Millennium man Maff Potts on the state of the social economy

Former government advisor Maff Potts is many things – outspoken, unshakeably resilient and extremely passionate. Ellie Ward finds out why he thinks the social enterprise sector has "got lost up its own arse" and why he's frustrated with the lack of risk-taking among social investors.

Securing London's Millennium Dome – now known as The O2 – for two weeks to provide a place to stay for 1,500 homeless people over Christmas is just one of the achievements in social justice that Maff Potts can lay claim to.

After spending a number of years working in the charity sector, Maff has since embarked on a mission to make uninspiring charities and struggling social enterprises more entrepreneurial and so more sustainable.

He has previously worked as a government advisor, a leader of social enterprises and is currently setting up Power to Change, a £150m trust from the Big Lottery for Community Enterprise, alongside running his own consultancy business, Fusehill Social Innovation

Pioneers Post: What were your personal motivations for pursuing a career in social justice?

Maff Potts: My parents died when I was 18 and 21 so I decided to spend Christmas in the homeless shelters in London as a volunteer and I discovered that I loved it. I then went on to own a production company but after about 10 years I lost the business and my marbles at the same time. I hit rock bottom. Then the homeless charity I had been volunteering for asked if I wanted to work for them.

So I took the job and ended up organising what was the biggest homeless event in Europe – the Crisis at Christmas shelters – and managed to turn the Millennium Dome into a place to stay for homeless people. It really turned my life around and gave me a lot of purpose. 

Igniting entreprenurial spirit

Maff went on to work for the government for three to four years overseeing the £160m Places of Change programme. The idea behind this was to create something of a revolution in attitudes towards homelessness. Instead of focusing on soup kitchens, blankets and beds for the night, the programme was set up to find long-term solutions to change people's lives.

PP: What interested you about social investment and the social enterprise sector?

MP: My journey towards getting into social enterprise was slightly different. It was while I was working for the government that I came across a number of social entrepreneurs who were running profitable businesses while also changing people's lives and the world in the process.

The more I thought about social enterprise, the more I lost faith in charity as a model. Everything that working with homeless people in a charity for years had taught me was that hand-outs never work. However, this counter-intuitive thing of asking the homeless individuals for help – for example by employing them to deliver a service – instead of giving them a hand-out hugely transformed their view of themselves and actually worked.

You’re not going to change the world by excluding people.

Taking the cool kids down a peg or two

PP: What are the main challenges and issues facing the social enterprise sector in 2014?

MP: I have problems with where we’re at with social enterprise at the moment. I think social enterprise has become its own 'cliquey' sector that is trying to make big businesses feel bad because they’re not as cool as they are. You’re not going to change the world by excluding people. What you need to be saying is yes to Unilever – you’re possible the the biggest social enterprise in the country. You’re a $50bn business and you’ve decided to make everything you do sustainable.

Social enterprise has spent so long defining itself it has probably got lost up its own arse.

One of the problems has been this desperate urge to define instead of getting businesses to place social good within their DNA as an organisation. You’re not going to do that through clunky legal structures and asset locks for example. If you’re going to evangelise social good, you’ve got to allow people to benefit.

Social enterprise has spent so long defining itself it has probably got lost up its own arse. I think we should be embracing business with a purpose – that’s something I’m happier talking about.

Embrace the risk-takers

PP: What are your thoughts about the state of social investment currently and what are the key topics of discussion you want to see raised at Good Deals 2014?

MP: Everyone’s putting their hopes in social investment. If you ask me so far nobody’s taking enough risks so I’m interested to see with the trust I’m setting up at the momen, if the solution is to de-risk social investment with a little bit of grant so that it’s all about the cocktail. 

I guess I’d like to see social investment have more balls – which it hasn’t. Some social investors have problems getting rid of their money because they won’t take the risks. 

In these moments risk is the only thing that’s going to move us forward.

The world economy collapsed in 2008 and have you heard of many people really coming forward with the big, bold risk approach? I’ve just seen a lot of charities and organisations retreat, retract, hide and complain.

I know a handful of people who are trying to reshape the market – and I think social investment is definitely part of that, for example I think the people behind the Key Fund in Sheffield are bloody brilliant – but I genuinely believe that in these moments risk is the only thing that’s going to move us forward. My question is: who’s going to be the first to take it?

PP: What is the key piece of advice you would like to pass on to aspiring social entrepreneurs based on your experience working in the sector?

MP: "It’s not about you" is a bit of a mantra and I think that’s something social enterprises could really adopt. They’re quite seduced by the dynamic entrepreneur – the visionary types. If you want to get people to change you must listen to them and ask how you can be the best servant to them.

Support them and help them make the change you want them to instead of leading them across the river like some sort of Ben Hur. It’s not very sexy and exciting, I’m afraid, but if you’re sitting opposite a die-hard soup kitchen person, you can’t simply disrespect them.


Maff Potts will be speaking in the Scar Tissue workshop during the second day of the UK's leading social investment conference – Good Deals 2014. The theme of this year's conference, which will be held in London on the 24th and 25th of November, is Playtime's Over.

Photo credit: James Jin