Monthly Archives: December 2014

Men’s Sheds and bird boxes

IMG_4008Men’s Sheds are a vehicle to connect older men to like-minded people and the wider community bringing proven benefits in physical and mental wellbeing. How they do this varies greatly.

Despite there being over 1,000 Men’s Sheds in Australia and 200 in Ireland, with the UK catching up fast,  there is no typical Shed. Each aims to harness the resources of the particular locality to meet the needs of the men within it.

Just as Channel 4 TV’s ‘Shed of the Year’ awards stretches the definition of a shed, so too does the Men’s Shed movement. ‘Sheds’ in the East of England for example, include a former mortuary in Maldon, space in a community arts centre in Bedford, and a church building in Ipswich.

The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead occupies part of a warehouse and workshop space at the Hemel Food Garden – a horticultural social enterprise run by charity Sunnyside Rural Trust which works with learning-disabled adults to grow bedding plants under contract to Dacorum Borough Council.

Sheds, enterprise…

Making, mending and learning are three broad areas identified for income-generation in Hemel Hempstead. With a strong environmental emphasis on waste prevention, the plan is for the Repair Shed to turn reclaimed materials into functional items, for example furniture made from wooden pallets. An affordable repair service will run alongside free community repair events at which owners learn how to fix their broken items themselves. More formal learning by and for Repair Shed members – in repair, re-use and DIY skills – will be developed into paid-for training courses and one-off workshops for the wider community.

The Repair Shed itself aspires to be financially self-sufficient through selling goods and services, but it’s too early to know whether social enterprise is a route to a sustainable funding model. Elsewhere, the idea of income-generation and running a business operation doesn’t appeal to all Sheds.

Some Shed members like the continuity of structure, targets and plans – tapping into their commercial skills and experience – particularly when seeking to get back into employment. Others come to a Shed to get away from the stress of a business-oriented environment as Andy Wood, who helped set up the Norwich Men’s Shed, explains: “Making things to sell or offering paid-for services will be part of our business plan, but we are aware that this may cause pressure on participants to produce, which, in our view, would defeat the purpose of the project”.

… and bird boxes

That said, most Sheds do make things – whether for sale or for the satisfaction of being creative. Bird boxes are bread and butter for many Sheds – easy to make, great gifts for all ages in kit form or made-up, and a ‘nice little earner’ as Del Boy might say. At the new Maldon Shed it’s early days, but Bob Adams reports: “We have already been commissioned to make bird & bat boxes by Essex Wildlife Trust, and a few local pubs have asked us to make some flower troughs.” When the Men’s Shed in Aylesbury started, the group used bird box making as a team-building activity, making 75 in the weeks before Christmas and selling two thirds of them on a market stall before the festivities began.

The challenge of balancing ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ activity, recognised by many social enterprises, is well illustrated by the recent bird box experience of another Buckinghamshire Men’s Shed, in Milton Keynes. A commission to make 150 bird boxes looks like good business but, for men not paid to join a production line, the loss of creativity that comes with making even 10 boxes can turn a hobby into a chore.

For more on Men’s Sheds around the UK go to

Beyond funding

IMG_2377I’m sure you’ve done a bit of day-dreaming in your time about how you’d spend £1M if you won the lottery.

I avoid such speculation (mainly because I don’t do the lottery) but I do imagine from time to time what I’d do if I had an unlimited amount on money to invest in my current ‘good cause’ whatever that may be.

Interestingly, it’s not as easy an exercise as you might think (try it yourself…) even though most not-for-private-profit organisations seem to be fixated about money.

While concern about ‘the bottom line’ is sensible of course, I sometimes think that money, and the responsibility that comes with spending other people’s, gets in the way of organisational success. It’s the old conundrum – being too busy fundraising to do the work for which you’re fundraising!

Which is why I’m looking at non-financial resources for organisational success below, and at a training day at the end of February.

What makes an organisation sustainable?

Years ago I came across a brilliant toolkit which explored what it takes to make an organisation sustainable (note: there was a separate list for financial sustainability). Their recipe for success included…

  • having a clear strategic direction
  • being able to scan the environment to identify opportunities
  • being able to attract, manage and retain competent staff
  • having adequate administrative and financial systems
  • being able to demonstrate effectiveness and impact to attract resources
  • getting community support for, and involvement in, the organisation’s work

How does your organisation stack up in these areas? Be honest now.

Being a train…

Worth re-visiting the Gina Negus (founder, The Projects Company) analogy of viewing your organisation as a train – firmly on track, destination ahead down the line, resources fuel the journey, all on board travelling in the same direction, in control of the speed and direction of travel.

