Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Green May Be Trendy, But Very Little Is Actually Changing

Guest Post: This was written in response to Poverty Is Being Lost In a Sea of Green, by Joel Kimber - a friend of mine and Marine Biologist, working on how marine animals may or may not interact (positively and/or negatively) with offshore renewable energy developments.

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Unfortunately, despite the green issue being "trendy", very little is actually being done about it. Very little at all. Politicians constantly talk about it - but predominantly to win votes - funding and positive action is actually very hard to come by (and this is coming from an environmental scientist desperate to make a difference). Companies such as BP pride themselves on their green credentials - but again - it's mostly bravado. They're still some of the most environmentally destructive corporations on the planet. Just riding the green wave, as you suggest, to attract more customers and therefore more profit. It's almost more frustrating that this issue is so widely accepted and high profile and yet nothing is being done.

I agree though - it is sickening that poverty still hasn't been addressed. I'm guessing it gets buried by governments, corporations and the media (point in case - the BBC refusing to show the information and messages about poverty during coverage of Live 8 - reducing it to merely a music gig that generated massive profits for the artists) mainly owing to the simple fact that the developed world maintains its power and wealth by using and abusing the undeveloped world - similarly for wealthier sectors of individual countries and poorer sectors. It's criminal. Pure and simple.

What can we do about it!?

The way the world is currently run - there probably isn't much that can be done about it other than on a micro scale. I hate to say it - but a revolution is probably required (don't call me a hippy!). Otherwise the rich and powerful will just maintain systems that make them even more rich and powerful. 'Dispatches' last night was a prime example. The 6 energy companies in Britain are pushing prices ridiculously high through clever (legal) price fixing. Despite recent increases in oil prices, these companies own every sequence in the energy chain and will therefore ALWAYS profit even if one sequence suffers, forcing millions of customers into energy debt (doubtless many older people will die) for no acceptable reason, while their shareholders make record profits - billions and billions. And the government justs let them do it. No morals. Again. Absolutely criminal.

But this (social networking used to discuss such topics) is a great step in the right direction.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Poverty Is Being Lost In A Sea Of Green

(I wrote this post for this year's Blog Action Day as a guest post for the Literacy and Poverty project, which is a social initiative and soon to be registered non-profit in New York focused on improving adult education and alleviating poverty. Check out their blog and website.)

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Nothing about poverty is cool. It is tough, brutal, painful and cyclical. But it doesn't affect most of the people who can afford the technologies to be reading this, so for many of us it's always been easy to ignore. A hidden evil lurking in 'third world' countries. The saddest development is that even the little attention poverty had when it was simply the most pervasive of the global problems that didn't affect us directly, is being washed away in the tide of interest surrounding the Green movement.

Green has gone from cheap and homemade to cool and chic. From 'tree-huggers' to corporate speak. It is becoming iconic, and a status symbol that brands are associating themselves with. It affects the world we all live in, and therefore directly impacts our own personal interests - and so we take it seriously. Better still, it also costs most of us nothing more turning a few lights off and maybe going easy on the heating... which basically saves us money and again furthers our own interests while making us feel good about ourselves. More and more I see it turning into a McCarthyism thing. Show a disdain for eco-friendliness and you're an instant pariah. Can't argue with that of course. We need sustainability. Maybe we'll even save the planet before it's too late.

My question though is - Why isn't poverty like this? Why is it perfectly acceptable to show no interest in poverty at all? Global poverty is basically left out of sight, and kept out of mind. The pictures have become just that. Glossy prints of someone else's pain. An artist's rendition of reality instead of calls to action. As for local poverty, I regularly hear people righteously blaming the victims for their own situation... these 'people' should stop being so lazy, go and get a job, stop with the pregnancies, get off the streets, and on and on.

The problem is that unlike Green, the only way we can really impact institutional poverty is by redistributing a bit of our money either through donations for global causes, or through paying higher taxes for local ones. And giving away 'hard-earned' money is a concept a little too close to the bone. Nothing cheap and cheerful about it. So we look at poverty in ways that help justify our lack of action. We make like its not there and give it a wide berth. Ignorance is bliss.

But ignorance we can tackle. And making a difference starts with awareness, so I'm going to use a 'rich' country like the UK as a case in point and share 5 facts about poverty that you probably didn't know, but really, really should...
  1. Poverty has two definitions: Absolute and Relative.
    Absolute poverty also known as 'extreme poverty', is defined as living on less than $1.25 per day. The world bank estimates that 1.4 billion people currently live under these conditions. Relative poverty is used when talking about developed countries and currently stands at about $30 a day for a single adult.


  2. Poverty in the UK is defined as any income that is 60% or less than the average household income. 13 million people in the UK live on less than this.
    Doesn't sound too bad? This threshold works out at about £450 a month after tax and rent for a single adult, and worse still, just about £1200 for a family with two children. £300 per month per person, to cover all their other bills, travel, food, and living. That's one big night out plus a pretty cheap suit, if you want it in context. A full fifth of the UK population survives on less than this. Think about it.


  3. Over half a Million people in the UK are homeless
    100,000 families in the UK are classified as homeless. That's families. Not just individuals. That the Government knows of. Because they only count those who've applied to be classified that way and then succeeded in being recognised as 'officially' vulnerable. Crisis estimates another 400,000 hidden homeless. People don't end up homeless by choice and they don't stay that way because they are lazy. The causes are brutal, and the effects are devastating. Resulting clinical depression and mental health impacts are a major reason why many never make it back. Over 70% of homeless people suffer mental health issues but are 40 times less likely than the rest of us to be registered with a GP. You don't get far without an address.


