The power to create animates?

November 7, 2014 by · 1 Comment
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Having supported over a hundred new social enterprises through the RSA Catalyst programme, one common flaw in the plans of ventures I’ve observed is a lack of resources (or plan for getting them) to market their product or service in front of their whole target audience. This has got me thinking as to how we might be able to help overcome this.

My idea for how to do this draws on the way that RSA Animates have been viewed 50m times because they’ve been interesting enough for people to share them and the recent and the growing prevalence of online courses. And I think it would be possible to create a course by which we help people make and then give a platform to animations about ventures they are inspired by (and that align with our work).

To see if this was feasible I decided to try to make my own animate of an RSA Fellow’s venture I was passionate about, document how long it took me as well as what equipment and technical expertise was required. Below is the result. The point is not that this video is good enough, but hopefully it gives a sense of what can be achieved if I’d also been able to read the advice of the creator of RSAnimates and been connected to someone who could draw better than me and who might have far more creative ways of displaying the content, rather than my cheap imitation of the RSA Animate style.

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Four reasons why Latin America is ahead on crowdfunding

October 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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Here at the RSA, we want to increase the power to create; our belief that all should have the freedom and power to turn their ideas into reality. Crowdfunding is a technology that helps people to get funding to launch their ideas. So I thought I’d share how four variations of crowdfunding technology are being used to launch ideas:

  1. beyond “£x0,000 pledged from x,000 backers so far” and “Joe Bloggs backed us”
  2. corporate social responsibility made easy
  3. we know crowdfunding can be used to help make films, but it can also make audiences too
  4. crowdsourcing crowdfunding (what do these words even mean??!).

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How crowdfunding can help launch social ventures – what we’ve learned so far

August 8, 2014 by · 6 Comments
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Last autumn the RSA launched new support to help RSA Fellows prepare and publicise crowdfunding campaigns – where people set a funding target and try to raise that money from lots of people. I recently gathered together a large group of people to feedback on our review of the first half a year of this support and see how it is relevant for different organisations.

This blog puts together the both the review in full and a quick snapshot.

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RSA crowdfunding: not your traditional report card

April 23, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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Enjoy this infographic about our crowdfunding support. Needless to say, I picked up the free infographics software from, you guessed it, a crowdfunding campaign. Three other things to explore:

  • find out more and apply for support for your venture. Our next deadline is this Sunday
  • browse or add to this list of social innovations that have crowdfunded (the 17 RSA Fellows and another 40 inspiring projects)
  • help with our evaluation of the programme by adding a comment below and I’ll send you a 15-page review we will be preparing in late-May.

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Never mind 3D printing guns: let’s 3D print bullet-shaped cars!

December 6, 2013 by · 1 Comment
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Walking around the 3D Print Show four weeks ago, I found that most of what was on show was either self-indulgent or pretty useless. I think we could all live without 3D printed statues of ourselves.  Do we need to 3D print imaginary insects? Do we need to print intricate chocolates using additive printing only for them to be gobbled down in an instant? I even went to a session titled “Building a 3D printed home” only to hear the designer had only printed a small part of the interior, which from the moment it was printed meant it was impossible to make any home improvements.

Then I heard Jim Kor talk. Jim and his team of designers in Canada have for decades been trying to build a car that does as little harm to the environment as possible, in light of some eye-watering projections about the number of new car drivers there will be in the next few decades. With few signs of the electric grid quickly becoming greener, they’re trying to build a car that can run at normal speeds on as little petrol as possible. They’re going about this in three main ways:

Firstly, making sure that energy is efficiently transferred from the engine to the tires. On this front, Jim is following many engineering features of the Mini Cooper (famously good at this), including the length of the car, in part because he used to race minis… on ice! (I have no idea whether Jim is driving this car, but I wouldn’t put it past him!)

Secondly, the team needed to reduce air drag. Jim pointed out that Enzo Ferarri’s comment “aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines” was for a by-gone era. His team have used the latest simulation software to come up with a car for two people that looks a bit like a bullet (below, right, ironic given the amount of press that the 3D printed guns have got).

