Robbie Semple on Social Impact Careers & Scaling Social Enterprises
Robbie founded Worthwhile: a UK-based social enterprise that creates the conditions for young people to do their best work in social impact. Having acted as CEO for four years, he led Worthwhile through a merger in 2017 and stepped away from the organisation.
He sits on the board of On Purpose, a social enterprise focused on leadership in the new economy that works across the UK, France and Germany. He is currently based at the innovation foundation Nesta and is about to move home to Ireland to run a new scaling programme for Social Entrepreneurs Ireland.
Robbie is bad at sports, worse at music and a terribly weak vegan, but enjoys trying at all of these and plenty of other things in his spare time.
Robbie shares useful insights on the realities of starting and scaling social enterprises, as well as transitioning into social impact work more broadly.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Gary Fawdrey] - To get things started, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of social enterprise? [02:00]
[Robbie Semple] - Yeah, sure. Hi Gary, and thanks for having me. So I suppose, I've always had a big interest in doing something socially meaningful with my career. I did quite a bit of volunteering and that kind of thing through university, and when it came to trying to find my first job, I was initially quite clear that I wanted to do something with a social focus. So I went to talk to lots of people back in Ireland at the time and a lot of them had the same advice, which was whatever you do, don't go and work for a charity, you will end up making coffee for two years and be unemployed at the end of it. Which is advice I didn't really like very much at the time, but a combination of hearing that enough, the financial crisis happening when it did, the jobs market going a bit sour and you know, probably a bit of belief I had myself at the time around, well maybe capitalism is the best way to change all of this to make the world a better place, led me to taking taking a job in the private sector first.
So I spent four years with Rolls Royce, which was interesting and a very good experience. I got lots from it and they treated me very well. I think I had a pretty good sense the whole time I was there though, that it wasn't where I wanted to be longer term and I was quite keen to get back to doing something socially focused. I came across a program called On Purpose, which was all about helping people at the time with a few years corporate experience transition into the social enterprise space, so that just felt like a perfect fit for me and a chance to take some of the things that I’d learned in a private sector environment and apply it to a new type of problem, and to do something that felt more meaningful for me and then moving things in the direction that I wanted to.
Fantastic. So you then went on to found your own organisation called Worthwhile. Can you please tell us some more about that? [03:41]
Sure. So with On Purpose, the way that program works, is it's two six month placements with different social enterprises combined with a skills and leadership development program. My second placement there was with a group called Student Hub, who are all about engaging students in social action while they are at university. At the time they were piloting an internal graduate program. They'd had some initial success with that and they were interested in the idea of how it could be grown. I suppose on the one hand they had a bunch of very socially engaged, interested students who were graduating and looking for careers and something socially oriented. On the other hand, they as an organisation had benefitted lots from being able to tap into that group of people and to have them come and work with them, and they felt that there were plenty of other social enterprises and charities out there that could benefit from the same kind of approach.
So they asked me to look at a business plan for expanding the program and setting it up as an independent organisation. I had no designs on setting something up myself at the time. It was just one of those amazing opportunities that landed in my lap. So I spent a few months thinking about it and working with them on it and we set up Worthwhile from there. The idea with Worthwhile was to create the conditions for young people to do their best work in social impact. There were loads of young people out there who want to do something socially constructive with their careers. It's much harder than it should be to start a career in that space. Equally, there are loads of brilliant early stage social enterprises and charities out there and they are struggling to compete with the bigger corporates who pump millions into graduate recruitment every year.
I guess there were a couple of influences for me. One was having come through a graduate scheme with a big corporate and understanding how the private sector approach talent retention and the people side of an organisation. Secondly the really great work Student Hubs had done beforehand, piloting their own program and understanding what the specific interests and desires of their student population was. And then having come through On Purpose, I was thinking about skills development in the social sector and and what is it that people need to know and what is it helps people to have meaningful careers and to make a meaningful difference in the social enterprise space. I suppose it was a combination of those three things, and primarily then we run a scheme for people in the first two years of their career where we would help them to find an organisation to work with and support both the organisation and the young person to get the best out of each other over the course of their first year in that job.
