Thursday, 19 November 2009

My top 5 tips for social entrepreneurs

Today is Social Enterprise day as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. One thing’s for sure is that the social enterprise sector is growing. As people reject behaviour demonstrated by the banks, and look for more meaningful ways to make a living and to live, social enterprise has been the obvious answer. This is demonstrated in part by the increased awareness around social investment.

It would appear that investors from many private and public backgrounds are looking to invest their cash in social enterprises. I’ve recently been to two conferences (here and here) that have talked about just that. In fact, there’s talk of huge sums of money that can potentially be re-directed to social enterprise. So are we sat at the edge of a big opportunity? I think that this remains to be seen. But what I have picked up are a few key points that can indicate success for social entrepreneurs. Here’s my list.

1. Look to the long term in everything you do.
Exit strategies are not common speak in social enterprise strategies. I think there are a number of reasons for this. First off, to run a successful social enterprise, you need to have commitment and not to be afraid of being in it for the long-term. A three year plan with exit strategy just ain’t going to cut the mustard at the moment. Why? Well, running a social enterprise is tough. Let’s face it. We’re taking into account lots of complex ideas and factors that make running our businesses difficult, but potentially hugely rewarding too. So looking to the long-term is important – whether it’s for investment, projects, suppliers, or contracts.

2. Measure, measure and measure again
SROI – social return on investment is the weapon in your armoury that can bring good things – from finance and contracts to funding and PR opportunities. Set up a key list of impacts and ensure you can measure them – i.e. how many people have you helped, how much money has gone into supporting local communities etc. And keep the data current, and don’t be afraid to publicise your achievements too.

3. Keep politics at arm’s length
One of the questions at a recent conference was, what difference would a Conservative government make to the social enterprise agenda? And I say, who cares? If we’re going to prove ourselves as business owners, we need to generate income and be independent of political agendas. In other words, know when politics can help you, but don’t rely on it, for goodness sake. Some would disagree – especially those who rely on public sector contracts, but that’s quite scary in itself. We need to compete on a level playing field with other businesses and develop skills which will help us to do so.

4. Scale vs localism
Grassroots is a common term used among social entrepreneurs. It gives the impression of people running projects within a tightly-knit community in one geographical location with limited budget and scope to replicate. I think, while community projects such as these are interesting and important, the grassroots movement is more than this. It’s about working within a context and developing an understanding of a group of people or the issues of a place. Take Ecoescape for example, we’re based in Nottingham but our work covers the whole of the UK and Ireland. Despite this, we’re seen as quite a grassroots organisation having been started on a shoestring based on a need and opportunity. However, our challenge is to remain relevant to our communities and beneficiaries whilst having a broad reach. This way, we can continue to operate in a way that has impact and longevity. If an idea can be scaled, then why not?

5. Have a track record
Don’t just start a social enterprise because you think it would be a cool thing to do, or you just want ‘to do good’. You must, above all, have an interest and developed experience in one area – whether this is in a private, public or third sector organisation. Having a track record and commitment to one field will help enormously as you develop your business. Once you do set up the social enterprise, keep a portfolio of your achievements including press coverage, awards, funding, and milestones. And create a management team that has a broad range of expertise and skills. It helped us to draw a matrix of all the areas that we needed to run the business (e.g. finance, marketing, operations etc) and work out where the gaps were.

Ecoescape is a Community Interest Company. This is a relatively new legal structure allowing companies to trade but with a not-for-profit status. All Ecoescape’s profits, in fact, go back to the community and projects that we support. We believed that the CIC model best represented the way we wanted to run our business – the first of its kind in the travel industry! Obviously you don’t have to run a social enterprise as a Community Interest Company – there are other legal and equity structures which support companies that have strong social and environmental aims. We’re aiming to be self-sufficient which means that the support of our suppliers and readers is crucial. We’re lucky to have so many loyal people behind us.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

A sustainable 2012 Games?