(from left to right) the bird bone structure which Urbee used when 3D printing its parts / a Hummer / the Urbee (hopefully the difference in aerodynamics is obvious!)

Finally, they make the biggest savings on petrol by reducing weight. Here, Jim draws his inspiration from nature. Birds can fly because they have hollow bones. But, birds, like cars, need to survive collisions at high-speed so their hollow bones are full of intricate supports to increase their strength. The Urbee team mimicked this structure (above left) when building the parts for their car. 3D printing has allowed him to build a car that is far lighter than, but just as strong as, what is currently on the market.

Jim said that at current quantities of production they can produce the car for $50,000, but if a car company produced 100,000 then the cost could come down to $16,000. As was discussed during the RSA President’s lecture ‘Making the Future,’ one reason for the lack of investment in new digital fabrication technologies is because once products are designed and prototyped using technology such as 3D printing, at a certain scale of production it becomes cheaper to build moulds into which the final product is cast so manufacturing jobs go to other countries where labour and space is cheaper. Interestingly, in the case of the Urbee, 3D printing will still be required since no moulding can make the bird-bone-type structure.

There’s been a lot of hype about 3D printing, and maybe that’s needed to get noticed. But we should try and strip away the hyperbole, just like historian Marshall Poe does when describing the Internet as follows: “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Internet is a post office, newsstand, video store, shopping mall, game arcade, reference room, record outlet, adult book shop and casino rolled into one. Let’s be honest: that’s amazing. But it’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing – it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.” And I think the Urbee is a specific example of how useful 3D printing can be.

I’m reminded of what Evgeny Morozov said in his recent book about the Internet “technology should not be seen as lying outside of culture and history. Printing certainly didn’t come equipped with its own “logic” or “nature”… features were the product of complex negotiations and contingent historical processes, not the natural attributes of printing technology.” I think the same should apply to 3D printing. Just because some people want to use 3D printing for mini statues and intricate chocolates, it doesn’t mean the rest of us should be put off!

Here’s how you can get involved.

  • Show your support for the Urbee on their latest Kickstarter campaign
  • Like many new ventures, the Urbee team are using crowdfunding to turn their idea into action (having crowdfunded for the orange shell). If you want to use crowdfunding to turn your idea into action, the RSA Catalyst recently launched support to help people crowdfund their social ventures
  • RSA Enterprise team are designing a prize challenge for the UK’s talented pool of amateur designer-makers, hackers, fabricators and manufacturers to apply their skills to help disabled people, read more
  • If you’re a manufacturer interested in these new technologies, or a maker already experimenting with them, the RSA Design team are working to help makers. Read about this or follow them on twitter
  • Or you can get in touch with these RSA Fellows are hoping to build a digital fabrication space in London, having built one in Glasgow with support from RSA Catalyst

Why Kickstarter?

September 13, 2013 by · 2 Comments
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Since this post was written, the RSA’s crowdfunding area on Kickstarter has been launched, you can find it at

Ed Whiting announced on Monday “why crowdfunding, why the RSA and why now”. Before and after this post there have been some really interesting emails and exchanges (and some less interesting spam) on the #RSAcrowdfunding twitter-stream relating to why we chose to start an RSA area on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter as opposed to another platform. So I thought I’d take the time to set out how and why we chose to partner with them.


As is normal, I work with members of the Catalyst Working Group (mostly Fellowship Council members and some senior RSA staff) to design and deliver process changes to the Catalyst programme. For this particular change Ed and I worked up a proposal as to what we wanted to do. Since we hope RSA crowdfunding will a) make our organisation visible to other audiences, b) draw in projects from ARC and Events in addition to RSA Fellows and c) inform future technological developments, we formed a steering group with members of staff from across the organisation, ensuring we had members with experience of setting up a crowdfunding platform and of running campaigns. We also found two Fellows to advise us: one a leading academic on crowdfunding; another who runs a different crowdfunding platform.

