It was great to attend SEEE's 'Business as Mutual' event recently. I like mutuals a lot. The first organisation I worked in in the sector was a mutual, the first one I set up was a mutual too. Back then at sector gatherings, to demonstrate you weren't a newcomer, it was practicallyde rigeurto have an anecdote to share about still remembering your grandmother's divvy number from when you were six and used to cycle to the local coop, probably with scabs on your knees, to buy powdered eggs.
Since then we've been through creating the Community Interest Company - based on the thinking that if we use mainstream company formats it would be easier for people to understand us. We've endlessly discussed driving equity investment into the sector and have plenty of experienced financiers involved in this endeavour still. Calls for market makers and a social stock exchange continue, into their second decade now. These developments are largely irrelevant to mutuals. Set against this discourse the re-emergence of mutuals in the context of public sector spin outs has been a surprise to many of us. In fact on closer inspection, and as pointed out by speakers at the conference, there is no specification for the structure of spin outs and both those that are up and running and those in the pipeline use a range of structures. Calling them mutuals doesn't mean these spin outs look like or function similarly to what we've seen before.
However, public sector spinouts do share many characteristics with one another. They tend to emerge as at least medium size businesses (50+ staff), with established staff teams and guaranteed contracts in the short to medium terms. In these ways at least they don't have so much in common with much of the rest of the social enterprise sector which is largely made up of micro and small businesses with small teams often with some volunteers, and sporadic, small and short term contracts. One of the mantras of our sector is 'together we're stronger' and increasing diversity is to be welcomed. Our family includes traditional mutuals, newer CICs and increasingly public sector social enterprise spinouts. Spin-outs are undeniably garnering a disproportionate amount of attention right now. It's a marker of our enthusiasm to try new approaches, to reinvent organisations, and of the unrelenting social need that we welcome the newer entrants to the sector. I look forward to them finding their place alongside other business models, to a growing understanding of when spinning out works and when it doesn't, and to at least a little of the shine wearing off so that we can step back and take a proper view rather than only hearing the hype.
Belinda Bell Belinda is a consultant providing support to all kinds of social businesses Belinda@belindabell.org.uk