Lucas Patchett & Nicholas Marchesi On The Fundamentals Of Creating Large Scale Social Impact


In October 2014, two best mates had a crazy idea to put two washing machines and two dryers in the back of a van, and wash and dry clothes for free.

Nicholas Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, the 2016 Young Australians of the Year, founded Orange Sky Laundry – a world-first, free mobile laundry service for the homeless. On a mission to improve hygiene standards, Nic and Lucas stumbled on something much bigger and more significant – the power of a conversation. Now facilitated by more than 700 volunteers across the country, Orange Sky Australia aims to positively connect the community.


Nicholas & Lucas share their challenges and insights on creating a successful not-for-profit that assists homeless Australians, talk about trends in the sector, discuss the growth of social enterprise and required changes in policy.


Highlights from the interview (listen to full details on the podcast)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to tackling the global problem of homelessness? [1:55]

[Nicholas Marchesi] - It's been a strange path. Lucas and I grew up in Brisbane and are best mates. What we wanted to do in October 2014 was something really simple. We wanted to put two washing machines and two dryers in the back of a van in Brisbane and drive around washing and drying clothes for our homeless friends for free. It was something that we'd do outside of work hours and to engage and catch up with mates.

We did it to challenge ourselves and to give something a go.

What we did stumble on in the streets of Brisbane very quickly was something that hadn't been done anywhere in the world and something that did something much more than wash and dry clothes; and that was the power of a conversation. Over the last 2.5 years we've been able to grow Orange Sky Laundry to 13 laundry vans washing and drying about 5.8 tonne of free laundry every week. We've got 850 volunteers around Australia and we've grown into shower services which facilitate 200 safe hot showers for homeless friends each week. What we're most excited to share is that beyond the 400,000kgs of free laundry and amazing showers is that far beyond that the biggest impact we've had is in the conversations. Orange Sky to date has fostered over 100,000 hours of great conversations.


You've seen a lot of growth in the last couple of years, so what are your future plans? [3:31]

[Lucas Patchett] - What we want to continue to do is to live out the mission of positively connecting communities. If that's through 100 laundry vans and 1000 shower vans, we're not too sure what that looks like right now. We want to continue to scale outwards and scale up. The 16 vans we have in operation can be operating 24 hours a day.

We want to challenge how charities use their assets and how we use our assets to deliver those services.

[Lucas explains more about their Orange Pathways program which employs homeless people to commercially wash clothes with local businesses and clubs. He talks about the pilot programs they've run and how they are looking to scale that up creating bigger impact.]

What have been your biggest challenges until now and what advice would you give to others to get around them? [4:58]

That's a great question. There's probably hundreds of challenges every day but the challenges have evolved. The challenge when we started was that this hadn't been done before and we weren't and still aren't washing machine or homeless experts.

We're just two mates who said, 'let's give this a crack.'

You'd walk into washing machine experts and they'd say, 'you're not going to be able to put them in the back of a van, you're not going to be able to provide water to them and people won't wash and dry their clothes in a park.'

We said, 'sure, let's give this a go.' They gave us washing machines and we broke them. [Nicholas talks about how at the beginning they had other work and study commitments, but how they made changes and kept trying.]

We started to see donations from 24 countries around the world. I remember waking up one morning and saying, 'what happened last night? We've got money from all these countries; how do we spend it?' [Nicholas talks about the challenges of growth, like growing the team and vans.]

We've only had staff for about 14 months and a lot of magic took place at Orange Sky. We were able to grow, build and start our impact spreading across Australia. Lucas and I learnt a lot about what it looks like to volunteer and how we do that sustainably.

We made lots and lots of mistakes which really set the solid foundation of where Orange Sky is today.

Our biggest challenge now is that we have a respected audience, where every week 1200 hours of conversation take place on Orange chairs around Australia. How do we add extra layers of value to that? [Nicholas explains various ways they are trying to continue to add value as they grow. They will potentially grow into New Zealand and America.]

In 2016 you were both awarded the honour of being Young Australians of the Year. What were the highlights and takeaways of that year for you both? [8:30]

2016 was a pretty crazy year. Being awarded Young Australians of the Year was a tremendous honour for Nic and I. More so, far from us, it was a reflection of all our incredible volunteers hard work. It shone a spotlight on Orange Sky but also homelessness on a broader scale. We started the year with 5 vans and 250 volunteers and finished that year with 12 vans and over 600 volunteers. [Lucas explains further what they did during the year.]

What tips would you give to other young people from around the world who are passionate about using their careers to tackle a social problem, but don’t know where to start? [9:51]

I think it sounds so simple, but...

give it a go.

Like I said, Lucas and I weren't washing machine or homelessness experts but what we both had was curiosity and passion and we like a challenge. This was a big challenge for us.

We also had to motivate each other and it took a lot of chats. We sat down one day and said, 'let's do it, let's go and get the machines.' [Nicholas talks about how confidence grew and how it took trial and error.]

Our forecast was always going to be the next shift or next van we were rolling out, whereas now, the more that we grow, we can look at what Orange Sky looks like at the end of next year and that becomes less daunting when you're not trying to find the next screw to build the van and you're looking at where the next van will be in the world.


How you have seen the the social enterprise sector transform and change since starting out in the sector a few years ago? [11:42]

there's been tremendous growth in the sector. A lot more people now are focussing in on how they can make their business, enterprise or not-for-profit more socially sustainable.

When we first started, what we wanted to do was help people.

We registered a not-for-profit purely because that was the best avenue for us to go down.

That was the quickest way for us to grow by getting significant philanthropic donations as opposed to angel investment or anything like that. That was the model that allowed us to grow.

There's about to be some massive changes in technology and how we use technology in this social sector.

There are 54,000 not-for-profits in Australia that employ over 1 million people every year. It's a massive industry in Australia but there's also significant lagging with challenging other organisations with technology based solutions for things with automation (and lots of other things) that are coming along so quickly that they're not only going to change the social sector but the whole of Australia. Looking at how business can be more socially conscious as well.


How you have seen the the social enterprise sector transform and change since starting out in the sector a few years ago? [11:42 continued]

If you could get a big organisation that employs 50,000-100,000 people to commit to employing 1% of the people they employ as formerly homeless or people with a disability, that's when you can start getting large scale impact.

We're not suggesting that we can employ 105,000 homeless Australians, but if we can get another big company that employ a big chunk of that then we can start inspiring big change in the community.

We’ve recently seen the Victorian Government launch Australia’s first social enterprise strategy to improve sector support. Looking at the not-for profit or social enterprise from a policy perspective, what do you believe are the key steps government need to take to help foster and support an innovative social sector? [13:26]

What we've seen is that with homelessness one, two or three things can go wrong and someone can very quickly find themselves living on the streets.

I think the whole world is changing in a place where we can move fast. Before and in years gone by, you'd have to spend years collating research and then implementing a strategy and then building to accommodate for homeless or tourists or disadvantaged. Whereas a group like Airbnb come on board and they empower people from all around the world to go on holidays. You see that with the transport industry and finance industry and we haven't seen it yet in the homelessness industry. Homeless friends are still out there.

Being agile and responsive is where on a policy note we need to change.

We need to not wait four years for the next census to come out to realise we've seen an increase in younger people that are homeless and then grow out our support services for that.

We definitely aren't naive in thinking that Orange Sky is the solution to homelessness. It isn't. But it is a big step in the way of connecting service providers that are all doing great things. Tonight in Australia there are 105,000 Australians are homeless and there are 308,000 services available for all those homeless friends.

We are in a community that is doing great stuff, we just need to be more efficient in how we connect. If we get that right and those conversations right, Australia will be a better place.

There needs to be more definitions of what a social enterprise is.

At one end you've got enterprise and business, at the other end you've got not-for-profit and in the middle you've got social enterprise. It's very three-pronged at the moment but is very much a spectrum. 

You've got social enterprise who are purely a business but give away a percentage of their profit and claim to be a social enterprise and then you've got a social enterprise that empowers and employs people to handle logistics (or whatever it is), so there's definitely a spectrum there. What I'm passionate about seeing is how can you get an organisation that covers a broad range of that spectrum so that a lot of your profits can be reinvested into a charity, but also so that the production, maintenance and ongoing support of that product can be completely done by the sector that you want to be working in. If we can have every single step of the way facilitated and done by someone who is formerly homeless, I think we can say we're creating massive impact, rather than just commercially washing clothes and giving the money back to Orange Sky.

I think you can really build and empower people from the ground up to build that impact.


Are there any countries you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social innovation? What are they doing that you think Australia could adopt? [16:43]

I guess I only look at the four walls of Australia sometimes and it's funny how much of a bubble you get into. Orange Sky is Lucas and I's lives. We are excited and motivated by other people doing great things but I definitely wouldn't be the right person to talk about that. But organisations that excite me are the ones we were talking about before that have the underlying core principals of adapting to using the world's resources more efficiently to overcome a problem.

Whether that be that Uber found a way to get people around more efficiently, what is the Uber for homelessness?

Organisations that realise they can impact people is what excites me.

What do you believe are the fundamental ingredients for building a successful organisation that creates positive impact? [17:55]

it comes back to knowing what your purpose is and then defining that product.

For us, very early on our purpose was purely to improve the hygiene standards of the homeless and very quickly we realised it was much more than that. It was people coming together, having a chat, connecting back with the community.

Our product is not something big and scary, it's not something that's not tangible; it's $6 for a load of washing. Anyone can buy into that.

You might a 1000, 10 or 1, but anyone can see the impact and stories we share on our social media. [Lucas shares what tangible information they can share with donors.] We can connect information with a donor. For us, it's knowing that product and knowing your purpose.

What other inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating positive social change? [19:05]

Nic and I were lucky to be in the States a couple of weeks ago and one of the only organisations that's similar to Orange Sky is based in San Francisco. It's a group call Lava Mae. They provide showers on the streets for homeless people in San Francisco and Los Angeles. [Lucas explains more about Lava Mae and how they are very inspired by them as well as a potential partnership for Orange Sky to provide services in the States.]

To finish off, what are the top 3 books you’d recommend to our listeners? [20:28]

[Nicholas] - I'd be lying if I said I could read books. My mum would be so impressed if I did. I really like Into The Wild and my favourite quote comes from that book which is...

Happiness is only real when shared.

[Nicholas shares more about Orange Sky and how a simple conversation can create happiness.]

[Lucas] - I'm halfway through Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell which I'm really enjoying.

[Nicholas asks Tom what he'd recommend and he shares A Fortunate Life.]


Initiatives, people and resources mentioned on the podcast.

Recommended books.


You can contact Lucas & Nicholas via facebook or twitter. Feel free to leave comments below.

Read more articles on not-for-profits & social enterprise.