Social Entrepreneur Index Nominee - Arkbound Foundation CIO
What does your social enterprise do?
We are a CIO charity “empowering people through writing” who have incorporated our own non-profit publishing branch. We reach out to the most disadvantaged people and communities, providing free mentoring, writing workshops and opportunities which support them to have a voice, tell their stories, participate in literature and cultural projects and events, get published through us, join us as members, volunteers and network partners.
What made you start your business up?
It was started by our founder as a social enterprise company in 2015, who had experienced serious disadvantage himself, but was able to use his lived experience into a pioneering innovation to establish a publishing company which is different: one which gives marginalized outsiders a chance to tell their own stories and get published. Writing and journalism are both underrepresented by people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have lived experience of injustice or have been victims themselves.
Right from the start books written by people who had been homeless, prisoners, victims of abuse or discrimination, suffered from disability, mental health issues or autism, belonged to ethnic minorities, lived in poverty, had working class backgrounds… got published with free mentoring and editing support, giving authors a high share of the sales of their books.
To establish a charity was the logical next step, which we achieved in May 2017, when Arkbound Foundation CIO got registered with the Charity Commission. A year ago, we made the next step, which was to incorporate publishing as our charitable, non-profit CIO branch. Now we can apply for support and funding for the many projects we’re developing to make writing more accessible, an affordable or free provision improving wellbeing and community cohesion, reaching out to disadvantaged people and groups.
We expanded our work to Scotland, got an office in Glasgow in March 2019 and by October 2019 we also got registered with OSCR, the Scottish charity regulators. We have a thriving team of trustees and volunteers there now.
How do you measure your impact?
Our impact is continuously well documented, which follows from the nature of our social enterprise being about writing and publishing.
We have feedback forms for our authors, mentees and writing workshop participants. Our free book launches get fully booked, our literature events, showcasing of poetry and talks, writing workshops, introductions, are well attended. On facebook and twitter we have a lot of activity, followers, likes and engagements. Our websites are well visited, and we get a lot of requests from new beneficiaries by email or phone.
Our books get not only sold but also provide ‘food for thought’. We don’t measure our impact in lines of commercial ‘profit’ but from our charitable visions and missions: reaching out to disadvantaged people, giving them a voice, engaging them through workshops, events and mentoring, getting their unique stories told, even if we won’t make a profit, ‘educating’ our society by raising awareness and promoting the stories and books of our authors.
We also have a team of trustees which mutually discuss and evaluate what we do and achieve. We learn from difficulties if they arise and plan improved actions and inputs towards greater positive impact together.
Our impact also needs to be seen in relation to how small we still are, working on a shoestring, on less than £50.000 on turnover in our first accounted financial year, motivating numerous hours of voluntary commitments from our trustees and volunteers, even some free work from our staff. We’re still only able to employ three part time staff on freelance contracts. If we would have a more secure and better supported and invested in overheads and personal core organisation base, we really could achieve much more and get an even greater impact.
What help did you have to start your social enterprise?
The Bristol Emmaus owned Backfields House incubator office space was able to offer us a desk for a very low monthly rent, due to them receiving a big grant from European Union funding at that time.
Some of our trustees received free start up business type of social enterprise advice, delivered through Voscur and other at that time funded initiatives. Such helped us towards giving our charitable organisation the right start, writing out our values, visions and missions and manage governance of our organisation. We received help and advice along the way, free one to one consultations arranged through the Charity Commission’s Bristol representative working with Voscur. Online courses provided through social enterprise and access to resources, forms and guidelines also provided to be very valuable.
How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?
Our publishing company, which was established first, had already a very strong social mission towards supporting disadvantaged authors. As explained, becoming a charity was the right step to undertake.
We were able to make an informed decision after participating in “Kick Start your Organisation” (a course held by Voscur and supported through Social Enterprise and Innovation Programme).
Becoming a CIO reflected our strong charitable commitments as well as providing the space or platform to run a non-profit publishing branch, which highly improves the services we can provide for our beneficiaries and has the potential to make us sustainable.
What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?
It really gives you the feeling and satisfaction that you’re doing something positive for society, your community, the people you serve and those who pay for your products or services. You create a lot of social value through your work and commitment, improve on equality, diversity community cohesion and more fulfilling, sustainable ways of life becoming accessible.