Recently I took part in a sustainability tour of the 2012 Olympic Park as part of Greengaged Week. The tour was led by Dan Epstein who is the Head of Sustainability at the Olympic Delivery Authority. We all hopped on a special Olympic bus which carts various groups around the park to view it at various stages of development. We were interested in the sustainable features and materials that were used as part of this epic build. And epic it is when you see for yourself the stadiums and buildings slowly emerging on the landscape.

As the bus wound its way around the East London site, Dan not only gave us a fantastic update on the progress that was being made by the ODA but also pointed out some impressive eco-credentials that had been put in place. Everyone involved in the project has to commit to creating a sustainable games. It’s a pretty ambitious aim when you think about all the suppliers involved. But Dan is confident that the contractors he works with see the benefits of using sustainable materials and thinking about the lifecycle of buildings. In fact, many of the big contractors have used the opportunity to introduce sustainable practices within their businesses using the 18 KPIs that Dan has set for them.

The most impressive aspect of the tour was understanding how materials have been recycled or used in a way that takes a long view. The ODA scrutinises every material used in the Park through monitoring contractor invoices and carrying out site inspections. It’s tough love that’s for sure. But it’s something that the legacy of the Games can use in the future and be proud of. I liked the fact that buildings could be deconstructed after the games and used elsewhere - like the main stadium. The buildings and open spaces will be part of the community’s future too. Sounds good, no?

The ODA will finish their work in the Park in a year’s time. The buildings will have been built and the green spaces laid out. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games will take the reigns to organise an event to hopefully remember. But what will visitors remember? My guess is that it will be a plethora of things: travelling to London, travelling around London, seeing some world-class sport, medals, buildings, people etc. A general buzz will keep people interested and inspired, no matter how far they’ve travelled. When you watch any Olympic Games on the TV, I think viewers should really get a sense of the atmosphere and hum-drum – if they don’t, it has failed.

So how will London inspire people? I think green issues will play a big role in promoting this aspirational, future-thinking event. For the first time, if the Games can’t show the world how to live and work sustainably, they never will. So I’m keeping a close eye on how things unfold until 2012 asking difficult questions and hoping that the Games will deliver on all fronts: entertainment, opportunities to learn and, most importantly, hope for the future.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Say hello to our first PURE Digital Winner

This is Thomas and he's just won £500 to go on an Ecoescape of his choosing! Thomas had to work for his prize though, as his challenge was to sell as many PURE Digital radios as he could for the month of June. And he did it! So he'll be off on his ecoescape adventure very soon.
Thomas is the first of our year-long trade incentive winners in conjunction with PURE Digital. Their aim is to reward their independant retailers while promoting the energy efficiency of their radios. In fact, did you know that you can run four, yes four, PURE digital radios on less power than one low energy lightbulb? Amazing, and something PURE should be proud of as we work hard to reduce our environmental footprints. If you'd like to find out more about their radios, go to

Monday, 17 August 2009

Radical Nature Exhibition

Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969 - 2009

The Barbican is currently host to a captivating exhibition that runs inside the art gallery as well as off-site in a corner of Dalston. The exhibition crosses decades of thought that explores the boundaries of Land Art, enviromentalism and architecture. Inside you'll find ways that nature has influenced design and how design has been imposed on nature. Sometimes it's difficult to see where the two differ. The theme feels like a work in progress and this exhibition is just a snapshot into the evolving world of living structures. It's well worth a visit and the Barbican is an excellent venue for it. And if you've got time, hop on a bus to Dalston to visit the Dalston Mill - a disused site turned into a wheatfield and functioning windmill that produces flour and bread (right).

For more info, click on

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

A Third Culture could save us?

According to Seed Magazine, 50 years ago there was a significant chasm between scientists and intellectuals or humanists. It was a case of 'them and us' when it came to agreeing the world's biggest problems or theories. 50 years on, we wonder if the chasm has closed and instead a third arena has appeared which bridges this once dangerous divide.

