Why become a social enterprise?

Huzzah! Noisy Cricket is now a social enterprise. Life didn’t start out this way though, back in late 2016, when I set up a business to build people-powered movements and bring diverse people together to co-create social change.

We started out as a limited company because at the time, I couldn’t see how a social impact consultancy fit within the world of social enterprise. We empowered changemakers and facilitated change, so direct impact wasn’t within our reach.

Yet, as with any business and life in general, things change. Almost two and a half years later, our model has evolved. Whilst we still help cross-sector organisations and changemakers from all walks of life strategize and collaborate to drive progress, it wasn’t enough.

Why? Because what Noisy Cricket is asking of us in creating social change is a tall order. Addressing root causes over symptoms. Working collectively in opposition to our traditional sector silo-mentality. Purposeful and future-focused action over issue politics and getting lost in the now.

Very few client briefs came through asking us to cross-sector and social divides, though we’ve had some tremendous fortune with the progressive people we’ve had (and still have) the pleasure to work with.

Researching and mapping issues, designing transformative programmes and building proactive communities will always be at our core, and we’re continuing to scale our work in issues as challenging and diverse as tech ethics, health inequality and diversity and inclusion.

Yet being exposed to the major gaps in addressing issues, seeing how powerful change can be when different people face into each other’s humanity and do so with a common purpose gave us an idea. What if we created the movements from scratch?

So, as well as mentoring those looking to change the world and working inside organisations to drive external impact, we started to innovate, building social impact ventures that utilised Noisy Cricket’s theory of change, and using our humanity-centred design approach, shift how its created too.

Over the course of the last year, it’s become apparent we’re more of an engine than a traditional agency or consultancy. We work with, not for, and ask questions instead of tell. It’s not always an easy pitch, but when it comes to social change, remaining open and agile is all.

So too are the people at the centre of our work. Those people impacted by inequality, who often find themselves voiceless, and struggle to find their power within systems that serve others, and in cultures that denigrate their value. Co-production is at our heart.

So, as we increasingly find ourselves directly creating impact – and our model evolving to engineer change both in the process and in the insights, products, communities and campaigns we design – we began to ask questions of our structure.

Whilst social was core to how we operated, how might that look in a more official capacity? With everything from a social business with purpose at its core, a community interest company, where trade and change combine and a charity with pure impact at its heart, where to set our stall?

We decided on social enterprise – the middle ground – with a leaning towards profitability. With purpose, profitability and people central to our conversion, we’re now a community interest company that’s limited by share.

What this means is that 65% of our profits will be invested, either back into Noisy Cricket to further championing changemakers, facilitating change or innovating in social impact, or organisations and issues we champion. Should we ever shut up shop, our profits will go to an asset-locked body.

35% will be made available to shareholders, however, and when you’re dealing in social impact, that can feel uncomfortable, but here’s why. With so much social good being created and delivered either very cheaply or for free, we devalue social impact and the people giving and receiving it.

So, Noisy Cricket’s model inherently asks a challenging question, in how much we value social impact, both socially, culturally and economically. As organisations wake up to the needs, expectations and demands of a wholly conscientious new generation, it’s going to get interesting.

So too is the conversation around what we pay our designers, researchers, facilitators and campaigners. For so long, we’ve expected those in social and caring sectors to work for little and give a lot, and how we reward talent and purpose requires examination. Valuing people is important.

In addition to questioning value, we have to examine how we’re creating. As the world wakes up to the need to live and work with both purpose AND profit, we need to scale from bootstrapped business to a sustainable enterprise, and it’s going to take some ingenuity.

Income from trading, sponsorship for our projects and grant funding will all play its part in the short to medium term, but long-term, we have big ambitions, and to scale we’ll need investment. For that, return on investment may be part of the picture, and as an enterprise, we’ll need to remain open.

Most important, always, is our purpose, and that’s why becoming a CIC is essential. In embedding our “how” in our articles of association, and committing to constantly assessing our impact, no matter how Nosy Cricket grows, how we do what we do will always be central to our work.

So, here’s to redefining social value, stretching the limits of social enterprise and doing so with diverse people with purpose at its core. For those wanting to build movements around the issues you care about, come join your voice with ours.

Are you sure you’re having an impact?

Social impact – and the measurement of it – is pretty challenging. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important. Knowing you’re making a difference when it comes to the issues of the likes of poverty, equality and fulfilment is essential. Yet, unlike capital, it’s hard to quantify.

Dealing with products, customers and awareness is a simple matter of whether your numbers add up to more than what you put in to start with. Turnover, profits, return on investment (ROI)? All relatively simple. Measuring how giving people agency, shifting a system to be more inclusive or impacting cultures through changing mindsets… much harder!

