Monthly Archives: November 2013

Freedom to think outside – no box required

Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.                 

Hannah Burns Forest School

Talking to Hannah Burns, founder of the Nurture by Nature Forest School, it’s clear that her development of this Community Interest Company in Norfolk is a natural stepping stone on a lifelong journey. Her own past “fighting against the system all the time” means she can empathise with the young people who come into her care.

The Forest School offers alternative education for 11-19 year olds with varying behavioural difficulties, at risk of being excluded from mainstream education. Hannah knows that, despite having a social worker for a mother and an IT technician father, she too could have been one of those young people.

Her classroom is a 6-acre woodland site south west of Norwich where the great outdoors brings a freedom to learn, away from the confines of a system that Hannah herself found constricting in a career that has embraced a variety of social care roles.

Nature by Nurture logo‘Discovering natural solutions’ is one way to describe the ethos behind the forest school movement – a Scandinavian import which addresses the often aggressive tendencies of troubled souls who may have lost touch with their inner feelings, have forgotten or have never known what it is to have physical exercise in natural surroundings, and are now re-discovering the delights of something most people take for granted in children – the ability to play.

It’s clear that nature intended Hannah should find her way to this outdoor escape from the school system. The seeds, it seems, were sown at an early age. “I have always loved camping and being outdoors (even though I had to be dragged out by my parents and drag my own children out now!) I enjoyed physical education at school and looked out of the classroom window far more than was good for my studies. I learnt about Forest Schools at a time when I felt frustrated by the mainstream; taking the opportunity to go freelance seemed the right thing to do.”

Hannah’s advice for others is passed on from her mother. “Be open to new ideas and experiences. Give something a try and if it doesn’t work out, don’t worry; it’s the trying that’s important. I stuck with jobs that didn’t suit me, resilient in the face of poor management for the sake of the children in my care, until other career stepping stones came along.”  

For young people, assessing and then taking measured risks is an important part of the learning process and for confidence-building.  For Hannah there is no less risk attached to her current venture, but no less reward either. It seems that the excitement of leaving a cosy and relatively stable career path behind is, in fact, the attraction of taking the route ahead.

Follow Hannah and the Nurture by Nature Forest School at

How are Hannah and Nurture by Nature doing in April 2016? Find out

Hannah was in the 2013-14 cohort of learners with the School for Social Entrepreneurs on
the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme at the Eastern Enterprise Hub in

Cash mob happy

IMG_2398[In 2016] December 3 is Small Business Saturday ( What better way to support local independent retailers than to organise a cash mob. ‘What’s one of them?’ I hear you ask, well…

Last spring I learnt that a friend in Bedford had been organising something called a cash mob, I was intrigued. I’d heard of flash mobs and the cash mob idea is equally simple and attention-grabbing. Using social media and  any other networks, you gather a group of people of all ages together at an agreed time and place in your town centre. The group chooses a local independent shop and, minutes later, mob members descend on the lucky retailer to each spend £5, preferably in cash.

The gains from this simple and fun activity are many. It brings like-minded people together to demonstrate how ordinary people can take direct action to support shops – by spending money in them!  And if you go to the pub afterwards to make new friends and plan another cash mob it’s a further cash injection into the local economy.  The delight of staff in the chosen shop leaves everyone feeling warm inside – as little as 10 minutes after first meeting up if just want to dip in and out.  It’s a ‘good news story’ for the local papers and press publicity before and after the cash mob helps recruit mob members. To those who regularly complain in letters to local newspapers about car parking charges, empty shops, and the slow death of the high street while happily spending in the supermarket giants, it sends out a clear message – don’t complain, do something!

In Royston, we ended up organising three cash mobs – the first three in Hertfordshire – with around 6 weeks between each one. A sweetshop, stationers, market stalls, and local pub were the main beneficiaries with a total of over 100 people each spending £5 or more. A couple of add-ons to the event described above were the feedback forms we left in the shops to tell them what we each liked about them and to make suggestions for improvements. Also a deal with other independent retailers and cafes to make special ‘today only’ offers to cash mobbers – increasing cash mob participation and benefitting a wider range of local outlets.

[For more about the Royston cash mobs go to What are you waiting for – start planning!]

[ ] = updated information 22.4.16

You’ve heard of NEETs – what about NIPPERs?

I dislike the acronym NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) for two reasons – firstly it de-humanises young people when they probably most need to be valued and secondly, the people who use it tend to assume the rest of us know what it means!

Well, with tongue a little bit in cheek, I’d like to introduce you to NIPPERs – men who are Not In Permanent Paid Employment or Retired.

