Is volunteering the new exploitation?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Another great conversation that emerged at the Shine 2010 unconference was about the nature of volunteering. I think we just assume that volunteering is a force for good and is about people being generous with their time and skills for the benefit of others. I mean what could possibly be wrong with that?

Doug Richards from the School for Start-ups suggested a very different way of looking at volunteering. He argued that asking people to provide labour for free is simply exploitation. That if a social business is genuinely trading then it should pay people for their labour and incorporate their costs in the price of the goods or service. His final parting shot on the subject is that "working for free is a hobby not a job".

I think there is something to this point of view. If the driver for a charity or particularly a social enterprise for using volunteers is that they can't afford to pay people then it means they are admitting that they cannot compete with other organisations. If a competitor's product or service is so much better than yours and the only way you can compete is by using free labour, then you do not have a sustainable position in the market. If we criticise firms that use sweat-shop labour as being unethical, shouldn't we apply the same standards of criticism to those who pay their workers nothing.

This isn't criticising the motivation or altruism of people who want to give their time for free but the lack of aspiration of the organisations that accept it. If you are a charity and using free labour is the only way of plugging a deficit in your funding, then I have some sympathies but I think this should be challenged in anyone who aspires to be a social enterprise.


Profit isn't evil - get over it

The interesting thing about social enterprise is that everyone asumes that we are talking about the same thing until a question arises that sharply divides them into various camps. There was such a question at the Shine unconference this morning and that question was "Is profit evil"?

Because within the social enterprise community are charities, voluntary groups and social businesses; some totally dependent on grants, some that genuinely trade and some that make considerable profits. For my money grants are simply donations from rich people or rich organisations and whilst they sometimes generate social good they are not sustainable. Grant income is simply a 21st-century version of medieval patronage and is entirely dependent on the whims of the rich. Whilst free money is always nice, it clearly isn't sustainable; which brings us to the idea of profit.

At a purist level, profit is simply the surplus of income over expenditure but for some charitable organisations, the word and the idea carry connotations of the most evil blood-drenched capitalist machines. For those of us at the social business end of the spectrum, profit gives you sustainability, independence and the potential to grow (and therefore massively increase your social and environmental impact). Whilst there may be an emotional (and arguably irrational) reaction to the word "profit", it is really just surplus and if you aren't making a surplus then you are just going out of business slowly.

A much more interesting debate is whether the MAXIMISATION of profit is inherently evil. There is a world-wide track record of organisations who maximise profit by laying off vast quantities of workers, reducing pay and benefits, sourcing from lowest-cost providers, dumping industrial by-products and taking resources from countries that can ill-afford to lose them. If the overriding factor in a company's decision-making is the maximising of profit, it is almost certainly reducing its social and environment impact, if not actively causing social and environmental harm. Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives may be a public-facing sticking plaster over this activity but the scale of it is dwarfed by whatever the core business processes are.

So the really interesting ethical division for businesses is not between those that break-even and those that make profit; but between those that make profit AND social and environmental benefits and those that maximise profit (at the expense of any social and environmental considerations). Depending on which side of that divide you are is a better indicator of whether you are really a social enterprise or a profit-maxising private sector business.


Testing my new iPhone app

Monday, 3 May 2010

In a vain attempt to blog slightly more regularly, I have installed BlogPress on my iPhone. This is my first attempt from it and so far it seems to be working quite well. Of course, when I get my iPad, I suspect that it will be even better :)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


Nursing, politics and social enterprise

Saturday, 10 April 2010

One of the areas I find really interesting is the way that both Labour and Conservative have come out in favour of social enterprises. Not sure where the Liberal Democrats and the other parties are on this subject but whenever parties seem to agree on an issue, they then immediately try and establish battle lines between each other. At the moment, within the overall consensus on social enterprise is a division about a very specific type of social enterprise, namely the “worker co-operative”. This is where staff get together and collectively own an organisation and democratically determine how that organisation will be run and who sits on the board. The Conservatives are advocating more of these in the NHS whilst Labour are arguing against it, even though they have been promoting examples of this as the way forward for community provider services.