Fantastic. And could you share what the impact is of Worthwhile that you're most proud of? [06:11]
Sure, so there's a few things I'm proud of with Worthwhile, primarily among those is the fact we've helped over 100 young people to start careers with social impact. 100 isn't a huge number, but it was always quite a deep level of support that we were looking to offer. We have data that I'm confident suggests we've made a really meaningful impact to those people in both the decisions they've made with where they want to go with their career and their prospects for what they can achieve with that time. We've helped over 20 organisations in their recruitment process both in finding young people, and also in thinking through the people side of their organisation more generally. That's the start of making a real difference to how people think about work in the economy and how we create an economy that works in a much better way to solve the really meaningful problems that we have out there at the moment.
Okay, great! You touched on your own experience of the On Purpose program and how that set you up for your career. You then went on to join the board of On Purpose. Could you share some more about how that organisation has grown through the time you've been involved with them? [07:05]
Sure. So On Purpose is maybe eight years old at this stage. They started as a UK based program focusing on career transition. So people with around about five years professional experience who were looking to move into the social enterprise space. They've grown really impressively over the last number of years. So as well as programs in London, there's now an associate program that runs in both Paris and Berlin as well. They've also started a CEO program in London, which looks at helping CEOs of social enterprises or private organisations to take a bit more time to reflect, think about where the organisation is going and renew their sense of purpose. On Purpose is at a really interesting time as well in thinking about its own role in space. So having been very focused on social enterprise and career transition in its earlier days, the senior team there have started recently to think about a new economy, more broadly, an economy that works for everyone and that goes beyond your social enterprises, but really thinking across sectors, broadening that remit to think about as a new set of values and ways of working that creates a better economy for everyone.
Great. So it's become a bit of a cliche in recent years that millennials want careers with purpose. Do you think that there has been this increase in demand for social impact careers and do you think this is going to continue? [08:32]
I think there's no doubt. There has been a big increase in demand and thankfully also in supply. Like I say, going back to when I was thinking about this myself, there really seemed to be very few options in Ireland at the time, but looking at the space in the UK at the moment, there's a really healthy set of options. Worthwhile is running and providing some great opportunities for people. There's also programs like Charityworks that are doing really great work and then some of the other bigger government program. So the likes of Teach First, Frontline and Police Now are great ways of helping people to have meaningful careers, providing the support that they need to have really good careers while doing something more socially purposeful. I think there's a lot of debate around millennials generally and whether they are a more ethical generation than generations that have gone previously. There is more of an ethical focus among millennials, although it's not some sort of genetic superiority thing that's happening there.
I think the reality is our world is facing a whole set of really serious challenges at the moment, whether that's climate change or global poverty or the state of our political discourse, you know, there's a whole bunch of really complicated things happening.
The status quo solutions we have aren't working particularly well and I think it's just the nature of the world that we live in that we need to come up with better solutions to those problems.
And so the fact that there's an opportunity to do something really interesting and creative in that space is sort of pushing more and more people to think about these questions in a different way to look for new types of solutions.
So through your career you became effectively an expert on social impact careers. And then in 2017 you decided to leave the organisation in this space that you found it Worthwhile and move onto something new. Could you touch on why you came to that decision and your hopes for the future of both Worthwhile and yourself? [10:22]
Yeah, sure. So just to say a bit about that decision. We were about four years in with Worthwhile at that stage. I think the social side of the organisation was running really well. We had a well articulated theory of change. We had regular impact stats coming back and we were really pleased with what we were seeing both for young people coming through the program, and the organisations that we're working with in terms of moving towards the bigger picture.
As with many social enterprises, the financial model wasn't as robust as we'd have liked it to be and we were finding ourselves increasingly spending time on that side of the organisation and we'd got to the stage four years in, where we just weren't reaching the very big ambitious goals we’d set out for with Worthwhile. We weren't in a terrible place, but when myself, the team and the board sat down, we kind of came to the conclusion that even if things go really well for the next two years, we're not going to be more than a little bit further out than we are at the moment. It was a long way off the ambitions that we had set ourselves. We kind of had a lot of the pieces of a jigsaw in place, but we didn't have the whole piece and we didn't see a way to find that whole piece with the resources that we have within the organisation. We could have kept going as we were. But I think I'd been really clear in my own head from the start that I didn't want to end up running a social enterprise just for the sake of running a social enterprise, and our sense was if we didn't see a way to get to that ambition as we were, then it maybe didn't make so much sense to just keep going.
