Latest in the More Expert by Experience series. For other profiles, see http://bit.ly/1rd75hZ
When I last spoke to Ian Block about his business plan, he’d three years to achieve self-funding from sales of quality upcycled pre-loved furniture. At that time (February 2014) Recover – the social enterprise he leads in Welwyn Garden City – was one year old. I wondered how the three year plan had progressed over the previous two years.
“Our mission has remained the same throughout” confirms Ian “It’s about helping people reintegrate and get themselves worthwhile employment that will stay with them, and help them to be the best they can be; that they feel fulfilled and their lives are worthwhile.”
I asked whether there had been any surprises – good or bad. Continuing the theme of benefiting the volunteers, Ian points to success at the rate at which people have gained and used new skills. Recover has helped raise expectations to the stage where, says Ian, most volunteers are keen to progress.
Looking back, Recover have learnt some hard lessons about the reality of working with people who are furthest from the jobs market. One lesson is a well-known ‘problem of success’ for many social enterprises – that the most capable and productive unemployed volunteers move to paid jobs – an occupational hazard! And for those that remain…
“There are a broader range of issues facing our volunteers than we anticipated. Their lives are complicated and it takes more time and support for people to move on and stay moved on, particularly when they are older or have lower self-esteem.”
“We thought that the majority of volunteers would progress relatively quickly and then help run Recover. But once out of treatment, when they come to us, the original problems may resurface; they need a lot of hand-holding to develop a sense of self-worth.”
The first step, of what is often a long journey, is turning up on a regular basis – establishing some structure and routine. Recover offers work and life skills development through refurbishing quality, high-end furniture and Ian doesn’t underestimate the challenge.
“We’re not making sandwiches here – the work takes skill, concentration, focus, practice creativity, technique. We’ve developed methods, systems and processes to keep it as simple as possible, but it still takes a lot of time to teach and embed the learning.”
The intensity of the hands-on support for volunteers means that Ian is finding it harder to balance the books from sales than he’d anticipated. Recover is currently aiming for 50% of income from sales and 50% from funding.
The biggest single development over the past 12 months has been the transition to independence from Recover’s parent charity. Recover is now a Company Limited by Guarantee and Registered Charity in its own right. This means more paperwork as back office functions are taken in-house, including insurance, funding applications, and reporting to the new directors.
Despite the increased demands on his time, Ian is clear about what matters “My priorities are supporting our team and making money. The backroom work has to be fitted in around that. Reporting alone could become a fulltime job if you let it – I started out working on dining tables, now I spend a lot of time on computerised tables!”
Looking ahead, it’s about finding the right balance between growth and consolidation. For Ian the books must balance to keep the doors open. Recover aspires to raise their 50:50 funding/earning ratio to 100% income from trading, but wisely he doesn’t set a date for this.
In the meantime, Recover are getting to grips with pricing – an issue for many social enterprises and an area where Ian is learning fast ‘what works’.
“We’re educating people about value – the quality and cost of our work. We’ve been able to reduce prices as we’ve got better and faster at refurbishment. The pieces that we turn into ‘artisan one-of- kind items’ are well-priced compared with mass produced generic flat pack furniture from economy high street chain stores. Items we don’t refurbish are sold at considerably lower prices than charity shops. Sometimes, we just ask people on low income for a donation that suits their budget.”
Another ‘problem of success’ – in addition to losing the most capable volunteers – relates to Recover’s high profile (“done without any paid advertising” adds Ian proudly). The two staff members are finding increased demands on their time – from media people, businesses (all support welcome!) and statutory sector staff.
A timely reminder that I’ve taken over an hour of Ian’s time. As I leave, he joins his team for lunch which, he tells me, will be a main meal of the day for some. Yes – two years on from our original meeting, the strengths and values of Recover are still very much in evidence.
Further information and contact: