Social Entrepreneur Index Nominee: Touch Network
Touch Network is the social enterprise helping to improve mental health by enabling people to talk about personal struggles at coffee shop events. Debra Carter, Founder and Director, talks to us about her own personal journey, getting started with Touch Network and their plans for the future.
What does your social enterprise do?
Touch Network CIC improves mental health by enabling people to talk about personal struggles before they become too much of a problem. We do this through coffee shop events whereby people share a personal story of overcoming a struggle in life. Events are relaxed, fun, sociable, entertaining, informative and inspiring at the same time.
At our events, story-tellers are fully supported and prepared in advance and are admired and celebrated by paying guests, who experience a sense of connection and hopefulness and leave feeling inspired and equipped with practical techniques to overcome their own battles.
The stories we've heard have been diverse yet have had similar themes. They've ranged from family life, loneliness, grief, gender and cultural challenges, physical illnesses and disabilities, mental health diagnosis and much more. Yet, time and time again, we hear that determination, inner strength, resilience, friendships, family and community, as well as practical tools and techniques, have enabled individuals to overcome the most difficult of personal struggles.
What made you start your business up?
I have experienced severe depression over many years, and have had a number of long hospital admissions. I am much more settled now, and although I still have depression, it doesn’t overwhelm me. I am sure the reason for this is that other people experiencing similar illnesses, were brave enough to share their story with me. The first time someone shared their story with me, I was blown away by how similar our thoughts and feelings were – I honestly had thought I was the only one! Knowing that there were others out there in a similar situation, who I liked and admired, challenged me to view myself with a different lens, if they were ‘okay’ then so was I - I could no longer justify hating myself. This was the beginning of my recovery. I started thinking that if I had felt that way, others might be feeling alone with their ‘stuff’ too. Maybe others could benefit from hearing stories if only there was the right setting….so Touch Network was born!
How do you measure your impact?
The best way to measure our impact is to attend an event! The atmosphere is pretty magical, as people connect and are inspired by one another, sharing openly their thoughts and feelings in a relaxed and positive way. In addition, at the end of each event, we ask our guests to answer 2 or 3 questions about the experience of a Touch Network Storytelling night, the word most used in the hundreds of quotes we now have is ‘inspired’. We analyse this qualitative feedback in a detailed way by categorising the sense of each response as well as counting specific words that are seen time and time again. We also keep quantitative data such as the number and diversity of guests, number of speakers and what they talked about. We are working on developing an impact measurement that demonstrates some of the long term impact we are having; we often hear anecdotal stories of long term impact, but have not yet got a system to measure this.
What help did you have to start your social enterprise?
I had a lot of help starting Touch Network, which not only has helped to develop required skills but also helped to develop my confidence, motivation and belief that this is possible! I received some start-up funding from a philanthropic trust, which enabled me to spend some time reflecting on the idea and begin to put plans together. The same philanthropic trust also ran a year-long programme enabling me and others from around the country to share stories of our work together, and support and encourage one another. We have been fortunate enough to receive a number of grants from corporate organisations and other philanthropic trusts, which has hugely helped. I was privileged to attend the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme, which not only included skills training but also a grant, and an amazing mentor. I have received support from Wessex Academic Science Network and The SETsquared partnership, particularly around business planning and an ongoing check-in, which has been hugely beneficial. We have developed relationships with our local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group and City Council, who have also been hugely supportive in a number of different ways. All of this input, I have no doubt, has enabled us to be where we are today!
How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?
I debated this issue for a long time, and to be honest, I wondered if it was a true debate or a touch of procrastination in the end! I chose Touch Network to be a CIC, in the end, because it is primarily a trading business, but I was clear that we would probably need support with grants, at least initially, so chose to limit the business by guarantee, as a way of potentially making it less complicated to access funding. I am glad I chose this option, and feel that it is working well for us.
What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?
There are so many great things! It’s like a rollercoaster, the highs feel really great, the lows feel really tough, but the extremes make life more interesting! I love the way I have flexibility and can be creative and innovative in my work. I love the way I can blend my personal and working life, without having different kind of persona’s that can sometimes happen with a more regular career. I love seeing the difference that we are making and the way we are inspiring people to tell their story – often for the very first time.
What has been your biggest challenge when setting up and running your social enterprise?
Touch Network’s founding story is based on my own experience of how hearing others stories has helped me move forward. I am forever grateful to those who were vulnerable and honest with me and feel a sense of ‘pay it forward’ responsibility. Sometimes this can be tough, maybe when I’m not feeling at my best, but I am motivated nevertheless because I feel that our Touch Network team, including me, must be authentic and demonstrate the values we are trying to promote, otherwise, what is the point? In addition to this, I guess it is my own personal confidence - certain situations can be challenging, but this is all part of the journey, and I push myself to be out of my comfort zone when I need to!
What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
Sometimes it can be tough, so it is important to remember why you are doing what you are doing in those hard times. When bogged down in administration or paperwork, or challenging financial times, think about specific examples of the difference you have/are making. Ask others to remind you, stick quotes or pictures on the wall, whatever works for you, but don’t forget why you are choosing to be a social entrepreneur, and remind yourself often.
What information sources would you recommend to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?
What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?
We are expanding geographically. Initially based in Southampton, we plan to expand across Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire primarily. Our work over the next 2-5 years will be to get started in these different locations, and then to sustain an event schedule, so it becomes fully embedded as an option for preventing mental ill health within each community we are located.