So we decided instead to focus on looking at a merger and seeing if we could find a partner organisation who could see the value in what we were doing and that maybe had a couple of other pieces of the jigsaw that we didn't have, that could help the work to grow in a way that it maybe wouldn't be able to grow if we continued as we were. I think that was a difficult decision. I was probably quite angry first, you know, at not having got to where we wanted to go and there was some real grief and sadness when I sort of realised that we weren't going to get to where I had wanted to get to. But I was really lucky to have great staff and particularly a great board around me who were able to help think through the pros and cons and options, and quite quickly I think we all got to the place where this was just the right thing to do for the organisation.
So we spent about six months looking into that, four organisations come forward and went through a process and we made some decisions around that. We successfully merged Worthwhile back into Student Hubs, it is still running really successfully and has been taken on by one of our alumni, which is really nice to see. For me personally, I think I had a sense at that stage maybe it was a good time for me to think about something different as well, both because I didn't want to be one of those founders hanging around to the background telling people how we used to do it all the time and also in terms of it just felt like personally the right time for a bit of a change. So I took a little bit of time out and have spent the last year at Nesta doing some really interesting work around health sector transformation and as you said in your introduction, I am moving back to Ireland next week, which is exciting. So a whole new adventure awaits there.
Fantastic. Thank you so much for that really honest answer about your experience. I think it has provided some really great insights to people about the reality of running social ventures. A lot of our listeners are interested in launching their own social enterprises. I wondered if you had a top piece of advice for them? [13:29]
So I suppose there's a couple things maybe stand out for me.
The first is definitely don't start a social enterprise just for the sake of starting a social enterprise.
Figure out what it is you think that you want to change and have an idea that matters to you. Don't just assume that a social enterprise is the best vehicle to try and make a change in that space.
If you've got an idea and something that you really, really want to pursue and you think that a social enterprise is the right way to do it, then absolutely go for it. But just know that having that bigger sense of why you're doing things and also the knowledge that how you're doing it is the right way to go about it is really important for making success of what's happening.
Fantastic. Thank you so much for that really honest answer about your experience. I think it has provided some really great insights to people about the reality of running social ventures. A lot of our listeners are interested in launching their own social enterprises. I wondered if you had a top piece of advice for them? [13:29 - continued]
It's hard running a social enterprise and however much energy you might have at the start, there's going to be peaks and troughs in that. My experience of keeping going through some of those more difficult times, was having a really strong sense of, ‘I believe this is a problem that I want to work on on.’
I believe this approach is the best way to make that work.
Thank you. So you will soon be moving back to Ireland, which is obviously very exciting for you personally and you're going to be running a scaling program for Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. What do you think is the major blocker for social enterprises that try to scale?
Great question. I think I definitely don't have a 100 percent answer to this and that's probably a big part of the reason that I've taken the job. I think we've probably got a pretty good idea at this stage of how to help individuals startup social enterprises and we've probably got a pretty good idea of what a well running social enterprise looks like and we've seen some social enterprises scale, but I think we're much less clear on what scale means within the social enterprise space and how to make that happen effectively.
I'm not even sure if scale is the right word to think about with social enterprise; I wonder if spread is actually what we're talking about a lot more of the time?
In terms of barriers, I think that there's some really obvious stuff there, so you know, compared to a private sector organisation, social enterprises are typically trying to both run a business as well as solve a social problem and there's constant challenges around prioritisation and where do you trade off?
Where do you need to do something to make money, versus where you are doing the right thing that necessarily involves making a little bit less money? I think we probably need to be smarter and slightly broader thinking in our sense of what scale means and how we go about scaling or spreading.
I think that means recognising that an organisation working at its current size probably looks very different to that same organisation trying to pursue the same mission at a scale 10 times bigger than it currently is.
And that requires both the headspace to rethink that, and the courage often to make some difficult decisions around moving away from something that's worked well up to a certain point in pursuit of a bigger idea.
I'm really interested from your years of experience in the social impact sector, if you think there are any misconceptions around how both people in the sector and those outside of it view it, and in particular a misconception that you'd like to see change.
So a couple of things here again, first, you know, having worked in the career starter space, it was a really common misconception for young people coming in that either you didn't get paid to work in a charity or if you did go and work there, there would obviously be no career progression opportunities and I would like to see that change.
I think a big part of the reason for setting up Worthwhile was the recognition that there are amazing opportunities and it's an incredibly enriching and rewarding space to work in and that it is perfectly possible to have a long term, happy, sustainable career that pays you well and you can live comfortably while doing socially meaningful work. So knowing that, that is an opportunity and again that some of the biggest problems we're facing are being, you know, challenged head on by the social enterprise and charity space. And so if you want to do something really big and meaningful and to be creative and innovative, there's an amazing opportunity here. I guess at a slightly broader level, one of the things that interests me or that I've been thinking about recently, is this idea that sectors have different purposes.
