Expert giving to grow enterprise

Adele Blakebrough’s story about how she met Damon Buffini, and between them founded the Social Business Trust, describes the difference between the organisation and a traditional charity.

“I’m 100 per cent from the social sector and he’s 100 per cent from business,” says Ms Blakebrough, Social Business Trust (SBT) chief executive. “These worlds rarely mix; each is suspicious of the other.”

Mr Buffini is a former chairman of Permira, one of Europe’s largest private equity firms, and met Ms Blakebrough through Permira’s philanthropy.

Frustrated that charities asked for little more involvement than signing a cheque, Permira sought out Ms Blakebrough. She was a vocal supporter of social enterprises –organisations with a social aim that earn income rather than seek donations – and known for demanding they learn more from business.

The collaboration saw Permira donate money, but more significantly the skills of its employees whose job was to improve businesses. “We proved it worked,” says Ms Blakebrough. “Their revenues improved and they served more beneficiaries.”

Out of that project SBT was born. It now has seven corporate partners – Bain & Company, British Gas, Clifford Chance, Credit Suisse, EY, Thomson Reuters and Permira – and a portfolio of 11 social enterprises to which it commits long-term funding and a wealth of professional expertise.

SBT’s founding goal was for its social enterprises to serve one million beneficiaries. Four years on, it’s set to reach 700,000 by the end of 2015 and its portfolio has tripled in size.

Its investment committee includes senior, busy people who want to make a difference, but clearly also want to improve their business, such as Steve Varley, UK chairman of EY.

“We benefit the businesses as much as they benefit the social enterprises and as such are redefining corporate social responsibility,” explains Ms Blakebrough. “Employees often say things like, ‘This is the most interesting part of my work,’ and that’s because they engage their emotions as well as their intellect.

“Employees return to work more engaged, more rounded and ready to do better work for their employer.”

But it’s not just the companies that benefit. Of Ms Blakebrough’s countless tales of social enterprise success, most recent and resonant is that of The Challenge. Launched in 2009, the organisation runs community programmes that aim to build trust among groups of people who rarely mix in an increasingly fractured society.

Craig Morley, its outgoing chief executive, says of SBT: “At the beginning, it’ll be hard work – there’s a lot of due diligence, they’ll ask lots of questions, they’ll want to see every part of your organisation, but it’s so worth it.”

When The Challenge first worked with SBT, its turnover was in the region of £500,000. Earlier this month it was awarded a government contract to run summer courses for 16 and 17 year olds worth tens of millions. That’s a five-year growth curve that would satisfy any private equity backer.

“This is so different from a firm’s employees having a day off work to paint a school or rattling a tin on a Saturday morning. If companies really want to make a difference, this is the best way,” says Ms Blakebrough.