Bishops Castle March 2012 009I’m talking about men aged 50+ – an age group defined as ‘older’ by policy-makers but in reality these are people who are just getting into their stride. And, of course, you probably know people who are years younger but ‘act old’. Interestingly, there’s research in Finland suggesting that 51 (yes – that precise) is the age at which our ‘work ability’ changes.

A NIPPER getting into his stride >>>

The NIPPERs who have most to gain from The Repair Shed I’m developing in Hemel Hempstead (details elsewhere on this site) may be getting over difficulties associated with bereavement, unemployment, retirement, divorce, estrangement from family, moving to a new home. But it’s also about prevention as well as cure.

‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing’                         George Bernard Shaw

NIPPERs still have a love of life, or maybe they’re trying re-gain it. We know from the New Economics (NEF) ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ research how keeping learning and being active is important NIPPERs like doing things with their hands as well as their heads – making, mending, learning – and having fun.

We also know from NEF about the importance of being connected and in control. For myself, I’m hoping that NIPPERs will want to be part of a Repair Shed led by the men themselves. I have a vision of a place where like-minded men will eagerly work together in a spirit of mutual respect and friendship. Will this happen? Who knows.

In the meantime, I might try out the term NIPPER on would-be members of The Repair Shed. That generation might like to be associated with the idea of a nipper – wily, streetwise, energetic, open-minded and eager to learn. I’ll let you know what they say, and do let me know what you think.

And if you know of a NIPPER in south west Herts (it could be you?) who would like to know more about The Repair Shed, send them to me Chris Lee

7 steps from asking to earning

IMG_2411Are you in an organisation think about earning, or maybe you’re doing so already and feel a little uncomfortable? Charities and other voluntary sector organisations are increasingly being cajoled down the income-generating route – to make up for shortfalls in grant funding. But trading (which many describe as social enterprise) isn’t for everyone and it certainly shouldn’t be entered into without careful consideration.

Before you start to think about business plans and legal structures, here are just seven (of many) considerations to help you assess whether pro-actively integrating earned income into your funding mix is right for you.

In no particular order (the route from asking to earning is not a linear one anyway)…

Get comfortable with the idea of making a profit

Money-making is a mindset not a dirty, hyphenated, couple of words. If you think that everything should be given away free to make it as accessible as possible, you’re probably not going to feel comfortable with trading.

But on price and access, Ian Bruce, founder of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at the Cass Business School in London, argues that the low-cost/ no-cost route can, in fact, exclude more people than it includes. If your principled approach puts you out of business everyone loses, whereas a charging regime with affordable prices may sustain services for at least some.

This is not to say that all goods and services provided for people in need should be charged at cost-price, or any price for that matter – it’s not a matter of ‘if it moves, put a price on it’. I believe some services, rape crisis centres come to mind, should always be subsidised by the state, and others eg mental health counselling providers should charge according to ability to pay. So there would be an element of cross-subsidy with one group of service-users paying more, so others can pay less. And providers should make no apology about this scale of charges; indeed, it should be openly publicised!

Understand cost, price and value

A former banker I know, now a financial adviser of charities, social enterprises and other small businesses, is convinced that most voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations pay too much for the goods and services they buy, and charge too little for those they sell.  They pay catalogue prices (no negotiation) and invariably under-value (indirect and direct costs plus margin) their own enterprise.

Does that include you?

There’s a business principle that if your customers want a service that’s good, quick and cheap, they can have two out of three, but not all three. VCS organisations are keen to please and try to achieve all three but, unless you’re very smart and/or big, you’re unlikely to be able to make the figures add up.

‘Better not cheaper’ is a more sustainable mantra than ‘more for less’ – despite pressure from commissioners. And the story behind your products and services will almost always give you more of an edge over your competitors than price. Wearing your values on your organisational sleeve may also help to differentiate you from other providers.

Ensure your mission and money-making are compatible

At the most basic level, this is about checking that your constitution allows you trade. And make sure you know what charity law says about trading (many say, incorrectly, that being a charity means you can’t trade and can’t make a profit)

I’ve already alluded to my belief that the state should always pay for some services. We should not be letting government ‘off the hook’ but, conversely, I think some activities should always be charged for at some level by the consumer.

I would include voluntary sector training in this category; past provision of free training has, I believe, undermined the perceived value of adult learning – witness the tendency of some to book on free courses and then simply not turn up.

Don’t be seduced by the hype

While social enterprise – trading with a social purpose – has been around for decades (some would argue for over 160 years since the foundation of the co-operative movement) some, including grant funders and particularly local authorities, behave as though it is new and sparkling and something that we should all be doing.

Certainly, it’s a good idea to be aware of the options and implications for your organisation of going down the earned income route, but make an informed decision – making money from selling is not easy.

More recently there’s been an ongoing debate about the status of the ‘social entrepreneur’ which some automatically equate with someone who’s involved in social enterprise. In some circles, such people are feted as being dynamic and edgy with a licence to do their own thing. This is an exaggeration of course, but social entrepreneurs should be expected to take others with them if the entrepreneurial ethos is to be embedded in the organisation.

Know your competition

In the business world, this is about knowing who provides similar goods and services to you and you deciding that you can better their offering. In the charity world, this may be about identifying areas of duplication with other organisations. Where such overlap exists you may decide that they’re doing a better job and your specific expertise lies elsewhere. Or you might partner up with them – to collaborate rather than compete – increasing your capacity without losing your identity.

More broadly, you need to be aware of all the competition for the attention of your key audiences. A choir rehearsing on a Tuesday evening in winter, for example, is not competing with other choirs, the competition is anything which is more attractive than a cold draughty church – watching a TV at home in front of a fire perhaps.

Get real – have you got what it takes?

Passion about your cause is important, but it’s no replacement for having a good business brain, a head for figures, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a willingness to take assessed risks.

As a business model, not-for-private- profit trading has built in business disadvantages. You’re usually providing something others don’t, employing people others won’t and locating in places others don’t. These reason they don’t do this is because it won’t make them any money!

Can you answer the Why – What – Who  questions?

Why? – there are good reasons to earn income: it’s unrestricted; in connects you with your service-users in a way that a free service doesn’t. It can bring skills such as tighter financial management to the whole organisation that can help sustainability. However, will it generate the right kind of income for your needs – will it be enough, reliable, and are you really committed to the idea of selling goods and services?

What? Have you got something, which others don’t, to offer for sale at a price actual or potential customers can afford, or that someone else is willing to pay for on their behalf? Remember that your competitive edge may not be price, but people must have a reason for coming to you rather than the competition or making do without if your service or product is not essential.

Who? This is about your team – paid and unpaid. Who have you got to work on the trading activity within your organisation? Have they got the skills and the mindset to give income generation your best shot?

US business writer Michael Gerber believes a successful small business has three essential roles: the ‘entrepreneur’ with the ideas and vision; the ‘technician’ happy to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in; and the ‘manager’ that brings it all together. Assuming you don’t have all three skills in one person, do you have a team with that mix and a commitment to make the journey from asking to earning?        


A beginner’s guide to crowdfunding

IMG_2528And that beginner is me!

When I first heard about crowdfunding several years ago it caught my imagination. As someone with a background in marketing and social enterprise I love the idea of pitching an idea to individuals to grab their attention and get lots of them to ‘invest’ (yes – I do think crowd-giving is different from making a donation) relatively small amounts of their money to help turn the idea into action. With it being done mainly online, it requires real communication skills – very little time to make your case etc.

Using social media allows you to reach thousands of people at very low-cost – assuming you have online access to your own and other people’s networks – and this adds to the appeal of this one-to-one approach. Equally important for me is the potential to sustain a more personal relationship with your investors after the crowdfunding campaign is over.

Since first hearing about crowdfunding, I’ve invested in two projects – to publish a book on timebanking ( details via ) and support a short documentary film project ( are the filmmakers). Both reached their targets and I’m now hoping to emulate their success by crowdfunding an element of my social enterprise start-up – The Repair Shed (details elsewhere on this blog site – and watch this space for updates!)

I’ve now become an ‘overnight armchair expert’ in crowdfunding largely thanks to an excellent workshop by Anne Strachan at [declared interest – I worked with Anne many years ago when I had hair and a beard]. I also have a nodding relationship (they nod off when I start talking to them…) with a couple of the people behind – one of many crowdfunding platforms to choose from.  [Note: under the crowdfunding umbrella there’s crowd-investing, crowd-lending, and crowd-giving. I’m only talking about crowd-giving here.]

So what lessons have I learnt so far about achieving crowdfunding success?

It’s a lot of hard work! The crowdfunding platform provider will give you the benefit of their experience and expertise and the technology behind the process (for which they charge a commission of around 5%) but the success or otherwise of the campaign, as we experts call it, is down to you. Some crowdfunders have described it as a full time job and Anne Strachan estimates that when the campaign goes live (most are 30 – 90 days, but research suggests 30 – 45 days works best) you’ll need to spend 2 -4 hours a day to manage and refresh the promotional push.

Don’t do it all by yourself: Build your team. Think of those ‘friends, family and fools’ who traditionally fund small business start-ups and invite them to donate their time rather than money – particularly if they’ve got specific and relevant expertise and contacts eg in media promotion and video-making. It’s also important that team members are willing to use their social networks to spread the word.    

Be realistic about success: All the real crowdfunding experts I’ve spoken to manage expectations around the likelihood of reaching target sums, quoting success rates of 40 -50%. However… of 407 projects accepted by big US crowdfunding platform Kickstarter when they launched in the UK in October 2012, only 30 reached their funding target – that’s little more than 7%! Maybe this is because Kickstarter is a big hitter and most projects are small fish in a big pond?

Set a realistic funding target: What’s realistic? Check out the many crowdfunding platforms to see what sorts of sums are being sought and achieved for proposals that are comparable with yours. More generally, learn from other crowdfunders – many are willing to share their experiences (good and bad).

Note – in most cases, like in Dragons Den, if you don’t raise the full amount in a specified time you don’t get anything (but nor, in most cases, do you have to pay any commission to the crowdfunding platform providers). Bear in mind you can ‘aim low’ while you cut your teeth on crowdfunding and then increase your targets as you learn the ropes, so becoming a ‘serial crowdfunder’.

So you need to have time to invest upfront with no guarantee of success – just like with conventional fundraising.

More specifically – assuming there are 3 elements in a crowdfunding campaign – the idea, the crowd, the promotion (including pitch and online campaign) this is what I’ve learnt so far about each element…

The idea:

Your crowdfunding idea needs to have a beginning and end: People need to know what success will look like – which is why book publishing and film making is so suitable – they’re quite tangible. This means you wouldn’t pitch a social enterprise start-up in its entirety, but it could be a discrete, definable part of that start-up process.

It’s about love not money:  Mark Kelly, keyboard player with the ‘original crowdfunders ’ – rock band Marillion – believes your project has to be something people believe in and get excited about. There’s a reward system associated with crowd-giving but unless you’re Marillion – see link to film clip below – the idea and other factors, such as a personal connections, are likely to be more important than the reward.

The crowd:

It’s all about networks and warm relationships: You need to warm up all your contacts before (for as long as two months in advance some suggest), during and after the campaign goes live. Importantly, you must maintain contact with those who have pledged their support – they are your advocates to bring in additional support through their networks.  It may be you go back to existing supporters for a final push if you’re just short of your target as it gets to the deadline.

It’s about getting personal: Anne Strachan suggests you should expect to get 40% of your total from your personal social networks, after that it’s friend’s networks and, maybe, friends of friends. I’ve read a statistic that, on average, only 20% of your social media contacts will forward your posts to their networks.

Marillion crowdfund albums and concert tours from their fans – an extended family? Mark Kelly says they can only do this by building trust. This is a good reason to ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ in what you say you’ll do with the money (and the rewards on offer) – if you disappoint you’ll probably lose support forever.

The promotion:

Think why people will support your proposal. Your idea must appeal – a good story, captures the imagination etc – but the most likely reasons people will invest will be personal  connections eg through family or local interest. Don’t forget what Mark Kelly said about trust.

The pitch is key: This is usually an (average) 2 minute film which, in reality, has to grab the viewer in the first 30 seconds. You are inviting people to literally buy-in to your story – so it needs to be well told and have credibility – that it’s an achievable and viable idea. [Tip – look on crowdfunding pitches for projects that have exceeded their target amounts]

People won’t go looking for your pitch: However good your filmed pitch (and notwithstanding an online celebrity endorsement or the film going viral) you will need to drive people to it. Except for crowd-investing, people don’t go trawling crowdfunding platforms looking for good ideas to support. Off line promotion to social networks is important alongside online use of social media.

Keep your campaign fresh: You’ll need a lot of pre-planning to identify different and relevant hooks on which to hang your publicity – to sustain interest and momentum through the 30 -45 day live period.

The rewards are relatively unimportant: With crowd-giving, you would plan to offer rewards as a ‘thank you’ for different levels of support but these will probably not make or break the success of your campaign; other factors are likely to be more important. The rewards should be relevant to the project proposal and their perceived value can be higher than the actual value eg exclusivity for big-givers. The story of how Marillion have crowdfunded so successfully is told in this film clip – well worth watching and note the great rewards on offer!

