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Mark Cotton – A Change Landscape

Mark Cotton – A Change Landscape

All content by Joff Alexander-Frye
Additional photos by Stephen Raff

Mark Cotton is an intriguing, hilarious man. Hirsute and always finely kitted out, he can often be found propping up a bar with an amber ale in hand, sipping on a flat white in one of Exeter’s many coffee houses, pacing between meetings with headphones firmly placed upon his ears like electro-ear-muffs or dashing around on a GWR train somewhere in the South West. He is busy, but present. Edgy, but accessible. Honest to a tee and disarmingly charismatic. He also carries with him a business nous and acumen that can only be earned through years of hard work, as opposed to some of the absolute guff that is banded about on many a LinkedIn account nowadays. To put it bluntly, Mark Cotton is the real deal and if you don’t already know him, you should make it your mission to change that, quick-sharp. Join the queue though… he knows everyone!

A Birmingham native, Mark grew up in Erdington and lived for a chunk of his childhood with his Nan and Grandad there. After leaving school, Mark left Birmingham in 1981 and joined the Royal Navy where he became a Navy Policeman and carved out a successful military career for himself which spanned twenty-years.

As with many people who serve in the forces, his military career had a lifespan and Mark left to pursue a completely different career. He tried a couple of different things over an eighteen-month period but couldn’t really find his feet until he landed a role at the New Opportunities Fund which eventually merged with the Community Fund to become the Big Lottery Fund.

Here, Mark eventually became Head of Region for the South West and was responsible for distributing many millions of pounds worth of lottery money to good causes. This is where Mark first got a taste of the amazing things that are possible when working with charities and social enterprises. Mark commented,

“I found that world really interesting and a refreshing change from my military background. Helping to link vital funding with worthy causes became a passion of mine to the point that, when I took voluntary redundancy from the Big Lottery Fund after an amazing twelve-year stint working for them, I knew that I wanted to carry on doing a similar sort of role.

“I had lots of contacts and experience in the charitable and social enterprise sectors and so I decided to flip things on their head and, instead of being the funding source that found worthy causes to give funding to, I started working as a consultant with the organisations who needed the funding, helping them to attract funding and investment. Pretty much the same process but approaching it from the opposite side of the fence to the previous twelve years.”

By this point it was 2013 and this was the beginning of Mark’s consultancy business, aptly named Mark Cotton Consultancy (there’s nothing like a business name that does what it says on the tin, is there!). From day one, his consultancy focused on working with charities and social enterprises and aimed to understand their missions in order to then advise them on how they might become better businesses and become more attractive to investors, funders or supporters.

Mark was living in Somerset at the time and moved to Exeter three years ago. Consequently, a lot of his professional connections and relationships are in Devon and Somerset although he does consult in Birmingham, Sheffield and London amongst other major UK cities.

Mark Cotton staring unsmilingly at the camera.

In particular, Bristol and Plymouth tend to be regular destinations for him and both have embraced social enterprise to a far greater extent than any other cities in the UK. They are the first two formal Social Enterprise Cities in the UK, with both local authorities completely jumping on board with the concept, infrastructure and enabling of social enterprises in their localities. Both local authorities have Social Enterprise Funds which, in turn stimulate the charitable and social enterprise ecosystems within their cities. Furthermore, Plymouth University is a Social Enterprise University – another factor at play in Plymouth being welcoming and attractive to social enterprises.

Mark thought out loud,

“I suppose in those cities, there is a lot of demand for businesses with a social focus because they are cities with significant social needs. That is no bad thing to admit. Better to front up and do something about it than live in denial. I’m so proud of some of the projects and organisations that I work with to achieve social change in and around the region. It is energising, motivating and makes me feel like I’m able to make a real difference in the world on a daily basis. You can’t buy that feeling!”

According to Mark, Exeter is making great progress in these regards too and is certainly becoming more welcoming and hospitable to social enterprises. He commented,

“Exeter is a city of two halves with some very fortunate people and also some unfortunate people who find themselves in very difficult circumstances. There is a lot of work to do in this city in terms of closing the gap between the two.”