As a group we set the following eligibility and criteria for deciding who we’d go with:

Eligibility. We would only consider platforms:

  • that allowed us to set up a partner page for free
  • with a track-record of hosting successful crowdfunding campaigns; and decided that our threshold would be those that had successfully raised at least £200,000

Criteria. Whilst it’s impossible for a brief list to exactly reflect the weight of particular criterion, or include all the factors one brings into the final decision, our agreed criteria were (in no particular order):

  1. the profile our projects would get through the platform, particularly internationally, which is a key strategic priority for the RSA
  2. what training and support for us staff and our Fellows running campaigns
  3. what data we would get to help us get a better picture of the extent to which Fellows will like crowdfunding
  4. what % the platform took on successful campaigns


We went with Kickstarter because it performed against the criteria as follows:

  1. they are the most successful crowdfunding platform having raised the most money to date and having the biggest community of return backers. We think that putting our projects on there will give them the greatest chance we can give of attracting wider support, as their stats indicate (of the stats, design, technology, food and art sections are the most relevant for us). In addition, Kickstarter has built a big international following
  2. the depth and quality of the advice for prospective campaigners both on the website and through their approval process. Whilst some bemoan their selection criteria, we think that by forcing projects to focus their pitches on what they are aiming to create and bringing into fruition, they give projects the best chance of appealing to a wider audience. Since we are new to crowdfunding and testing it out (without huge resources being invested), having these services saves us having to set them up ourselves. They also have expertise of working with partners to run spaces (such as Awesome, TED Fellows,, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Brown Center for Public Humanities and Slow Money)
  3. whilst we don’t get a lot of data from Kickstarter, we’ve found other ways to measure how much Fellows are interested
  4. Kickstarter’s 5% commission plus 3-5% payment costs on successful projects is only marginally higher than all other platforms considered, with the exception of pleasefundus whose pricing model really appealed since it is based on the “gifting” principles that drive (non-equity-/loan-based) crowdfunding sites

What next

We hope those platforms that we haven’t chosen will still be involved in the following ways:

  • our plan is for the pilot with Kickstarter to inform our own technology strategy and so we may well come back when we decide what our longer-term needs are. In the longer term we’d certainly hope for something more tailored to our organisational needs as well as what the social enterprise sector needs
  • as is typical, we’ll be bringing a wide range of people to deliver our support for Fellows who are crowdfunding:
  • join the debate and/or signal your support for the RSA’s move into crowdfunding by tweeting to #RSAcrowdfunding, ideally pledging to give £20 to your favourite of the projects that launch on Monday
  • finally, please let me know what you think in the comments (watch out for our spam filter though! Comments won’t get past our moderator if they’re just offering services and not commenting)

It’s been a huge pleasure to have been so involved in what I hope will be a great move for the RSA. The success of this won’t be down to the decision to go with Kickstarter. Instead it will be down to: the quality of the ideas that Fellows come up with/help one another craft and of the Events and ARC content to inspire those ideas; how many of our 27,000 Fellows and wider ARC and Events following back those projects and; to what extent the crowdfunding draws in more Fellows with amazing ideas to the RSA. I’m looking forward to getting the first glimpse at an answer on Monday!

Alex Watson is Catalyst Programme Manager at the RSA – follow him @watsoalexRSA Catalyst provides money, expertise and crowdfunding to Fellow-led ideas that aim to have a positive social impact. Find out more and apply for support at 

Since this post was written, the RSA’s crowdfunding area on Kickstarter has been launched, you can find it at

Social investment: inside out

May 31, 2013 by · 1 Comment
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This is a guest blog by Servane Mouazan FRSA, founder and Director at OGUNTE, an organisation that helps women social entrepreneurs to make a positive impact on people and planet by enabling them to learn, lead and connect. They do this through: stakeholder connections and introductions; executive coaching; angels training; leadership seminars and award programmes.

