From suspicion to exhaustion, a very, very honest look at what needs to change in the world of social enterprise, voluntary and community organisations…
Just to set the context for you – CAP Enterprise delivers frontline services and consultancy-style support for others working on the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) frontline. Since our formation in 2008 (and our later incorporation in 2011) we have worked with over 1,000 people and almost 600 established and emerging VCSE organisations. We deliver ‘enterprise’ – helping people (on their own or within organisations) become more ‘can-do’, motivated and skilled. We change lives that can in turn can change organisations, communities and life for others.
CAP works and we have a decent reputation, which is why we’ve managed to work with so many organisations, and have managed to identify the following issues that, despite our efficacy, we’ve been powerless to do anything about:
1. Social enterprise – still treated with suspicion and cynicism. From funders, to trustees, to politicians, to commissioners, to potential VCSE partners there remains a perception that social enterprises are “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. Having mixed in social enterprise circles I have to admit there are some – a bit too sharp, a bit too opportunistic and a bit too focussed on the money and financial growth. But not many.
Most social entrepreneurs I have encountered struggle well with the daily juggle of income or impact leading the decision-making. I’d even be brave enough to say that there are more sharks working in UK charities than in UK social enterprises.
2. Trustees – majorly holding back the VCSE sector. Admittedly a sweeping generalisation, but over the years CAP has worked with too many CEOs who want to implement change, accept advice, buy in expertise and plan ahead, only to be hamstrung by boards of trustees making uninformed and too operational decisions. Trustees do mean well and they are invaluable, but on the whole are excessively risk-averse, reluctant to do more than attend meetings and too often controlled by an overbearing Chair. Right now we need skills, experience, clear thinking and a willingness to roll up your sleeves!
3. Funders/Commissioners – you are partners in this crazy battle to fix what’s wrong with the world. Don’t make it so hard for us all to access what we need to make a change. Be more visible, talk to us, speak plain English, flex your systems and be braver! I recently completed a 48-question application form for a £2,500 grant – ridiculous!
4. Collaboration – we can all do so much more if we work together better. We don’t. We certainly don’t do it well. We can create scale and capacity by joining up and pooling resources, knowledge and goals. The financial crisis, outsourcing of services and increasing compeition has further fragmented an already fragmented sector. Our response as a sector has not been great – the larger organisations have certainly not supported their smaller contemporaries. Could do better!
5. Emotional resilience – too many capable, committed and people are being ground down and ejected by the sector currently. In the past four months alone three very capable CEOs of small frontline organisations we have worked with have said, “Enough’s enough” and have resigned in order to change career or have gone off on long-term sick. Losing talent because of poor governance, abyssmal investment in staff welfare and overwhelming demand for support is mostly avoidable. Sad to see it happening so much.
Despite these problems, and the lack of empathy for the country’s VCSE sector by politicians and public bodies, I am still optimistic that the sector will survive – we will emerge bruised, but still swinging.
Shoots of optimism are there however. The growing awareness of social responsibility in this country’s youth, the Blitz mentality created through the perception that this generation’s leaders have messed things up for them so we’d better fix things ourselves and a commitment to do the right thing give me the comfort to sleep at night.
In the meantime I’ll stick to the one bit of advice given by Voltaire’s eponymous hero, Candide, “Il faut cultiver le jardin”, which I take to mean that for our garden to flourish we must weed out the bad and nurture the beautiful and the nourishing.
Thanks for reading.