So what does all this mean and what’s it got to do with nursing?

To understand that, I think you need to understand two things: where worker co-operatives came from and what nurses hate about the NHS.

So where did worker co-operatives come from? Well although they are now an international movement, they were born in Rochdale, Lancashire about 300 years ago as a way of workers making sure that they had good working conditions, were paid a decent wage and as a direct response to the traditional company owners simply exploiting them to make as much profit as possible. From these roots were born the trade union movement and latterly the Labour Party and there are still Labour Party MPs who are technically members of the Co-operative Party (which joined with labour a few decades ago). So worker co-operatives are a response to workers feeling underpaid, undervalued, disempowered and exploited. The way they work is that every person who works for them has a single vote and these votes are used to democratically elected the governing board and make key decisions about how the organisation is run.

OK, but what do nurses hate about the NHS? The NHS is like family members who quarrel and fight but will defend each other from any attacks from outside. We often spend so long defending the NHS that there is very little attention given to what’s wrong with it and particularly what many nurses experiences are like in the NHS. Staff survey after staff survey shows that nurses are very often treated very poorly by their organisations whether by overt bullying, poor working conditions, lack of support, no training and education opportunities, etc. Having spent much of the last 9 years working with nurses from across the whole NHS, it is common complaint that nurses don’t feel valued or listened to by heir managers and that they feel that their organisations board puts money ahead of clinical care.

I have seen many nurses interested in the idea of worker co-operatives as a direct response to this lack of control, lack of empowerment and poor management practice. At its simplest, it is a way of saying “we think we could run this organisation better than the people who currently do”.

The focus on using social enterprises as a vehicle has drawn up battle lines between the unions and between some of the political parties; and has focussed on the mechanics such as pensions, TUPE (transfer of undertakings legislation), legal structures and whether these new entities represent “the privatisation of the NHS”. What all of these fail to realise is that this is not a response to large-scale economic shifts or changes in political policies but a very local response to how valued and empowered nurses feel. What is striking about talking to nurses who have left the NHS to establish nurse-led social enterprises is not only how much happier and empowered they are but how they are able to improve clinical services the way they also wanted to. Until the NHS gets better at treating its nurses properly then this is a movement which is likely continue whatever party takes control after the election.


Nursing Haikus

Friday, 22 January 2010

I have been working on nursing haikus and here are some of the ones I posted on Twitter:

Bend over, touch toes!
Your first prostate exam may
give you quite a shock

Nursing school Day 1
"Don't accept a grape or sweet
from a patient's hand"

You are on traction
keep hands above the duvet
at all times or else!

Some patients you will
always remember. Like Dot
that poo'd on my head

You've had picolax
don't walk from the commode
or you'll be sorry

Doctors' writing is
like the last series of Lost,
sometimes it makes sense

Renal cholic helps
men understand what childbirth
feels like (probably)

Shaving your own pubes
is always better pre-op
if you are able

Pee in this pot here
to show your current lover
that you care for them

is too many syllables
to use in haiku

A warm smile is like
KY Jelly. It makes nursing
tasks go more smoothly


Why the Skoll World Forum is elitist and anti-social-entrepreneurial

Friday, 8 January 2010

For those who have never come across this, the Skoll World Forum is an annual event that brings together social entrepreneurs around the world to look at supporting international learning and collaboration (or so I thought).

Ever since I set up my first social enterprise 7 years ago (the European Nursing Leadership Foundation), I have been interested in supporting and developing other social entrepreneurs. Initially this was very much driven by how poor my experience was of support organisations but then increasingly by trying to help people avoid the kind of mistakes that I (and many other social entrepreneurs) made in our early days. Since then I have founded other social enterprises and helped dozens of social entrepreneurs along their own journey towards creating their own social enterprises. This has also involved me getting involved regionally (on the boards of SELNET and SEEM) and latterly nationally (as a Council member of the Social Enterprise Coalition). I point this out by way of background and also to explain why I am passionate about social entrepreneurs learning from each other and supporting each other. In fact one of the amazing aspects of the social enterprise world is how open, generous and helpful most social entrepreneurs are towards each other and I think this is a visible expression of the fact that most of us are driven by values which are much more about benefiting others than they are about benefiting ourselves.