I just think it's increasingly untenable to say social enterprises and charities are for creating social impact and the private sector is for creating profit and returns for shareholders and jobs.
I think we really now quite urgently need to get to a space where organisations, no matter what sector they're in are, are held to the same account and that we don't create the excuse for certain organisations to abscond from the responsibilities on one level because they're optimising for another level.
I think there's been some really good progress in this from groups like B-Lab, but I just think we need to see more of that happening more quickly and so tying back to your question, about misconceptions about the sector. I think we need to get over the conception, that there's different rules for the game, for the social enterprise sector than there are for private business and that means some challenging changes for both spaces.
Very interesting perspective, Robbie. Do you think that the term ‘social enterprise’ in the future is going to become obsolete than if there's a pressure for effectively all companies to become social enterprises? [19:07]
Yeah, if you're framing it that way, I would love to see that happen because just at a really basic level, I think that's what needs to happen.
I think if we are too explicit about making social enterprise obsolete too early, then we end up maybe killing the goodness of the idea and reverting to old ways of working, but in an ideal world, and I think especially if we're going to survive as a species, then we need for all organisations to become social enterprises or to think in a different way about their broader impact in the world.
I'm sure over the last few years you must have had plenty of exposure to social impact work going on in the UK, Ireland, and all over the world. Are there any projects or initiatives that you'd like to share that you think are creating really exciting social impact? [19:52]
Yeah. Maybe I'll do a bit of a plug for some Irish work as I'm on my way back. So I think one of the really big success stories in the Irish social enterprise scene over the last number of years has been the Men's Shed initiative. So Men's Shed, do what they say on the tin to a large extent. It's a space for men to come together. I think the phrase they use a lot, is that men don't talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder, so it's a space for men to come and do things and to recognise that just by being in the same place, pursuing similar interests, there is the potential to create new relationships and for things happen that might not happen otherwise. They are really helpful and important from a mental health point of view and also from a community cohesion point of view, as well as creating opportunities for people to be creative in ways that might not have happened without that sort of anchor.
When Ireland was going through a really difficult time economically, and there were a lot of men all over the country who were feeling disconnected, we were having a real set of challenges around mental health and wellbeing, particularly in young men. So from one shed, there are now over 300 sheds operating throughout Ireland and they became a really central point to a lot of villages, towns and cities around the country and society. So it's been really exciting to see that grow. And to give just one more example from Ireland. One of the ideas I'm a huge fan of is Change X. Coming from a time when Ireland was facing serious economic difficulties, Ashoka launched a program where they invited, I think it was 50 of the best social enterprise ideas from around the world, to come up and look at setting up pilot programs in Ireland. Men's Shed was actually one of those ideas. So it's been one of the real success stories there. But the whole program was hugely successful and led to a real interesting set of creative outcomes within Ireland. While more of this needed to happen, it was completely unscalable, so they started by building a platform on the web where this could happen, so it's a space, a website where established projects, funders on community leaders can come together and look at essentially taking well-proven models of impact and funding and running them in communities anywhere in the world. And I think it's really exciting because they're one of very few organisations in the social enterprise space I've seen that are looking at real sort of silicon valley type hockey stick growth, in really exponential growth, and has the potential to keep going a long way with this.
I think there are loads of challenges around scaling in Social Enterprise. That's one example I've seen of a really interesting approach.
Awesome, thank you for that example. We will finish up with any books or other resources related to anything we've chatted about today that you think listeners should check out or that you would personally recommend?
Yeah, there's lots I could say here. So maybe I'll stick to a couple of books that I've found particularly useful when setting up and getting Worthwhile running for anyone out there who's thinking of starting a social venture. I think the books that really stuck with me are the ones that made a difference for where we went with Worthwhile. There is Blue Ocean Strategy, To Sell is Human; I hated sales and I find that a really good way of reframing the purpose of sales for me, and the Lean Startup - I think was incredibly useful as well again, reframing failure and reframing what needs to happen early in a social enterprises life. Putting a bit of process and structure and that. And more broadly around economics. I love Doughnut Economics, so I would recommend anyone interested in what a new economy looks like to read that.
Robbie, thank so much for your time today and all the best for your exciting move back to Ireland. [23:46]