Madelyn Jones & Gali Blacher On How Collaborative Social Initiatives Can Be Used To Create Positive Impact For The Homeless Community
Madelyn Jones and Gali Blacher founded The Good Box in 2018 after noticing the extreme isolation the homeless community face day in and day out.
The Good Box is a social enterprise that creates beautifully packaged boxes filled with essentials and non-essentials. The public can purchase boxes to give directly to someone experiencing homelessness, or choose for it to be distributed to one of The Good Box’s charity partners, who will provide the boxes to their clients. The Good Box is a vehicle to a very important conversation with someone experiencing homelessness to brighten up their day.
The Good Box’s distribution charities include Dignity and Jewish House, who provide emergency accommodation for people that have fled domestic violence or in dire living situations. The boxes are also distributed through the Council, at Orange Sky Laundry shifts, through Newtown Neighbourhood Centre and recently to Yumba-Meta who provide amazing services to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Community. 35% of The Good Box’s profits go back to their charity partners.
Gali and Maddy discuss some of the key lessons learnt in setting up The Good Box, a social enterprise which aims to address homelessness, whilst providing advice to help others turn their ideas into impact.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Thomas Long] - To start things off, can you share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of social enterprise?
[Gali Blacher] - Maddy and I used to work at a company together in the Sydney CBD, so our backgrounds are in events and journalism and when we worked together, we used to walk down the streets. We used to notice that there were a lot of people sleeping rough. We also noticed that there are a lot of people who ignore those people sleeping rough or complained about not wanting to give money but wanted to do something. So that's kind of what started the whole thing once we started to talk about “Okay, well we need to do something. We're noticing this isolation, we're also noticing that people wanting to give something and wanting to help instantly, but their not wanting to give money. So what can we do?” And that's how it started. The reason why The Good Box is a social enterprise is because I at the time worked as a journalist in the sector within charity and social enterprises and I knew the models quite well and I also realised that, social enterprises do have the potential to be able to be self sustainable rather than having to rely on donations, so that's why it started off as a social enterprise, because of that research. So when we decided on The Good Box, we knew “Okay, this is the model that will work the best for us,” as we needed a very self-sustainable model.
Awesome. For our listeners who don't know what you're doing, can you please tell us a bit more about The Good Box?
[Madelyn Jones] - The Good Box is basically an alternative way to give to someone experiencing homelessness. We have three different boxes. The blokes box, which is for men experiencing homelessness, the gals box, which is for women and the good box, which is just for anyone in general. And they all cater for different types of needs. So when we created these boxes, we noticed people wanting to help but [they] didn't want to give money. And so we thought, ‘what better way to create something where you know what you're giving?’ It's a tangible box with good stuff inside it and it's a good way to start up a conversation with someone and give them a box. And so, that's basically what The Good Box is.
[Gali] - The boxes are about giving directly. You can buy a box and give it directly to someone in need. And each box has a really beautiful story that's told in illustration. So it really captivates people and it's a beautifully packaged box that really makes people want to have that conversation. Which is the most important thing. But on top of that, we'll also send the boxes to our charity partners and people can write a special note so that it's also going to those people that might not be sleeping rough, but they are still experiencing homelessness. So that's how The Good Box works.
What have been your greatest challenges with The Good Box?
[Gali] - Starting anything, you start off and you're like “Yeah, I have this great idea, let's just do it”. And then you're like, “Wow okay, there's a lot of challenges.” But the truth is, with a social enterprise, the challenge there is that it's a business, right? But it's also a business where you have to focus on the social aspects, because you want to make a good impact and need to show that impact. At the same time, you're also needing to be self sustainable, so you need to be able to be profitable; to be making money, so you can keep making that impact. It's about making sure you're nailing the business side, while also nailing the social side. So that's quite a challenge because that’s two very big things. The way that we've been able to keep overcoming this challenge, (it's an ongoing challenge) is talking to different people, getting different mentors, asking people who've been in the shoes themselves, reading different articles, going to different networking events.
The more you collaborate, the more you share ideas, the more you learn from people, the better that aspect can be.
And then just knowing who to seek advice from; you might meet someone who's specifically just in business, you might need someone who's specifically in a social enterprise, or specifically the charitable side. So it's just about seeking how and learning more and knowing where your focus needs. And because there's two of us, it's quite good, because we're able to say “Okay, one of you focus on the business side for this week. The other one focuses on the social side for this week and that's the way that we've been able to manage that challenge.