In conclusion…

Success in crowdfunding depends on: the strength of your idea; the quality of the pitch; the strength of your (online) social networks; your team – to help spread the load and sustain the promotional effort to more people. But remember, crowdfunding is only part of the picture…

 “ If failing on Kickstarter is the end of your project, then really you should never have started it in the first place” Tudor Davies, raised only £4,000 of £12,000 target to fund a bike light that illuminates the rider as well as the road, but his business is now going from strength to strength.

Further information: See Anne Strachan’s blog on timing, why people donate, measuring success, and an excellent A – Z of crowdfunding tips

Can volunteers run a sustainable business?

7 years ago, before the financial crash, I developed a theory (shared only with a couple of people who politely suggested I do something useful with my time) that you might be able to assess the sustainability of an organisation by the ratio of paid to unpaid work being done there on a regular basis.

I was suggesting that the higher the ratio of paid to unpaid work (embracing unpaid overtime by staff as well as volunteer input), the higher the potential sustainability of that organisation.  In other words, paid workers were essential to the success of organisations providing goods and/or services not least because, unlike volunteers, they had a legal obligation to turn up to work whether they wanted to or not.

A blog I wrote a couple of years ago shows my more recent thinking on this theme at,-social-enterprise-and-sustainability

Fast forward from 2006 to the present and the radically changed economic and political climate in which we’re working has forced me to rethink my theory and turn it on its head!

??????????????????????????My new theory is that the degree to which unpaid workers run an organisation may be a barometer of its potential for sustainability ie more unpaid = more sustainable. Holding down staffing costs (usually the biggest cost in any enterprise) should make it less vulnerable to squeezes on funding and finance.

Keeping the organisation going by balancing the books is, of course, no direct measure of its effectiveness and social impact.

In 14 years of advice-giving to, and learning from, social enterprises of all shapes, ages and stages I’ve argued that you can’t sustain a business entirely run by volunteers; that goodwill towards a cause, however worthy, is not enough.

In the coming 12 months I’m planning to test out my new theory by running an environmental social enterprise – The Repair Shed (see information elsewhere on this blog site) – with members who will be unpaid. That said, I’m planning that they’ll be rewarded with time credits – a community currency (ref my past in community timebanking) – but not with cash.

Will it work? Do share your views and watch this space!

The perfect pitch

IMG_2909At our first gathering at the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich we had lots of opportunities to practise our ‘elevator pitches’ for our social ventures. By design, the folks at SSE East had us describing our enterprises on four separate occasions. Bear in mind we’d already had to give 2 and 5-minute pitches to get on the course itself, so are we now experts?

Well, I don’t think we’re quite there yet; and that pitch does matter. In my one-day marketing communications workshops, I have a ‘first impressions’ section. Whether we like it or not, we never get a second chance to make a first impression. A bit clichéd maybe, but true.

The plaque below this statue of Aristotle Onassis says “Men have to construct their own destiny.”      The same applies to your pitch – make it yours; people will listen if you believe what you’re saying.

In pairs, I invite learners to ‘sell their organisation’ to a would-be funder in an imaginary coffee queue. They then introduce their partner’s organisation  to the whole group (without using notes) and we reflect on what sticks; what creates a lasting impression. They have 2 minutes each in the workshop scenario, but the first 30 seconds (or someone recently suggested 140 characters if it’s in print) is probably the actual time we have to grab someone’s attention.

So what’s makes a good pitch?

I believe that the ‘why’ and ‘how well’ elements (outcomes and impact) are relatively more important than the ‘what’ (outputs). Yet when I ask people to describe their organisations, they nearly always start by talking about products and services, rather than describing the difference they make to people’s lives.

[A tip – if you want to encourage your stakeholders to become your advocates, give them a few postcard profiles of your clients/ customers. Describe the issues those people had when they came to you, how you supported them, and where they are now]

The best pitch I’ve ever heard was from Paul Watkinson, founder of social enterprise Working Herts which, sadly, no longer exists. When I asked Paul what Working Herts was about, he said:

 “We recruit young people who’ve been abandoned by the school system. In 20 weeks we train them to provide a world class service, they save lives and, 6 months after leaving us 60% of them get jobs.” [Just 163 characters!]

He still hadn’t told me Working Herts’s business (and the name didn’t give anything away). But I was impressed by the ‘world class service’ and ‘saving lives’ bits, and their obvious employment successes. In fact, they were training young people how to insulate houses – preventing the death of older people through hyperthermia – which explains that life-saving outcome.

But as Paul explained, “we weren’t training house insulators, we were training young people for the world of work, instilling a sense of pride in doing a good job – providing a world class service”. I don’t know why Working Herts isn’t still… er… working – it deserved to thrive.

Clearly having a great pitch is not enough.