Six key insights on what it takes to scale social innovations from Alex Smith, Founder and Chief Executive of Cares Family, one of Nesta's Accelerating Ideas grantees.
Twenty months ago, the Cares Family entered into an exciting five-year expansion partnership with Nesta and the Big Lottery Fund through their joint Accelerating Ideas programme. The purpose of the partnership is to strengthen North London Cares and South London Cares – our community networks of younger and older neighbours reducing loneliness together through mutual relationships in local neighbourhoods – and then to expand that model to other rapidly changing cities in the UK.
Less than two years into the work, and with Manchester Cares now up and running and additional branches on the horizon, we've already learned so much that the lessons can't easily be condensed into a short blog post. But as we approach the mid-way point it’s a good time to reflect on our experience of organisational change to date, and to use those lessons as a foundation for what’s next.
So, here are six of the key lessons we’ve learned so far:
As you scale, teams crave a balance of autonomy and structure. Managing and supporting people becomes more important than ever – but so does allowing colleagues to progress at their own speed to meet their fullest potential and to keep bringing new ideas to the group. Inevitably, reshaping and churn can bring instability so the leadership of the organisation need constantly to communicate, evolve the vision and take their teams with them. Our approach is to hire on personality, as well as experience, and then nurture our brilliant people and promote within our organisation, knowing that if individuals are succeeding the whole collective will thrive. That takes time and commitment all round but the pay-off can be huge.
Burnout is a real risk in our sector and that’s particularly true for people building relationships with neighbours with complex and storied lives. That’s part of the beauty of working with people, of course, but you need to find a balance between going the extra mile and switching off. We’re now much more disciplined with staff taking their hard-earned TOIL as soon as possible after they’ve accrued it. We’re also much better at making time for regular management and peer-to-peer check-ins, a focus on pastoral wellbeing through team lunches and training days, and more in-depth professional development reviews. We’ve also had great support from partners including OSCA and the Employee Assistance Programme, which help us all to see the long view – we’re proud to work with them.
There’s an old adage in business that things will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you first think. That doesn’t have to be true if you scope diligently and plan carefully. But it’s certainly worth investing time up front to achieve long term results. The Cares Family’s new CRM scoping and implementation and our evaluation design have already taken nine months. We’re relaxed about that; we just need to work to our plan while remaining agile to changing realities. That’s a better approach than rushing.
There is no point in expanding your organisation’s profile if you’re not ready to take advantage of that exposure. Many promising ideas have had great press in their early days but ultimately disappeared because increased interest put pressure on their structures and processes. The Cares Family has had some great coverage in the last 18 months but we have also turned down most press opportunities because they speak to the wrong audiences or have arisen at the wrong time. Our volunteer conversion rate is still around 50 per cent – until we’re able to mobilise more people we’ll be cautious of further expanding our profile.
As soon as we think we’re likely to be able to consolidate, something changes that means we need to continue to adapt and be flexible. That’s the reality of growing an organisation in a time of rapid change. But there are also opportunities arising from this context. The arrival of GDPR will be a challenge for all organisations but it will also force groups to communicate with supporters more directly and with more purpose. And ongoing change in statutory services will push us to innovate and possibly to create new programmes that continue to be relevant to people’s lives.
We always felt that growth of our model, particularly outside London, where we started in 2011, would catalyse further interest. But we didn’t anticipate how many people from communities around the UK would come forward for advice on how to set up similar initiatives in their own communities, or how many other charities – big and small – would seek our advice. With the government, media and communities increasingly aware of the real urgency to better connect people to reduce loneliness, that provides an opportunity for the whole sector to explore ways to harness that energy to make a transformational difference.
Organisational change is hard – that’s why there are thousands of books, millions of words and whole multinational business models dedicated to it. But if you can find a way to take opportunities to scale while staying true to your original values – in our case, of a local, community-led approach with people, rather than systems, at the heart – and by bringing in as much help as you can get, then it is possible, touch wood, for all of us to accelerate our ideas.