[Maddy] - I think the other challenge being a social enterprise is we get a lot of people who don't actually know what a social enterprise model is and it's always “Oh, so you're a charity?” And it's like “No”.
I think in Australia, social enterprise isn't quite that buzzword just yet as it is overseas. So it's that challenge of explaining what it is we do, trying to make sure that people know we're still transparent at doing good. Just because we're not a charity, it doesn't mean that we're not making good contributions. So that's another challenge in being a social enterprise.
It is a very exciting time. We are definitely building it up. For our listeners who are keen to start their own social enterprise but are really struggling to take the leap, what advice would you give them?
[Maddy] - We were very different. I don't know if a lot of other people were the same, but we actually took about a year to really nail our idea. We’re not really the type of people to just be like, ‘all right, let's go straight into it.’ And there's pros and cons to doing it that way. But for us, it was really think about the idea, what kind of impact is it going to make? Are you scalable?
Talk to as many people as you can. People say, ‘talk to everyone, get their advice,’ but really also trust your gut. Take everyone's advice, but listen to what your gut says and take everything with a pinch of salt.
[Gali] - I guess that's the challenge that we had to do that. People give you different advice and everyone's really willing to help. And it's also about not becoming inundated with that. Also knowing when to trust your gut, when to really go with something and when to sit on it for a while. So that's the kind of advice I would give to someone who's wanting to start a social enterprise. Definitely. Talk to everyone that you know that can help you, but also know when to trust your gut.
We always get told this it’s not a sprint, it's not a marathon, it’s really a slow waddle.
So, definitely keep that in mind. We started every Tuesday night just talking about our idea, and then it became every Tuesday and then every Sunday, and then eventually ends up becoming your whole life. And so, it's just about starting small and then progressively getting bigger and bigger.
That's really positive advice. What have been the keys to measuring and communicating your success? The way you're using storytelling to connect people is really interesting.
[Maddy] - The biggest thing for us was, at the beginning we actually really struggled to show our impact. We know that this box is so amazing, but when we were applying for programs and accelerator programs, it was like “yeah, but how do you show your impact?” So that was one thing that we worked on really hard. And one piece of advice that we would say to the people who are struggling with the same thing is “go and do it” and “practice what you preach”. So we were just like, ‘how about we actually just go out and give some boxes of our prototype, and then we can measure our impact?’ So that was what we did. And we went to different charities who we're working with and we said, ‘can you give us feedback on the boxes?’ And they would send us testimonials and photos and stories of people that have opened the box. And, that makes us feel really great that people who are buying these boxes are actually getting a transparent journey of where that box is going and how it's making someone feel. So, I would say just go out, do, and practice what you preach.
[Gali] - When we started this all, the most beautiful thing about this is that we get to share the most beautiful stories, you know, it's all about the conversation. We work with Orange Sky Laundry really closely and they speak about the really powerful impact of a conversation, and it's because these beautiful stories you can tell, it's also about educating people.
One of the most powerful ways that we do different programs is we speak in different places. We recently just did a children's program where we spoke about The Good Box and we communicated those stories and sometimes it's just about attending. Just attending different community events and thinking about what we do and telling them and showing them pictures; pictures are an amazing way of showing that impact. People like to listen to the stories and like to hear the different people that we've helped and really helps them as well. It really teaches them a bit more, because education is key to creating a more understanding society. Homelessness is full of misconceptions. I think by just showing those stories and talking about them, people are like, “oh wow, I didn't realise that. Oh my goodness, that could happen to me.” By creating a more understanding society, [you are also producing] a society that does more good and has more impact.
What steps can we as a community or society take in order to support the homeless community?
[Maddy] - There's lots you can do. One thing that is huge to our core, is even if you don't feel comfortable giving money, you don't feel comfortable donating or buying a box, whatever it might be, even if you just walk past someone who is sleeping rough, who is not having a nice time clearly, and you give them a smile, or you wave at them, or you say “Hey, how are you going today?” It’s that really nice feeling that they get inside. Imagine if some stranger just came up to you and said “Hey mate, how's your day going?” It's a really nice feeling and that's the same for them. They're part of the our community. They shouldn't be taken as someone that you just step over and it can really actually change their day. And that's why our moral is “buy a box, have a chat and change a life”, because it's so simple to just change someone's life. It doesn't need to be this whole “but what if this or what if that.” If you don't feel comfortable then don't do it. Also, just volunteering your time to something that you think is a good cause. There's plenty of organisations that do amazing things with homelessness. Orange Sky Laundry go out and clean people's clothes and give them a shower and make them feel fresh. And we provide our boxes there as well. So when they're waiting for their clothes to be washed, they can grab a box off us. And then there's also Beddown who are doing amazing things and always needing volunteers as well. So I guess, if you don't feel comfortable giving someone money on the street, then look into other ways of how you can be involved.