As a result, in the third and public sectors, where the focus is less on profit and more on people or a bigger purpose, we tend to get caught up on the delivery of solutions. The number of services or programmes undertaken, and the people processed through. Views of an awareness-raising video on a social issue or using an app to obtain peer support. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

Yet, those numbers don’t necessarily add up to anything. If “we measure what we value” as an adage is true, what value is watching a video creating? What difference does attendance at a training course make to someone’s life? Very rarely does social impact measurement deal in the how its meeting people’s needs or changing behaviours to pursue a more conscientious course of action.

So, the focus on solutions, and the “deliverable outcomes” they’re designed to deliver often limit us. Not just because we have no idea if they’re making a difference, but in fixating on a quantifiable end goal, we’re controlling and constricting what good looks like from the outset. Resultantly, it closes down curiosity, and the ability to learn and flex in an arena where change is constant.

Instead, charities, social enterprises and public departments make change a contained and finite process, when in reality, people’s lives, society and the economy is constantly in flux, and in some instances, can actively prevent progress from taking place. Just when we as changemakers thought we were sticking it to the system, eh?

Its an infuriating realisation, especially for those wanting to make a difference in the world. Add to that the fact that despite we’re actively removing the work away from concepts like ROI, we’re still working within funder prescribed conditions, which ultimately come down to what you’ve been budgeted to deliver.

Deliver for “free” too. As it’s charitable, or pro-social, the expectation from the wider market and society is that it’s delivered cheaply or on goodwill, and in the process of making change happen, are actively devaluing the work we do. Not only have we failed to change the systems many people move into these sectors to avoid, but we’re shadowing it too, and not in a disruptive way.

It’s these issues that as an organisation we’re reflecting on, as we design for social change, and build movements with diverse people. What we value is people-valuing one another, and coming together to enable to live safe, connected and meaningful lives, regardless of their identity or life experience. How the hell do you measure that?

The answer is, we don’t know, but we’re asking questions. Questions like, how do you redefine worth when it’s only ever been calculated in dollar signs? How might we remain open to innovation with the constraints that capital brings? How are we creating value where people are prioritised alongside profit?

Difficult, but we’re trying. Encouraging businesses to see social impact as more than fundraising and volunteering, and proactively engaging in co-creating social change like we have with our homelessness employment initiative, HI Future. Remaining open to innovation by committing ourselves to an agile process, where change is constant and active listening is embedded in Noisy Cricket’s MO.

As for creating value, we’re looking at alternative ways to measure it, and going beyond simply quantifying human movement and looking to capture the meaningful experiences that create change in communities, industries, lives and society. We’re starting with the questions though, and if you’re interested in helping us understand them, give us a shout!

Lauren

Home is where the changemakers are…

What a way to start 2019! Today, it was announced that Noisy Cricket is one of six WONDERFUL socially-focused organisations moving into The Federation. Sponsored by the Co-Op Foundation, in partnership with The Luminate Group, they’re supporting us with desk space in the heart of Manchester, in the tech ethics focused co-working space, with the intention of helping us grow and better support the communities we serve.

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As social enterprises supporting people experiencing homelessness, fighting food poverty and enabling community cohesion, we’d say we’re in good company. Company – which as we start to scale Noisy Cricket’s efforts and impact after two years in operation – where we can learn from each other’s models, social change approaches and ways of engaging the people we set up shop to help. Pretty exciting stuff.

For Noisy Cricket in particular though, this means a few things. One, it provides a home for the work we’re doing in tech ethics, health inequality and poverty. Being a small operation can be a lonely business, and working in social impact can be challenging, so to be surrounded by other organisations with purpose makes it feel like we’ve found our people. People who get the challenges of creating social value in a world which is only just waking up to the triple bottom line.

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Secondly, it’s going to become a hub for an exciting new venture we’re building and trialling throughout 2019. For the past year, we’ve been getting under the skin of homeless employment. Tackling the root causes of social issues is our bag and understanding why a region struggling to keep on top of a rising social issue, whilst several industries with major skills gaps led us to ask some questions.

Questions that have led us to the barriers preventing business employing people who have experienced homelessness, and true to our usual form, how we bring diverse voices together with people who are impacted to co-create a solution.  Working collectively can be uncomfortable and working with people we don’t usually interact with can be a steep learning curve, so having The Federation community, of people experienced on working on challenging social issues will be a huge help.

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More practically, but most delightful, is the support and encouragement we’re receiving in converting from a socially committed but (legally) limited business to a social enterprise. When we first started out as a social impact consultancy, a social enterprise seemed out of our reach, as working with clients cross-sector, we had the power to influence social change, but not directly create it, making measuring our impact challenging.

All of that is about to change, however. Businesses grow, change, respond to fluxing wants and needs, and Noisy Cricket is no different. As we establish our own models to build people-powered movements – always in partnership with other incredible changemakers – our impact will be both direct and indirect, and with the backing and inspiration of organisations like Luminate, The Co-Op and The Federation, we couldn’t think of a better place in which to transition.

Here’s to 2019, loves!

Lauren x