Is your organisation a train or an octopus (drifting, reaching out in all directions, just ’going with the flow’)?

The power of people

Online: I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I love the fact that (along with the rest of the universe of course!) I can now communicate with thousands of others easily, affordably and, if it’s done well, effectively. But it also brings what Adrian Ashton describes as ‘faux companionship’ that has a place in reducing isolation but, in my opinion, is no substitute for ‘face-to-face’.  For me the ideal blend is using the arm’s length facility to make things happen face-to-face*  In your organisation do you use social media effectively?

Offline: Here’s another question for you. If your organisation was threatened with closure, which 10, 20, 30, 40 people (that’s 100 in total) would you contact first for support? Applying the pareto principle [that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your contacts] which 100 of your 500 best contacts are the most important for your organisation’s survivial? The list could include your local newspaper editor, the printer who gives you extended credit, or maybe your frontline staff – the people who greet visitors and answer the phone – and an ever-dependable volunteer.

If you don’t already know who these people – your VIPs – are, find out and make 2015 the year you really look after your greatest assets!

If you’re interested in exploring these and other non-financial routes to sustainability and success, join me for a training day at the end of February. Details at and book now for a 10% early bird discount before the end of 2014!

*More about online and face-to-face communication at

Adrian Ashton’s (social) entrepreneurs A-Z

Adrian AshtonIt’s all Chris Lee and Liam Black’s fault.

If they hadn’t started their ‘entrepreneur’s A to Z’s, I’d have happily sailed on, but something like that, to someone like me… well, you can see from Chris’ blog where he published his A-Z that I was compelled to offer some kind of ‘harsh truth’ alternative. And then he asked me nicely if I’d do my own social entrepreneurs’ A-Z, based on my own experiences of being a micro enterprise these last 9 years, and supporting countless others over the last 3 decades….

So here it is – a no-holds barred, ‘what they don’t tell you about what it’ll be like’ A-Z of being a (social) entrepreneur. And I’ll probably change my mind about most of these after Chris has posted them up, but nothing lasts forever, so here’s my alphabet for now:

A – anxiety; this is natural. Best to medicate symptoms with beer and cake.

B – bluster and bravado; people will take you more seriously the more confident you sound, so don’t be so British: be more American in how to present and promote yourself!

C – coffee; there’ll be many late nights. And even longer weekends, so make sure there’s always plenty in the kitchen.

D – denial; you’ll deal with a lot of this in your clients. Brush up on your diplomacy with them.

E – eggs; they’re good for you. Eat healthy. You’ll thank me for that later.

F – fooling around; don’t forget to try and have fun in what you do. It you wanted a boring job, you should have got that job stacking shelves in a supermarket.

G – goosebumps; there’ll be moments of such excitement when you realise you’ve pulled off what you thought wasn’t possible within the laws of this universe. Enjoy them, revel in them, and encourage others with stories about them.

H – hype and spin; there’s a lot from sector bodies and politicians. Learn how to spot it, and how to ignore it.

I – internet and social media; a wonderful source of faux companionship, and also of filling those odd bits of time between meetings and other things.

J – jumping through other people’s hoops; you can choose not to, but then you won’t get any paying work. Choose your hoops carefully…

K – kleptomania; keep your stationery supplies topped up by taking the free pens, etc from exhibitors and conferences

L – lies, damned lies, and statistics; you’ll start out wondering how anyone can behave apparently completely dishonestly in their dealings with you. If you’re not careful, you’ll eventually start to turn into them…

M – money; you can never have enough, and you often won’t have enough. As much as you wish you could get through this world on love and fresh air, someone’s got to pay to keep the lights on.

N – naughtiness; get into trouble – it’s the best way to get noticed and create impact (and you can always apologise later…)

O – opportunistic; grab chances where you see them – they’ll probably not come around again for some time…

P – pubs; you won’t see the inside of these as much as you used to/would like to.

Q – questions; people don’t asked enough of them, especially about (sometimes questionable) advice they’re offered from ‘expert advisers’

R – research; you can never do enough: keep learning about everything or you’ll quickly be surpassed by others.

S – stories; in the end we’re all stories. Make sure yours is a good one.

T – time travel; you’ll wish you had this to cope with shifting deadlines by clients.

U – universe; the universe is a big place – don’t forget that: it might help keep things in perspective.

V – values; know what you stand for, what you’re willing to compromise on, and where you’re not happy to go: once you’re out there, it’s easy to drift into ‘bad habits’ otherwise…

W – wives (and other types of spouse); you’ll spend less time with them, so make sure when you do, that they know they have your full attention.