RSA Catalyst supported Servane to set up Make a Wave a pre-incubator programme helping women leading social enterprises access angel investor networks and gain financial literacy through a learning and networking programme. Make a Wave was the subject of the first of a series of London Region events aiming to share the learnings of Catalyst-supported ventures with Fellows, helping to scale the work. A twitter account of the event is available at the storify of the event.

Inside Out eventBackground

Women are not a niche market. They control nearly two-thirds of consumer spending in the world, more than the GDPs of Brazil, Russia, India and China combined (1). Statistics also show that women are more likely to buy environmentally-friendly services and products than men. Yet, despite media attention on women entrepreneurs on one side, and a growing demand for accountability and sustainable business practices on the other, women social entrepreneurs’ contribution in the economy is overlooked by policymakers and there’s a critical lack of academic research and therefore appropriate support. We only start now to push gendered metrics in impact investment and there is still a lot of work to be done to standardise what already exists.

Ogunte’s own research among successful women social leaders globally, shows that the top three barriers to growing social ventures are:

1-    “capital punishment”; sustained funding, loans at commercial rates (almost one in four)

2-    lack of packaged external support; combination of partnerships, mentoring, supply-chain opportunities and technical assistance (one in five)

3-    discrimination and prejudice comes third

We have identified that behind the first barrier identified as poor access to finance lies a lack of financial literacy. In the case of social entrepreneurs, there is confusion about a fast-changing landscape of impact investment and social investment, grant funding and financial products and structures available.

I found today’s event a great space to be able to think. As a one woman show sometimes having that head-space to be able to be inspired and bounce of ideas helps me see where I want to go in ways that maybe by myself I wouldn’t see” – Orode Faka, Infinite Arts&Media

Ogunte’s mission is to tackle these issues, by sharing processes that we’ve identified among successful women social entrepreneurs and activists. A peer-to-peer approach enables us to share the tools they use to further their cause, how they develop themselves to approach obstacles innovatively, and get results. During the FRSA learning event on March 7th, I shared the insights and learnings of two rounds of Make a Wave, which has been piloted among others with the help of RSA Catalyst.


To support this, I invited UCL professor Dr Tomas Chamorro Premuzic to introduce the Meta Profiling tool to highlight the fact that entrepreneurialism is not an occupation but rather a behaviour and that it is made of different components.  We know that building a team is essential when setting up in business as a one-man band quickly shows limitations. Meta is great to measure entrepreneurial talent and abilities, to identify the creative and entrepreneurial potential of people, and also to uncover blindspots in people. As with any other profiling tool it should be used cautiously and with a help of a mentor or a coach, you can start a conversation to establish what you need to do to focus on your strengths and not dwell on what you do less well.

Dr Tomas Chamorro Premuzic with ServaneMake a Wave participants learned to recognise and acknowledge what their strengths were and where they needed to find complimentary skills. Participants said they’ve transformed their business model during the programme, and have now a different perspective on their skills and their priorities. Some understood their heart was in campaigning and that the model they had created was never meant to become a commercial one. In other cases, some participants have managed to dissociate the campaigning side of their organisation vs. the business side. That involves different sets of skills, and different focus. For instance, you can campaign for a greater awareness in the long-term damage of non-organic cosmetics whilst selling a range of pure skincare. Behind the scenes, at the start-up phase, you will still need to make a decision about the time you spend educating audiences versus the time spent on the logistics involved in building a profitable skincare business; especially if you are just a team of two with limited resources.

Gaining confidence, improving financial literacy 

The groups were quite diverse with a variety of obstacles to overcome, different types of services and products to put to market. Being in the company of pre-revenue businesses, you realise how much you have learnt so far and the amount of knowledge you can share. It also forces you to explain simply what your venture is about and look at it with new eyes. One participant leading a mobile banking technology company reviewed her focus and simplified the offering.

