Going big, with purpose

I’ve gone from a tiny organisation – my last employer had just one part-time staff member – to a huge one: the British Council is the UK’s largest charity, works in over 100 countries, and employs some 7000 people. Another change: my stint at British Council is part of a one-year programme, run by On Purpose, that aims to ‘develop leaders’ in the social enterprise sector.

(What’s a social enterprise? Good question. Simplest of the dozens of hazy definitions: a business for social purpose – think the Big Issue magazine.)

The idea behind On Purpose is that there are loads of start-ups with noble intentions, and plenty of funding and schemes to support the entrepreneurs behind them, but a weak spot still in terms of the managers and professionals needed to keep those new businesses going. And, of course, to make those initiatives broader and better, since scaling up the successful models is one of the big challenges right now. Continue reading “Going big, with purpose”

Blisters and early mornings

Isle of Mull challenge“Do your research. Don’t be scared to try and do what you always wanted to do. Think of something really challenging”

I spent my summer months at the Mark Evison Foundation helping with their first proper evaluation of their youth programmes; the quote above was one response to the question “What would your advice be to future applicants?” (though it could apply to life in general…).

Anecdotally, the trustees knew there’d been tangible benefits of the foundation’s work – i.e. encouraging young people to plan personal challenges and funding the most motivated teams or individuals to see those challenges through. But, now in their fifth year of giving awards and with plans to expand, they needed something more concrete than anecdotal evidence or the excited emails we got from some of the award-winners returning from their trips.

Two focus groups, dozens of questionnaires, and millions of email reminders later, we got our data (the full report is here). What did we learn? Continue reading “Blisters and early mornings”

Something to write about

It’s been a busy few months, but I’m excited by the variety of stuff I get to learn (and write) about. Recently I’ve spoken to economists in Washington and Nairobi about grain storage and irrigation; to community leaders from Cameroon and India about child marriage and female genital mutilation; and to researchers about the growing intrusion of business onto the territory of humanitarian aid groups. (The latter also involved a demonstration of ‘Peepoo‘, a single-use ‘personal toilet’ – a sort of bucket liner that can be sealed and then rapidly sanitises excrement. Incredible, but true: more people in Africa have access to the internet than to decent sanitation.)

As the first regular contributor to Devex based in the UK, I’ve also been doing a lot of explaining to people here about who we are – and who we write for. Continue reading “Something to write about”

Scaling new heights

I’m doing some work for the UK-based Mark Evison Foundation at the moment – nothing to do with international development, but as a charity that helps young people identify, plan and complete challenges that they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to do, the ethos and target group are similar to previous projects I’ve worked on (even if these kids are starting from a somewhat easier level than, say, their Ugandan counterparts).

The foundation, set up in 2009, has been run entirely by volunteers till now. Along with another part-time colleague, I’ll be helping them build up their profile, expand the number of school reached, and improve how they organise their work. More news on that soon – in the meantime, check out the video, here, made by one of the first teams to win a grant – two 16 year-old boys who scaled the four peaks of the UK within four days, using only public transport in between mountains – and did it all accompanied by their dog.

Making magic

Cyanotype - rinsing“Oh I’m no good at that…”, said one lady who paused in front of our stall.

I was with the lovely folk at Fotosynthesis, who’d been asked to put on two photography activities at a community festival in south-east London. Inside, the studio portrait shots were a great success. People never hate being photographed as much as they claim, and thanks to the mini printer, they could leave with a (free) professional family portrait in their hands.

Outiside, it was a bit harder to convince people to get stuck in. Continue reading “Making magic”

The wrong place for headspace

Sound of silence
The sound of silence

Some smart folks at Selfridges lured me in with their reverse psychology the other day. Cashing in on the post-Christmas tightening of purse-strings, they’re offering a limited-edition range of debranded products; “headspace pods” provide a few minutes of escape; and a space usually reserved for exhibitions or pop-up shops (the pop-up shop: another concept I’m struggling with since returning to the western world), has been turned into a Silence Room.

What’s marketed as an “insulated inner-sanctum” is not actually that quiet: you can hear the noise of the café next door (and this was a Tuesday evening; what would a Saturday be like? But it felt good, sitting doing nothing in the semi-darkness, shoeless and phoneless as per requirements, with just a few teenage girls whispering in one corner and a couple asleep in one another’s arms in the other. The couple left before me, but were still dawdling in the foyer when I left. “I’m nervous to go back out there!”, laughed the girl. Continue reading “The wrong place for headspace”

150 years

Transport for London – which runs the Tube – has had some great advertising ideas, and I love the current one, celebrating 150 years of the Underground.

In poster format, it looks good. But where it really comes into its own is in the advertising screens that are lined all the way up the escalators. As you ascend/descend, you find yourself standing next to a quintessential “Londoner” from a previous decade: 1940’s soldier, 1960’s girl, 1980’s punk. A really effective way to get across a sense of history, a sense of change – and a product/business that’s transcended every fashion.