X – xenophobia; don’t avoid outsiders – they’ll often be more interesting and challenging to your ideas (and therefore success) that you usual crowd of mates will be.

Y – yellow snow; never eat this. And never overlook the value of advice and support that also reflects common sense – it’s a rare commodity.

Z – zoos; sometimes you’ll be the zookeeper, sometimes the animal being expected to perform. Remember that both have their place, and neither can flourish without the other.

Thank you Adrian

For other A- Zs, go to and

Testing the patient’s patience – customer care lessons from a brush with the NHS

NHStressI was recently referred by my GP to a big, fairly-local hospital for an ‘urgent appointment’ defined as one within two weeks.

The Health Centre’s referral letter included information about why I’d been referred urgently to the hospital. The explanation included ‘The two week appointment system was introduced so that any patient with symptoms that might indicate cancer, or a serious condition, could be seen be seen by a specialist as quickly as possible.’ It reassured me that it didn’t mean I had cancer but that ‘early diagnosis and early access to treatment is shown to improve health outcomes’.

Customer care lesson 1 – Giving clear information in unemotional language is generally a good policy but, just as you can’t help think about blue elephants if someone tells you not to think about blue elephants, it does get the customer/ patient thinking…

Customer care lesson 2 – If you flag something up as ‘fast-track’ and ‘urgent’ and say that having an appointment within two weeks is ‘very important’ – your subsequent customer service should reflect that sense of urgency (without panic of course) for reassurance if nothing else.

When it comes to health, people, particular men, are as likely to be panicked into inaction as action!

10 calls on 6 different numbers…

So the day after receiving my referral letter, I phoned the number given to make my ‘urgent appointment’. I’m told I can only call between 2pm and 4.30pm, and when I do phone – and on four occasions after that – I get a recorded message asking me to leave my details and they will get back to me.

I leave my details on three separate dates over the next 10 days without response and call the Health Centre (the number on the referral letter having referred  me to a second Health Centre number) to ask for advice.

I’m given the main switchboard at the hospital and the switchboard gives me two new numbers to try (note: they don’t transfer me). I call the first of the two numbers to be told that the number the Health Centre gave me is not recognised by the overworked-sounding-voice I talk to and he eventually establishes that I’m even then on the wrong number because I’m a new patient.

Customer care lesson 3 – If you build up goodwill by having human beings on the end of a telephone line you need to make sure those people give the impression they’re bothered about you, and are enabled to give accurate information. Otherwise that customer/ patients goodwill goes up in a puff of smoke – and it takes a lot of effort to claw it back.

And finally…

I’m given another new number (the sixth) and finally speak to someone who cannot locate my referral details but takes my number to call me back. I get a voicemail about an hour later telling me ‘we cannot give you a date, we’ll call you when we have additional dates for the clinic.’

Customer care lesson 4 – It’s the old marketing adage ‘under-promise and over-provide’. Try to make it as easy as possible for your customer to get an average service, then surprise and delight them by exceeding their expectations.

I’ve always suspected the NHS is in crisis (no fault of the majority of health professionals who work in it – my wife is one of them!) but my recent experience is in danger of confirming that conclusion.

In a day, the ‘two week timeframe for an appointment’ (and I think this is two weeks for being seen, rather than getting a date to be seen) will be up. I hope what it fast turning into a health scare story has a happy ending.

For a blog with further lessons in customer care, go to

The three letter word

IMG_6116Is it me, or is there something just plain wrong with describing a group of people as ‘the poor’ ‘the rich’ ‘the disabled’ ‘the young’ etc? That small word – the – relegates any number of individuals to a homogenous blob with all the prejudice that dehumanisation implies.

We know from recent events with a Labour MP that trying to stick sections of society into boxes can be at best inaccurate and at worst plain offensive.

To me even describing a group as ‘poor people’, ‘rich people’, ‘disabled people’ is much preferable. And while I’m on the subject…

At 59, I have a thing about being plonked in a group called ‘the old’. It has all sorts of connotations – perpetuated by the media and wider society – that are alien to me and I imagine most others in the 50+ age group (which is what I understand policy wonks define as ‘older’) Note: I’m quite happy to be described as ‘older’ – it’s accurate if you’re comparing me to someone younger and, to me, it doesn’t have the same baggage.

There may be some valid reasons for needing to categorise groups of people – so-called segmentation has been very much a part of my 35 years in not-for-profit marketing – but, when looking for common characteristics, we try to be a bit sophisticated in how we do this.

And before anyone suggests I’m just being a grumpy old git, I take exception to that description as well – I’m not grumpy!