It is about providing meaningful products, services, jobs, volunteering, work experience and networking opportunities. It is about being proud of your work and your organisation, it becomes a major rewarding commitment of your own life, not just a job to earn wages.
You and your team can feel in charge of the enterprise and give it the outlook and directions which reflect your own values.
What have been the three biggest challenges that you have overcome (or that you’re still working on)?
1.) As lived experience background individuals, full of enthusiasm and sharing a great idea, it was rather challenging to set up our enterprise without any training in business skills or being able to afford consultancy. There is a lot of red tape and bureaucracy involved in it. Even though most of it is essential or necessary, it can make big hurdles and I wouldn’t be surprised that many people like us give up. But we managed in the end.
2.) Unexpected inner conflicts: two years ago, we took on an intern student for help and work experience, who we then later employed. But she started to work against us which got revealed as an attempt from her side to bluntly take our organisation over. She brought in trustees who were her friends, spread rumours and false accusations and made an attempt to have our founder dismissed, without any lawful policy related procedures. We were able to solve it though outside, Charity Commission related conflict solution advice. She and her friends resigned, and we improved our governance through adding on more updated policies.
3.) What is still a major challenge is having to work and provide excellent services, while being underfunded and receiving only limited income through our publishing branch. We rely on a lot of voluntary commitment through our trustees and team. We have not been able to offer full time employment yet. It is difficult to receive funding and writing out applications takes a lot of time and skills to do. Funding is usually earmarked for specific projects, but we need to pay for staff and overheads as well. Larger charities and enterprises have advantages, I’ve even come across funders who only take applications from organisations which have a minimum of £100,000. – turnover a year. Our publishing branch shares and delivers our values and is not profit orientated either.
What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
Not to give up on their dreams and ambitions but to seek advice right from the start, like getting in touch with Social Enterprise UK.
If possible, to start small without taking on big loans, but learning and expanding as you go ahead.
Not to get discouraged if there are problems or things don’t work out as expected. Learn from mistakes, plan ahead, have a plan B ready, feel positive about what you do.
Why do you think social enterprise is important?
It is the most valuable type of enterprise because it improves and helps neighbourhoods, communities and society. It empowers also disadvantaged communities all over the world to have products and services which they need in everyday life, even to survive or to strengthen cohesion and cooperation.
What’s been your most rewarding experience as a social entrepreneur?
Providing real help to disadvantaged people and groups.
What information sources would you recommend (books, websites, organisations?) to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?
Social Enterprise UK is a great source, “Kick Start your Organisation”, Voscur in Bristol, Charity Commission resources (if you’re a charity), LawWorks, quite a lot of resources ban be found online.
What’s been the most surprising thing about creating a social enterprise?
To pick up on business skills along the way, which people from a literature and arts background usually don’t fancy to study and train it. To find out and get lived experience on how to put ideas and theories into practice.
What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?
To expand and provide more opportunities, getting sustainable through our publishing, employ more skilled staff and provide work experience and intern placements.
To open charity shop like hubs where people can get informed and engaged. It would provide a space to look at our books and projects over a cup of coffee, to provide mentoring, writing workshops, smaller scale literature and poetry readings, a retreat type of space for reading, writing, art, creativity, to get help, signposting, meet likeminded people, have a chat, get involved.
We also have an idea of opening therapeutic, residential writing retreats with an eco-friendly outlook. It is something we will still work on at a planning stage. What is the biggest change you would like to see in the world?
More equality and respect of everybody regardless of their background or characteristics and respect and care for our planet. – Even if it looks as if I asked for two changes I believe it is overall one, because there is the egoism and profit orientated selfishness of most people in power, which disregard looking after the world as well as disadvantaged people and communities.
What have been your three proudest moments as a social entrepreneur?
Getting accepted as a registered charity.
Becoming also a charity in Scotland with a thriving team and great projects.
Successful book launches.
What would you say to encourage more entrepreneurs to consider the social impact of their businesses?
The best thing you can do is running an enterprise which helps and improves your local community and the world. I wouldn’t swap places with anyone who has a palace in a tax heaven owns billions but runs a business which damages our planet and impoverishes people and communities.