It's an interesting point at which to view how science and the humanities can work together to tackle today's challenges like climate change and poverty. Perhaps it is indeed the future and one which gives me a hope as I've struggled at times with pure scientific theory in attempting to put it into some kind of seemingly hopeless human or environmental struggle. Being open to science will be crucial and I'll make it my mission.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Greenage Angst

The youth of today do care. That's according to a new report called "The Rise of the Greenager" by Xtreme Insight Youth. Commissioned by The Big Lottery Fund among others, the report explores the issues occupying today's youngsters and how the future might look when they're in charge. I think it might be pretty good if the predictions are correct:
  • 70% will refuse to work for companies that do not behave ethically
  • three quarters aim to run a low-carbon household
  • over half (54%) will spend and invest their money with companies that behave ethically, while a further 46 percent want to own eco-cars.
It will be interesting to see if these predictions weigh true if today's youth are confronted with the pressures of work, family and society at large. Interestingly, "13 percent supported a ban on travelling by air for leisure purposes".

Ed Gillespie, Co-founder of Futerra Sustainability Communications, also gives his thoughts on the debate saying that issues of self-esteem, fear of crime and unemployment also feature highly on the youth agenda and should be taken into account.

To read and download the report click here.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Location Aware Bikes - The Copenhagen Wheel

Where else in the world would you be able to test out the madly wonderful idea of location aware cycling but Copenhagen? The mad professors at MIT shunned their Boston locality to test out some of their most exciting ever cycling projects, all bubbling away nicely in their SENSEable City Lab.

The Copenhagen Wheel is all about creating connections between the city's cyclists through clever location-aware devices embedded into the wheels of the bicycles. The devices will help map the flow of cycle traffic around this cycle-mad city and contribute to creating an even more cycle-friendly and sustainable Danish capital. Exciting, huh?

The electric wheels can be retrofitted into any normal bicycle. They contain location and environmental sensors which are powered by the bike wheel and in turn provide data for a variety of applications, not least to connect with your Facebook contacts while on the go. It'll also make it fiendishly difficult for thieves to make off into the sunset with your beloved wheels.

We'll be watching their space for updates on the project. For now, go to for more info.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Loved up in Scandinavia

Not the typical honeymoon destination, granted. But Scandinavia (well, Denmark and Sweden) proved to be an excellent place to recharge the batteries and experience of bit of what my husband and I now refer to as 'infrastructure' tourism.

Our aim clearly wasn't to fly, flop and fry in the sunshine. That was soon proved right as we arrived in Copenhagen (by ferry and train) to be greeted with the highest levels of rainfall that the city had seen in over 50 years. It rained and didn't stop for a long, long time. So what started as denial-wear (cue new summer wardrobe) ended in waterproofs from head to toe, dawn until dusk. But still, what we do best as Brits is grin and bare the weather in all its extremities, or sheer persistence in this case. And so, our flashpacking tour of Nordic infrastructure wasn't impeded, it was just a bit damp.

The first point that I'll make is an obvious one, but cycling in Denmark makes a huge difference to the way its cities work. Cycling is the default transport mode. I knew I'd love it. But seeing it all in action really makes you think, 'well why don't we do this in the UK'? It will take commitment from the government and long-term thinking. Something that politicians here can't quite grasp as elections take precedence over good ideas. The infrastructure for cycling needs us to admit: 'We need to stop driving around cities and prioritise bicycles'. Can you imagine? Cycling utopia really grips you when you visit Copenhagen and other cities in Denmark (Aarhus was another one). It really is the perfect back-drop to this year's COP15.

It is worth mentioning at this point that my husband is an ethnographer. Often confused with espionage, ethnography as a research method is excellent at pointing things out by immersing one's self in or around the 'other'. Or becoming the ‘other’ in some cases. As travellers in Denmark and Sweden, we can report back on what we see and find but as far as becoming the ‘other’, our claims are weak. But all the same, we made some observations which can be refuted as ‘merely’ a set of assumptions based on what we perceive as the differences between living in a place where you know the social practices that shape everyday life and a fantasy place where you do not know from experience the social practices. In other words, the classic ‘grass is greener’ scenarios. But we’ll make some assumptions all the same, and expect some challenges in return.