  4. Children are not exempt. 3.9 million children in the UK are affected.
    Half of these children are in workless households, which means the UK has a higher proportion of children living in unemployed families than any other EU country. It doesn't get much better for young adults. 1.2 million young people of working age are not in employment, education or training (NEET). In London alone, that's 25% of 16-18 year olds with nowhere to go.


  5. Ethnicity only makes things worse. In the UK overall, 40% of people from ethnic minorities still live in poverty.
    This is twice the rate for White people. Some migrants like Indians and Black Caribbeans, most of whom originally came from middle class, English speaking backgrounds, have closed the gap with about 25% living in poverty, but for the others it is much much worse. 55% of Bangladeshis, 45% of Pakistanis and 30% of Black Africans are in 'low-income households'.

Anyway, I know this has been a long post, but I didn't just want it to be another pontification on the state of the world today. So thanks for reading. I hope the facts make you think, and even if they've opened your eyes just enough to share this post and pass it on to your friends, we can both say we've made a small difference...

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Will Social Enterprise Survive The Credit Crunch?

I was just watching an interview with Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank, and it got me thinking. Amidst all this fear about our economies going bust with our commercial and investment banks, what's going to happen to Social Enterprise?

As Yunus says, food prices have doubled, oil prices have gone up, and the financial crisis is affecting people's purchasing power everywhere. But not all financial institutions are suffering. Microfinance institutions for example, have stronger portfolios because their loans are much more transparent. There may be no collateral and no guarantees, but it's based on trust and still has a much better quality of return. They are reaping the rewards of robustness and relevance, underpinned by ethically focusing on people's needs rather than making careless short-term profits.

Social businesses, in the same way, are about working with people and not exploiting them. They are collaborative more often than not, and held together by people who aren't simply working for a wage. This makes their offerings more relevant to their audience, their financial decisions less risky, and their audience more likely to support them in times of difficulty.

Many also rely on philanthropic funding, government grants or SROI based loans, and won't be quite as badly affected by the credit crunch because the financial instruments they depend on are not quite as compromised. It will be tighter of course, but how is that going to be much different from the normal state of affairs for most social enterprises? At the more commercial end too, they are also more likely to be given leeway around defaulted payments due to the nature of their work.

Finally, if this really turns into crippling economic crisis, I believe it will only help drive social innovation faster. It will embed the recognition that we have to be able to help each other, and create not just environmentally sustainable businesses, but also financially sustainable ones.

We can only do this collaboratively, so I believe the future is bright for social enterprise and social innovation. Watch out for new disruptions to commercial models that rival Grameen Bank, and keep your fingers crossed for a future with less money-mindedness and more taking care of each other!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Startup And Change The World!

Here's a fantastic resource for startups put together by Dev Appanah, a social entrepreneur and friend of mine, along with some of his colleagues at www.ysei.org. It is basically a rough guide to starting your own social enterprise. It has some great stuff around making the most of your ideas, along with financial and organisational planning help, particularly related to raising the funds you need and managing your key stakeholders. If there was ever anything you should read around starting up a social enterprise, this is it.

Monday, 6 October 2008

New Self-Assessment Framework for Social Enterprise

(Excerpt from Third Sector Online, by Gemma McKenna, 2 October 2008 )

The social enterprise 'Investing in Governance' has devised a way for charities to assess and improve their governance procedures.

The 24-page document includes 69 best practice guidelines under 11 headings, which cover topics from recruitment to the induction and appraisal of trustees. Organisations that complete the document are scored so they can identify areas for improvement.

The document was drawn up by Stefan Kuchar, chief executive of Wandsworth Voluntary Sector Development Agency, as part of an MBA research study. He worked with five charities to develop the plan, which starts with a list of "10 things that hack me off about charity boards". It was posted online this week and is available to download for £29.50. Apparently charities can also buy in an expert panel to help with the evaluation for £3,250.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

5 Tips To Help You Start A Blog For Your Social Enterprise

Blogging should be a key strategy for any social start-up or even an established one, primarily because of the collaborative nature of social activity plus the need to build profile and audience ahead of trying to raise funding.

After almost a year of posting I've learned a lot about the value of blogging and how to keep it going, both from a writer and reader perspective. Here's some strategic tips in case you're thinking about starting one either for yourself or your enterprise... social or otherwise!
  1. Think about your blog strategy:
    Figure out what you want to achieve from the blog, then figure out the audience you need. Find the common ground between the two in terms of topics, and start writing about them.

  2. Stay focused on your topics:
    Once you've figured out your strategy, stay focused on it. If you want subscribers you need to stay specific to the audience you want to build. People don't usually subscribe to generic blogs or those that try to cover too many categories because they don't want to be bombarded by stuff they aren't interested in. We're information overloaded as it is, so it may be good for driving search traffic, but terrible for building regular readership.

  3. Don't go crazy with your Tags:
    Select and reduce the number of Tags you use so that they clearly reflect what your blog is about. They should become like a navigation menu rather than a random list of words. See my categories on the right for example. Tag clouds are fun too, but people who aren't into blogs (and thats most of them) don't know what they mean. They also don't attract as much traffic as you'd expect.

  4. Don't confuse your professional blog for a personal one:
    If you've created an info-blog, don't use it as a dumping ground for your opinions on random things, however passionate you are about those. Your subscribers are a trapped audience but they really don't appreciate you abusing their time by switching into 'speakers corner' mode every so often. With the US elections I'm seeing a lot of this... social enterprise bloggers, retail bloggers, innovation bloggers etc etc all chucking in posts about their opinions on US politics. It usually makes me tempted to unsubscribe.

  5. Maintain a sensible level of readability:
    No one has time to read lengthy discourses on anything. They need enough detail to gain value, but short enough to pick it up quickly. Short bullet points make all the difference. With this post for example, I've written enough to provide an explanation if you wanted it, but also split out summary titles as bullet points in case you didn't have time to read all this text.

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