• Social Entrepreneur Index

Social Entrepreneur Index Nominee: On Purpose


Tom Rippin from On Purpose talks to us about helping to create “agents for a new economy”, why he started his business, the biggest challenges he's faced along the way and where he sees the business in the future.

On Purpose


What does your social enterprise do?


Since 2009, On Purpose has developed leaders that will help bring about an economy that works for all – one in which everyone can lead a dignified, fulfilling life within the boundaries of the planet. This is the biggest task of our times.


We work in London, Paris and Berlin. Our programmes have a profound effect on participants who become “agents for a new economy”. For the rest of their careers, they “infect” the organisations in which they work with know-how, belief, commitment, values and stories for an economy that works for all and thus bring about change from the inside. The economy is powered by organisations and organisations are changed by people. So developing leaders who will make this change happen is critically important.


Since 2010, we have developed over 500 leaders across London, Paris and Berlin. We have also built a uniquely cross-sectoral and engaged community of 1,500-2,000 professionals who, for example, give their time to be our trainers, mentors and coaches


What made you start your business up?


The world is on the brink of the next industrial revolution that will transform our economy. Humans have developed the abilities fundamentally to change – for good or ill – our planet, our societies and even ourselves, at a rate not seen before.


This change carries with it big risks but also huge opportunities. In the next 10 years, we can lay the foundations for an economy that works for all: an economy that produces and delivers all the goods and services everyone on this planet needs to live a dignified and fulfilled life, within the means of our planet and in a just and equitable way.


Such an economy is made up of organisations that play their full part in an economy of purpose rather than an economy of profit: acknowledging their full potential – for good and ill – seeing clearly all their responsibilities and acting upon them with integrity, humility and the highest regard for the common good. These organisations will come about because people who work in them decide to lead - to help bring about a better future - even before the path to where we need to go is clear.


We are growing a community of these kinds of leaders, and, with other communities, we will spark a movement that will bring about an economy that works for all.


I truly believe that this is the most important challenge of our times and, ultimately, this is why I founded On Purpose


How do you measure your impact?


Our high-level theory of change is that On Purpose develops leaders who will help bring about an economy that works for all – one that allows nature to thrive and everyone to lead a dignified, fulfilling life. The leadership programmes we run have a profound effect on their participants who become “agents for a new economy”. For the rest of their careers bring about change from the inside by “infecting” the organisations they work in with know-how, belief, commitment, values and stories for an economy that works for all.


Practically, we manage our social impact through a variety of tools and processes that allow us to assess both the value we are contributing and to improve how we operate. We use an extensive set of survey tools as well as a range of face to face interventions that were developed with the help of the seven principles of social return on investments


What help did you have to start your social enterprise?


Over the years we have had several grant investments that have helped us start up or develop new initiatives. These have been incredibly helpful. We are also proud that we generate the revenues we need to run our programmes and use grants only to invest in the organisation and our growth.


We couldn’t do what we do without the incredible input of time and talents we receive. Since 2010, we had developed an international community of 1,500-2,000 professionals who act as our programmes’ trainers, experts, mentors and coaches and much more. They work in everything from top management consultancies to social enterprise start-ups and not only make the programmes happen through the time and expertise they provide but also help us amplify the awareness about an economy that works for all.


How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?


We are a non-profit company limited by guarantee and are a member of Social Enterprise UK as well as a BCorps. This represents for us our commitment to put purpose before profit but nevertheless operate in a financially sustainable way – with a business model that generates the vast majority of our budget.


It also allows us the flexibility to consider more innovative legal structures in future, which would be more difficult if, for example, we were registered as a charity.


What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?


Having a social purpose in your business is not a nice-to-have. It is increasingly what all customers, investors, partners and the general public expect. More importantly though, it is non-negotiable if we are all to live fulfilled and sustainable lives. As a society, we can’t afford to carry free-riding organisations that do not fulfil a social purpose. We need organisations to create social value and, in so doing, take into consideration their financial sustainability; not the other way around.


The good news is that there are thousands of examples out there for how this can be done, not least amongst social enterprises, and no limits to the innovation and creativity that we can all bring to this. We can all help change the narrative about our economy and, in so doing, bring about an economy that works for all.


Feeling part of this bigger picture is, for me, the most rewarding part of being a social entrepreneur.


What has been your biggest challenge when setting up and running your social enterprise?


We have studied what an economy that works for all looks like and how it might develop. One important conclusion we reached is that, whilst there is a significant amount written on this topic at the level of the economy, there is little guidance at the organisational level: If a CEO wants advice on how to run their organisation as part of an economy that works for all, they will struggle to find it.


Filling in this knowledge gap is what we want to do. This requires big picture thinking that spans not only different sectors (private, public and non-profit) but also different subjects (education, health, homelessness, environment etc.). It has often been and continues to be a challenge to drive home the insight that many of the issues are related in as far as much as they are generated by the same economic model we are all part of. Most organisations – be they front-line, intermediaries or funders – focus on just a few areas, in an effort to achieve strategic focus. We believe though that there are important unifying principles that cut across all parts of the economy. This can often make it difficult for partners, funders and another to engage with us – we don’t fit neatly into their strategic aims. We are confident though that this is the right level to be working at and are increasingly feeling a ground-swell of activity that confirms this.


What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?


Do it! Start with the problem you want to help solve. Understand it deeply and do your market research. Just because you think you have a good idea, doesn’t mean that it’s going to really make a difference. Then make sure you design a business model that is going to provide the resources you need to have the best impact you can and do it better than anyone else. Don’t short-change your planning and market research and never think that people will buy something from you simply because you are a social enterprise. Ultimately though, think big: We need organisations that will change how our economy works. Always ask yourself: How will this genuinely change the system for the better? Don’t allow yourself to make yourself feel better by doing some good in one area whist pro-longing an unsustainable system in another.


What information sources would you recommend to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?


How to Cure a Cancerous Economy: https://real-leaders.com/how-to-cure-a-cancerous-economy/


The Nature of Business, what natural systems can teach us about creating a healthy economy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oo5fi5Q0-yk


Doughnut Economics: https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/


Systemscraft toolkit: https://www.wasafirihub.com/systemcraft/


What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?


We plan to double the number of cities we work in and also to find new ways of growing our impact by sharing more widely the incredible knowledge, enthusiasm and connections our community has.

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