And this brings me onto the Skoll World Forum (

For the last few years a number of friends had been eulogizing about this as the major international event for social entrepreneurs. Whilst conferences like Voice, the Shine Unconference, etc are always must-attend-events in my diary for the opportunity to meet and share ideas with some of the most amazing social entrepreneurs around, it does tend to be mainly UK-based. So I thought it would be good to share some ideas, inspiration, debates, etc with some international social entrepreneurs, so I applied to attend Skoll. It seemed a bit odd having an application form rather than just buying tickets but I put this down to the quirkiness of academia.

Today I got an email from a nameless sender saying that "Unfortunately, we are not able to offer you a delegate space at this time". Now they are still open for applications on the site so this really says "we don't want you".

Now there are two things that made me really angry about this:

1) They seem to be rejecting the genuine social entrepreneurs

A few minutes on Twitter and I found a number of other people who had also been turned down by Skoll. What tended to characterise them is that they are all running social enterprises. The impression given is that Skoll is for people who aren't social entrepreneurs but like talking about the idea of social entrepreneurship rather than any real engagement with practicing social entrepreneurs. Whilst I understand that social enterprise is sexy, it is irritating how many people are attracted to the idea of social enterprise without actually getting involved in setting up or running social enterprises.

2) This is an example of the kind of elitism that social entrepreneurs are fundamentally opposed to

Openness, transparency, fairness and equality of opportunity are core values to most social entrepreneurs. We wouldn't dream of running services that were only available to people we like or even worse "people like us". What you would expect if you applied for an event is either a very clear transparent criteria for admission or a fair transparent non-discriminatory way of allocating limited places (e.g. first-come first-served).

What seems to be happening at Skoll is that some nameless person or people sift through the applications deciding who they want and who they don't. It is harder to imagine a process that is a worse antithesis of everything that social enterprise is supposed to stand for. It is the kind of mentality that kept women and ethnic minorities from clubs, societies and government for decades and has no real place in any organisation, let alone one that aspires to be empowering individuals, improving society and bringing about positive change in the world.

In case there are those who feel this is simply a rant about not being able to get a ticket to an event, I wouldn't feel this angry if it was a concert, commercial conference, etc because those organisations don't hold themselves up as ethical social organisations. You expect this kind of behaviour from traditional capitalist organisations because often these are run for the comfort of those in charge. I would expect a traditional organisation to want to surround itself with like-minded people from similar backgrounds and organisations because its comfortable and doesn't expose it to real challenge or diversity. Social entrepreneurs often are passionate about justice and fairness and when we see unjust unfair practices like this it makes us angry. That anger and passion is at the heart of most social enterprises and is the fuel that drives the change we want to see in the world.

Genuine social entrepreneurs are often challenging, disruptive and vocal and we are used to more conservative organisations finding us uncomfortable or strange. What is such an enormous waste is that there are plenty of opportunities for policy-makers, government officials and academics to gather but there are very few opportunities for genuine social entrepreneurs to do this. When someone claims to be interested in supporting us but then denies us access to each other then this is just fundamentally wrong. Can you imagine the Social Enterprise Coalition deciding who it does and doesn't want to attend the Voice conference? Of course private clubs can decide who is cool enough to attend and who isn't (although this is more often associated with the schoolyard or fashionable nightclubs than with international conferences) but we shouldn't let this be done in the name of social entrepreneurship.

The light at the end of this particular tunnel is that since I posted this on Twitter, a number of other “Skoll rejects” (e.g. genuine social entrepreneurs) have emerged and we are trying to organise an UnConference to achieve ourselves what we thought Skoll was supposed to be doing. All credit to Ben Metz for starting this at and this will hopefully be a human-scale event for social entrepreneurs to network, share ideas, inspire each other and really change the world.

We only need 50 more people so please sign up and I look forward to seeing you there.


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