That said, with lots of small social enterprises popping up around the city, it is clear that entrepreneurs are starting to think socially as well as commercially. I wondered if this was a generational thing after reading recently that, in a recent survey,  87% of Americans under the age of thirty-five admitted to making purchases from organisations who had advocated for social issues that they cared about personally.

I asked Mark if he agreed with that theory here in the UK and he replied,

“Yes and no. There are lots of young people who are looking at traditional business models and thinking, ‘Things have to be able to work differently to this’. There is a place for traditional business practice, but there are so many social issues and problems which simply aren’t being tackled by the state, that there is a gap which is being filled slowly by individuals who have an entrepreneurship mindset but also have a strong social conscience (in the form of social enterprises). It is a beautiful marriage of skills and values and is a powerful force to be reckoned with when done the right way.”

The very basis of social enterprise, after all, is that you use a business model to make as much money as possible and then sow your profits back into the social cause or mission statement which sits at the heart of your organisation. Literally putting your money where your mouth is. It is inspiring stuff. Mark added,

“The basic definition of social enterprise is that it is a business model which puts people and planet before commercial gain. What isn’t there to like about that? If I can’t hitch my horse to that carriage, then I don’t know which one I can.”

Mark Cotton smiling at the camera

That said, there has been a recent decline in grant funding and public sector support for growing social enterprises, so Mark is finding himself spending a lot of his time consulting organisations on how they can become more investment ready and how they can create a compelling case to attract some of the limited funding that is out there. Mark explained,

“Many social enterprises don’t have assets to secure against a traditional loan and don’t qualify for traditional sources of finance and investment. They have an opportunity though to tap into a market of investors who aren’t venture capitalists, more like venture socialists! They want to invest in social enterprise and make a financial return on their investment (in order to re-invest into other social enterprises). Equally, they want to see a social return on their investment – across the full spectrum of organisations out there doing amazing work to improve society. From art and mental health organisations to horticultural therapy and café spaces.”

These lenders are typically more sympathetic and patient than traditional sources of investment and are unlikely to invest in a cause they believe in, only to shut it down for financial reasons. They will characteristically work much more collaboratively and closely with the organisation which they have invested in than in traditional lending relationships which tend to be much more transactional and clinical.

As well as being a sound financial investment, investors are also looking for organisations that can define, communicate, evidence and demonstrate the social impact that they are making. But how can organisations measure and evidence their social impact? Surely that must be almost impossible in some cases?

Not in Mark’s opinion, who explained further,

“It is about shifting from an ‘output mindset’ to an ‘outcomes mindset’. When an organisation becomes passionate and focused on outcomes rather than output, goals and aims become far easier to achieve. Some relatively small social enterprises are achieving huge social impacts locally, particularly when they work in partnership with other social enterprises. Collaboration and joined-up thinking is the name of the game when it comes to achieving lasting impact and change.”

As an example of the sorts of organisations that Mark has worked with in recent months, he told me about his work with previous Grow interviewee Chukes Maxwell from community-interest-company Action to Prevent Suicide and his work with Musica, a franchise-model social enterprise who provide music workshops for older people living with dementia and who have ambitious plans to rollout around the UK in the future. In both cases, Mark was able to attract significant investment from Resonance, a social investment broker based here in the South West.

Mark Cotton holding papers and glasses.

In other cases, Mark draws alongside organisations in more of a coaching role, carrying out ‘organisational health checks’ and helping the organisations and people concerned to be more strategic and efficient.

Outside of work, Mark lives here in Exeter with long-term partner Cleo and, together, they enjoy good food, good music and travelling – preferably all three at once. A big fan of electronic music, Mark is an avid fan of live music too, recently going to see Massive Attack, John Hopkins and James Blake to name but a few. Mark commented,

“We’re all busy people but we need to take opportunities to step away, get into a different headspace and explore other places.”

After spending an hour or so with Mark it was clear to me that, with the variety of issues, tensions and challenges in the world today, we have never been more mindful as a society of the grand task at hand to improve our society and move our world towards a better future. Social enterprise is a way in which every day, ordinary people can be a part of this change. Making a difference and practicing what they preach. No more guilt. No more helplessness. Just action and progress. To this end, I think that Mark’s lot in life is an honourable and rewarding one. Join me in wishing him well as he continues to drive social change by working in collaboration with other likeminded change agents in and around Exeter.

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