[Gali] - There's so many other ways of being involved, but you know that always comes back to the core of why we even created The Good Box. There are different ways [to help] and if someone's comfortable to help, if you can give the box yourself and you can have that conversation, that's an easy and transparent way of giving, or you can hop online and get a box delivered to one of our charity partners and write a note, or you can even go more than that. You can volunteer at Beddown or at Orange Sky Laundry. You don't ever have to feel like “Oh, because you can't do one. You can't do anything”. Do whatever you feel comfortable with.
From a social enterprise perspective, what are some potential barriers that you can find in community engagement and what can other social enterprises do to overcome them?
[Gali] - So when it comes to social enterprises, there are a few barriers. With charities I would say there's a lot more than social enterprises have. Every single business has a lot of red tape. But I guess unfortunately charities do have a huge amount of red tape. Of course there's going to be people who are like “Oh what, you’re making money off this? How can you make money? But also do good? That’s a weird concept.'' And it's “No, it’s actually a fantastic concept.” Because think about it, there are businesses that are making a lot of money, but you’re ok with them not doing good and so that doesn't make too much sense. So it's like, ‘what about a business that is making money and doing good and you've got both?’ That's fantastic because money creates impact. That's one thing everyone's going to be quite real about, and charities think about this all the time:
in order to make really significant impact, you obviously need money and that's it.
That's a challenge social enterprises and charities both have. I would tell a social enterprise who is going through challenges that it’s just about always coming back down to the core of what you do. Coming down to the core of your purpose, saying “What is the impact that I'm trying to make? And Maddy and I do this all the time, you come back and you remind yourself “Okay, what is The Good Box about? What are we trying to achieve? And let's go back to that core purpose.”
Once you remind yourself of what you're there for, it's also about shutting down any negative voices; often your own negative voices.
And it's just about saying “Okay, we’re on this path and make sure that we're making impact and that's what you remind all social enterprises. I know that going back to that original challenge, it's that business and charitable aspect of a social enterprise. It's always going to be that challenge, but the more people are educated about what a social enterprise is, the more they understand what the model is, the easier it is for us to make an impact, the easier it is for people to understand. I know in America social enterprises are huge. Once Australia starts to get bigger, once people really understand what a social enterprise is, more and more, that will make it easier for us and all social enterprises as well.
[Maddy] - In terms of barriers to community involvement, there is that misconception that if you're not a charity then it's hard for the community to get involved with what you're doing and to volunteer. But you know, we operate in a very similar way that we still can have volunteers come on board. We direct volunteers to other charities because we work with so many charities. I think that's another misconception about community involvement with social enterprises, but at the end of the day, it's still the same concept. We all can be involved.
[Gali] - Yeah. And collaboration is key. We're all creating an impact in a different way. We all have been trying to create impact who are relying on donations to make an impact. So social enterprises are now relying on a business model. Now you're seeing more and more charities having that social enterprise section of their charity. We’re seeing more and more NFP social enterprises, which is kind of both together, because people are realising that in order to keep making an impact, you need to be financially sustainable and having that business side of it really does help.
It's also us collaborating and working together as well. Charities, social enterprises, the community, all of us working together. We've seen how amazing that can be.
Are there any inspiring projects or social initiatives that you think are creating some real positive change?
[Maddy] - We definitely think one of the recent ones is Beddown who, I think you've just done a podcast on them recently, but if you've listened to it before, they came and built a relationship with Secure Parking overnight basically. And there's a lot of barriers that Norm’s had to deal with, but it's just so amazing to provide a nice warm bed for someone to sleep in overnight and turn a car park into a house and have all these volunteers come on board and donate their time and their services. So I think that it's a brave thing to do as well. I know he's had a lot of hiccups and a lot of hurdles, but he's the same as us. Come back to the core of what are we doing and why are we doing it? And then there's also Orange Sky Laundry who we absolutely love and they do amazing things. They just had this crazy idea to go and build a mobile van and wash people's clothes on the street and now it's all over Australia, up in North Queensland and they're now gone to New Zealand. So we love working with Orange Sky Laundry. Can you think of anyone else?