People get on pretty well. We saw very few instances of public aggression – both passive and overt. We felt that personal space was respected even when we were close by to strangers. Yet their presence wasn’t felt. Our meal at Noma Restaurant was a classic example of this. Although being at one of the top restaurants on the planet, the atmosphere there was relaxed and fellow diners were close by. But at no point did they intrude on the enjoyment of the best meal I’ve ever tasted (oh my god, the Smoked Quails Eggs were unbelievable!).

Smaller divide between rich and poor. It’s either that or the Danes are good at hiding their wealth or their poverty. Despite high taxes, their quality of life is pretty good. And cycling is a great leveller too as people ride modest bicycles (unlike fast/expensive cars that we seem to worship in the UK and judge people by).

Children play and take risks. And they’re not fat and stressed. We sat by a beach near to an art gallery outside of Copenhagen and watched as groups of school children came down to explore. Some of them had a real sense of purpose as they scoured the beach for odds and sods. They climbed over rocks and perched on the edge of the pier under the watchful but not controlling eye of their (young and active) teachers. There was no fear of reprisal from either the teachers or the pupils who happily explored the beach.

Work and life in balance? OK, so we visited at the beginning of the summer season when days are long (almost endless) and the people are gearing up for holidays. If we imagine the Scandinavians in darkness for the rest of the year, however, perhaps their productivity levels are sky high, and when May hits, they down tools for time out. But we don’t really know. But what we did notice was that people finished work before four and were spending time with family and friends. Mosebacke Bar in Stockholm at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon was absolutely packed with demand for tables in the sun at a premium. Or take Aarhus, for example, where people wondered along the beach at all times of the day and evening to enjoy the sculpture exhibition with their families.

Affordable and reliable public transport. Say no more really. Except there wasn’t much point upgrading to First Class in Sweden as standard was more than ok. And everything ran to the second. Gawd damn it.

Design we die for. Ask Mark at Danish Homestore in Nottingham. He’ll tell you about our unhealthy obsession of all things Danish, including lights, chairs, tables, tea towels (yes! they even make the most amazing tea towels we discovered in a Copenhagen department store). Husband Andy will explain our obsession in a curator-style way: “The Scandinavians embrace modernism (efficiency) without loosing craft skills – modern designs for living with a human/natural warmth (natural patterns of trees, leaves etc on many design products).” There you have it. Go Danish Design. It rocks.

Low crime, yet – few cameras?! This must really flummox the British urban planners: ‘Er, we believe more cameras equals a safer society.’ Well, b*****ks to that because it just ain’t true. More cameras equals distrust and distrust equals lack of respect which equals crime against property and other people.

I guess the list could go on. But for fear of ranting and criticising the UK’s short-comings too much, I thought I should let hubbie sum up:

“From my perspective it is an interesting thought experiment to consider how different the social experience is in a country with a small population that is governed conservatively, taxed highly (compared to UK/US), values education, craft skills (traditions), play and has a strong work ethic that is balanced against encouraging non-work and time on, not time off for consumer experiences. And which also appears, at least as a phantasmagoria, to be more equal/open whilst also being capable of collective decision making.”

An ecoescape story wouldn’t be complete without some helpful info on how to ecoescape in Sweden and Denmark. Here are just a few things we did on our flashpacking tour.

Louisiana Modern Art Gallery, outside of Copenhagen
Go and visit the exhibition on Green Architecture, running until 4 October 2009.

Noma Restaurant, Copenhagen
Michelin-starred and out of this world. I’m still dreaming about Smoked Quails' Eggs. The chefs forage for some of the ingredients like beach herbs. Incredible, incredible food. But book at least 3 months in advance.

Kolarbyn, Sweden
Stay in a Swedish forest in a hut. No electricity or running water. Instead a beautiful lake, natural spring, open fires, sauna and heaps of fresh air. Go wild. We had the ‘honeymoon’ suite which is a cute cabin with enormous double bed. Our 'package' included a hamper of homemade dinner and wine.

Take the train
It really is a pleasure in Denmark and Sweden. Quiet, clean, and spacious carriages. Reasonable prices, friendly staff. And you can book online for Swedish fares here: That’s how we got very cheap first-class travel between Copenhagen and Stockholm. Oh how we miss the dignified ease of it all.