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On 22 March 2012 - 7:53am



There’s much talk at the moment in the world of social business, innovation and investment about the need to create a thriving ecosystem. I understand that to mean an environment within which the social ventures that we want to encourage are best able to start up and grow.

All sounds good. I assume the kind of thing we mean when we talk about an ecosystem includes effective, responsive business support, appropriate finance and, in general terms, a supportive environment within which to do social business.

Our business, Social Business Brokers CIC, supports people to set up and run social ventures. We do that, primarily, by working with people to explore ideas, get set up and keep on going. Traditionally third parties (such as Local Authorities) have paid us to offer free support to whoever they want to encourage.

We think most of the time we do good stuff. But in the last twelve months we found ourselves becoming increasingly restless. We were conscious that it was becoming ever-more difficult to do good quality work. Existing contracts demanded more outcomes for less money. New bits of work were increasingly elusive. And whilst we did good stuff, and got lots of nice feedback from people we worked with, we weren’t satisfied. We knew, deep down, that we weren’t having as much positive impact as we could be.

So we came up with a bit of a plan. We decided to try out a few different ways of supporting social ventures. The big idea was to focus on a series of specific social issues. Previously we’d worked with just about anyone and everyone who had a social enterprise idea. We thought focusing a bit more – specialising perhaps – might help.

So we identified a few issues:

that we felt could benefit from some innovative, socially enterprising thinking
that we knew a bit about/could quickly learn about
that we thought had potential for developing sustainable social ventures
that we cared about
that other people seemed to care about too

We started with empty homes. We’d read about the 15,000 empty homes in Leeds. We’d seen George Clarke on the telly. We knew 27,000 people were on Council waiting lists. So after a bit of thinking we came up with our Call To Action – an attempt to bring together all the people in Leeds – innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, funders, door-openers, encouragers – who could help us to make a significant dent in the number of long-term empty homes in Leeds.

The response was overwhelming. I can honestly say that in all the time I’ve supported social businesses I’ve never experienced such a positive response. People cared about the issue – but they also seemed to like the approach. And it’s created a real buzz around empty homes that, we reckon, could help us to stimulate approaches which will see hundreds more Leeds homes brought back into use.

There’s lots more to do. We need to make sure we get all the right people at the Call To Action – and we need to do work to make sure that Leeds is the best city in the country for doing up empty homes. And then we need to encourage sustainable social ventures to develop.

The aim is that we’ll get paid for doing this kind of work – identifying a social issue – understanding it – stimulating interest in it – bringing the right people together – and then making things happen. But this is where it starts to get complicated…..

Because the big question is: who will pay? Our theory is that we identify a key stakeholder or stakeholders for each social issue – people who want to see significant progress on solving that particular social problem. We ask them to pay us for doing the kind of creative stuff that we’ve outlined above. We think that theory is a good one. But up to now it’s just a theory. Because no-one’s stumped up any cash yet.

Things might change in the next couple of weeks. We’re looking for sponsors for the Call To Action. We’re charging a small fee for people to come along (next time we’ll charge more). And we’re talking to some people who might put in some cash. But I wouldn’t bet my house on us being successful – because, as you all know, money is very tight.

Money is tight, and there also appears to be a reluctance for anyone to pay for business support at the moment. Conversations with people who know more about the world of social investment than I do suggest that it’s hard to work out who will pay for the “social venture intermediaries” – the people like us. Investors would prefer most of their cash to go to the people they want to invest in. New ventures aren’t always the best source of income either. And whilst we’re open to the idea of taking equity stakes in new businesses we support, that feels like a long-term income source. Or maybe a form of payment on the never-never.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone owes me a living. But I also think that what we do matters. In setting up our social enterprise we’ve each taken a fair amount of personal financial risk -primarily doing lots of speculative work in the hope of future success. The hundreds of hours we’ve put into empty homes so far have all been unpaid. That was our decision, and we’re fine with that – but you can only do that for so long.

We’ve given ourselves till the summer. I think there’s every chance that our Empty Homes Call To Action will help us work out how to make a big difference supporting social ventures – whilst also making money. But I also think there’s a good chance that no-one will think that this particular Leeds-based social venture intermediary is worth putting significant money into. We’ll see.