[Gali] - Yeah, I was going to say, Beddown are going to have their trial soon and we are going to be providing Good Boxes on everyone's bed. That's really cool. That's another way of us all collaborating and engaging with each other. Maddy's had an Orange Sky shift this morning. One of our Good Box volunteers is working with the Orange Sky volunteers and teams and handing out Good Boxes. Something amazing that we've realised is how amazingly incredible other people in this space have been to us and how we've really worked together. It's not about “Oh well we are already in this space, so go away”. It's like “No, no, no, you're doing something different to what we're doing in this space. Let's all work together. Let's all collaborate.” As soon as we found out Beddown was in this space we were like “Hey, let's talk” and Norm was so amazing with “let's get you boxes in our trials and let's get those conversations going.” Same as Orange Sky. They were like “Okay, cool. We are all about the conversation, so let's bring the boxes and let's add that”. And then we know we were working with a whole lot of other charities as well. We work with Share the Dignity. We work with another charity called Dignity, and we will start work with an Indigenous organisation soon called Yumba-Meta.
There's all these different organisations doing amazing things in this space and everyone is so keen to collaborate and work together and that is the most incredible thing.
Do you believe that there's an opportunity for social initiatives and social enterprises to collaborate together within even just the Brisbane community?
[Gali] - Yeah, for sure. When it comes to social enterprises, everyone definitely needs to collaborate and everyone definitely needs to engage with each other. I think sometimes the problem is not everyone knows about each other. You know? And I think the best way someone can help is by just, if you know that someone's similar, suggest to meet up and reach out. That stuff happens all the time. We just heard about another social enterprise in the space, and we were like, ‘okay, well we need to reach out to them.’
[Maddy] - Yeah. Rather than us playing, “Oh gosh, we've got to stay away. That could be competition.” And it's like, “well no, let's work together so that we can all broaden the impact.”
Collaboration is probably the most important thing when it comes to it social initiatives.
[Gali] - People might say “If you work with too many people, with too much collaboration, you’re stretching yourself thin”. And it's like “Well no, because there's a way to work together on all different aspects, whether it's just supporting someone at an event”. Just being present, that's great too. And there's no reason for the social enterprise space, whether it's in Sydney, whether it's in Brisbane, it's just about networking, even with each other, just chatting with each other. Just saying “this is the challenge that I have. And how did you overcome that?” And I know that there's a wonderful social entrepreneur that I met a while ago at a networking event and we're going to have a conversation soon and she's not in the homelessness space, but in the wildlife space. But you know, just about “Cool, you're in the social enterprise space, let's collaborate in some way”. Sometimes it just means sharing advice and sometimes it means more than that, but whatever it is, yes, there's so much opportunity for that. Because you never know what is going to come out of the conversation.
As our final question, would you have any books or podcasts that you think could be really helpful for our listeners that have really helped you on your journey?
[Maddy] - In terms of social enterprise books and starting up a social enterprise? I'm sure many people have probably recommended it, but definitely “Chapter One” by Daniel Flynn. I'm not sure if anyone's heard of that, but Thank you is the social enterprise that started the water bottles and now they do a whole heap of different body care products, wash products and baby care and they give 100% of their profits to charities. It's a really interesting story on how they started everything out. They were uni students and he [Daniel Flynn] and his girlfriend had this idea that they wanted to give back 100%. They started with the water bottles and then that progressed everything else. So it's really interesting to hear from when people start, to how big they are now and it just gives you that perspective. There's also the founder of Toms Shoes. He's based in America, he's a social enterprise. You buy a pair of shoes and then they donate a pair of shoes to Africa, so that's also really interesting.
[Gali] - I am always looking for more social enterprise books and if everything falls into place, maybe we'll write one one day. One book that I was reading when we first started this, all that was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Especially being female social entrepreneurs and just as female entrepreneurs, it's such a strong book and it's really just about making sure that that you let your voice be heard and you don't fall into the background, because…
sometimes when you're starting off a business, you can often doubt yourself. You can often think “Oh, am I doing the correct thing?”
And this book is all about staying true to what you think and staying true to what you feel. Such a good book, even if you're not a woman. You can just pick chapters and read which one’s most relevant. The whole reason that Maddy and I even started to be friends in the first place, is because we're both pretty obsessed with true crime books and any sort of Thrillist. When we first started talking, we were reading Big Little Lies. We both saw we had a copy in the office. Then we were like “Oh, we are both reading this book” and that's how it all started.