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Employment and training

Why are we supporting social entrepreneurs at Catch22?

A sign is positioned on an easel which reads "Incubate, Accelerate and Amplify". The sign looks like the night sky, with star constellations, planets and a rocket depicted around the edges.

As a relatively large organisation, we believe we have a responsibility to challenge our own thinking and share our resources with social entrepreneurs who are reimagining how public services are delivered. We continue to be inspired by a 2013 report which explores how large social sector organisations can help to scale social innovation and states:

“‘Bees’ are small companies, groups or individuals who are dynamic and creative. ‘Trees’, are large organisations and governments, weak at innovation but are robust and usually good at delivering at scale. By working together new solutions to social problems can find roots to growth and scale.”

To put theory into practice, we’ve been supporting social entrepreneurs with a two year programme of tailored support to explore and test their ideas. One example is Natasha Porter. Inspired by the 2016 review of prison education, she founded Unlocked Graduates which attracts high-calibre graduate talent to work in the UK prison service and inject new ideas, insights and energy into the rehabilitation of prisoners. Having placed 150 prison officers in 14 prisons that house over 10,000 prisoners across London and the South East, Unlocked is poised to be operating across 20% of public prisons in England in the near future.

This month, our ‘Incubate, Accelerate, Amplify’ programme will enter a new stage of its evolution. For the first time, we will be launching an application process to identify and support up to three new social entrepreneurs – with lived or learnt experience – in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund. Here we set out publicly why we are supporting social entrepreneurs at Catch22.

1. Different solutions through lived and learnt experience

We believe that people have the best understanding of the problems that they, and their communities, are facing due to their proximity to the problems. They may have insights, ideas and solutions that are often overlooked because decisions are often taken far away and made by people who do not live in or understand the communities they are making decisions about.

Having direct experience of a problem and the unique insight it offers has long been recognized in the commercial start-up space. For example, Paul Graham, co-founder of the Y Combinator, writes:

“When searching for ideas, look in areas, where you have some expertise. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.”

At Catch22, we’ve seen how the most impactful work we’ve done is often the result of putting those with lived and learnt experience at the center of our policymaking process. for example, Catch22’s National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum,  brings together over 100 local authorities with young people with experience of care services to advocate for improvements in the quality of leaving care services.

Another advantage of working with social entrepreneurs who have lived and learnt experience that we’ve seen, is that the social enterprises they develop can better reflect the needs of the communities they come from. We’ve seen this through our support for Rachael Box, who created the London Village Network (LVN) in response to her frustrations at the lack of opportunities available for at-risk young people on her estate. Now operating across ten London boroughs, LVN aims to become the go to app for youth workers, young people and volunteers seeking easy access to services, support and volunteering. Despite its growth, LVN remains woven into the fabric of the community from which it emerged, namely Islington. For these reasons, we will continue to focus our efforts on supporting social entrepreneurs with lived and learnt experience.

2. Working together to nurture new ideas

Last year, 1,922 Catch22 staff members and volunteers supported 64,741 people across England and Wales. We are proud of our work. But we know there is room for improvement and that there is a need for new ideas. From our experience, we’ve seen how individuals free of the challenges of working for large organisations are often able to move quicker and think bigger, unburdened by the limits of existing structures and practices.

For example, Dr. Charlie Howard – whose fellowship with Catch22 was one of the stepping stones in our journey to supporting social entrepreneurs – runs an organisation called OWLS. They’ve experimented with a number of potentially game-changing ideas that have caught on including ‘problem solving booths’, which aim to make mental health care more informal and accessible.

At the same time, we’ve seen how challenging it can be for social entrepreneurs reimagining how public services could be delivered. One of the social entrepreneurs we are currently supporting is Emmanuel Apkan-Inwang. He is the founder of Lighthouse Pedagogy Trust, which offers a new – potentially groundbreaking – concept for children’s care homes in the UK. While important, we’ve found that innovation methodologies like Eric Ries’s ‘Lean Startup’, which urge would-be entrepreneurs to build a minimum viable product (MVP) as quickly as possible, aren’t fully applicable to ideas in this sector.

In Emmanuel’s case, creating an MVP has been challenging because of how commissioning structures for children’s care homes are currently setup to favour larger providers and other regulations. But as an organisation that delivers a wide range of public services, we are able to share our expertise – supporting individuals like Emmanuel to navigate challenging operational environments in order to test their ideas – and at the same time, amplifying their voices across the networks we are part of.

3. A moral responsibility to diversify the social enterprise sector

At Catch22, we believe that increasing diversity in the social enterprise space is a moral imperative. At present, we think that there is a risk that that entrepreneurial opportunities are being given to the same groups of people. A 2017 Nesta study, for example, found that over half of incubator and accelerator programmes in the UK are based in London. Even in our own case, while the social entrepreneurs we’ve supported all have lived and learnt experience – three of them are TeachFirst graduates.

We think diversity matters. Not just because potentially transformative ideas are being left undiscovered. But because who is in the room, who has a voice and the power to go with it often determines the parameters of the potential solutions. As Anand Giridharadas has powerfully argued in his new book Winner Takes All, within the social enterprise sector echo chambers are prevalent because of who sets the agenda.

We believe in the transformative power of collaborations between large and small organizations or individuals in the charitable sectors. Through our work with social entrepreneurs like Emmanuel, Natasha and Rachael, we’ve discovered that there isn’t a neat roadmap that sets out how best to do this. But while this is still a work in progress, we think we’re onto what could be a powerful model of change for other charitable organisations so we’ll continue to share insight into this process.

The Incubate, Accelerate, Amplify programme is now closed to new applicants. 

However, if you have created a tech-enabled solutions for supporting young people to access jobs and navigate the future of work, our Social Tech Amplifier could be for you.