slogging away through a dark winter, losing time and again takes both guts and balls. Paul has both (!) and I am delighted for him.

So why, then, you might ask, am I still worrying about the recession if my sales are through the roof? Well, dear reader, it is because the party, for now, is still going on in the public sector. This is the last bubble to burst but the pin will be pricked in 2010, mark my words. If you want a feeling for how it will be look over the Irish Sea. A 6% drop in GDP. Unemployment at 15%. Public spending slashed. House prices down a third on peak. And that's just this year. Perhaps we won't get it quite so bad, but that's what's coming. I do not joke when I say to my people that we have two years, top, to secure the future of this organisation and its mission.

Oddly, I feel quite energised about it. I like white-knuckle rides.

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