Women are good at forecasting and budgeting. The fact is they are more realistic in their forecasts than their male counterparts. The numbers they put in their plans are what they think they are genuinely going to achieve” – Sally Goodsell, ex-CEO of The FSE Group, and creator of Incito Ventures

A major insight is that most women social entrepreneurs among the two cohorts realised they needed to boost their financial literacy skills. Some of them accepted that although it was not their forte, they needed to be able to have a conversation with their financial manager. Others realised that their business stories were translatable in numbers and that they could use it to start relationships with potential investors. That was a major confidence boost.

One of ours guest speakers, Sally Goodsell, previous CEO of The FSE Group, and creator of Incito Ventures, said “Women are good at forecasting and budgeting. The fact is that women are more realistic in their forecasts than their male counterparts. The numbers they put in their plans are what they think they are genuinely going to achieve.” It’s true that it doesn’t always look impressive when you are on the investor’s side. However all investors know that gloating forecasts are rarely achieved!

Getting the most out of board members, mentors and coaches

With investor Ida Beerhalter, participants explored ways to build and manage robust teams, how to go about managing disruptive board members, understand people’s drivers to join a social venture, and how to facilitate conversations in order to keep people interested.

Words attendees used to describe the eventParticipants said this pre-incubator was a unique opportunity to learn to ask relevant questions and get quick answers. One participant asked how to get investors to look at what their venture with a view to investing it. So we looked at how you could pull together and recruit members to shape an investment circle. We looked at the philanthropy model: the etiquette; how to approach people – or not; the use of intermediaries; when to start relationships with funders and potential investors; and what to disclose and what to keep for later conversations. (Our guest speaker Suzanne Biegel provided useful guidance on accessing Philanthropic Circles.)

Participants also learned about the difference between having a mentor and a mentoring project. At pre-revenue phase, it’s important to draw a map of how the venture is likely to operate, and gradually test the business model. There’s no point getting a mentor when you are not even sure of what the vision is going to look like. However a coach will be more useful to ask all the essential questions and guide the entrepreneur when they map their learning journey. Once all the working clusters have been established, a mentor can be picked up in specific categories. They will provide specific technical assistance, topical knowledge and relevant connections.

Next Steps

The Make a Wave pre-incubator taught us that we also needed to educate aspiring angel investors. So we created the Activist Angels development programme aimed at people with robust business skills, who want to understand the drivers behind social business. This programme encourages mentors to turn into “Investors” and helps them also understand their own attitude to risk and their decision-making skills. Finally, we are now putting a fund together to invest in the women social entrepreneurs involved in the programme.

To participate in the next Make a Wave round, get in touch with Servane Mouazan FRSA email

To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit

Re-inventing faith spaces: businesses and atheists welcome

May 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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The Christmas before last, I read a very important book called The Social Entrepreneur by Lord Andrew Mawson, charting his journey transforming a church in Bromley-by-Bow, East London into a centre delivering arts, healthcare and education services. The overriding lessons for me were a) the success of mobilising untapped creativity and cash in communities to tackle social problems and b) using church space outside of congregation time is as good a place as any to start. I was reminded of Andrew’s work by two Fellows’ ventures supported by Catalyst who have taken a similar approach.

Cathedral Innovation CentreThe first venture is led by Francis Davis FRSA to use excess faith-run spaces to incubate start-up or growth businesses and social enterprises, initially across the Solent region but developed for replication by every faith-based centre. He was supported by Catalyst to find nine Fellows who stepped forward to be designated mentors for the businesses. Last week I went down to the Portsmouth Cathedral Innovation Centre and saw Francis launching community shares in the fund investing in the start-ups, with Baroness Berridge, Minister for Employment Mark Hoban and Dean of Portsmouth Cathedral David Brindley there to commit to be the fund’s first investors.

Creating wealth is a good thing, employing people is a good thing, and I think it’s really important that the cathedral gets involved so that the capitalists, the people who make the wealth of the future, do it in a way that’s more socially responsible than we’ve seen in the past – Baroness Berridge, backer of Cathedral Innovation Centre, speaking on Radio 4

It was great to hear Francis talk about the quality of the Fellows who had stepped forward as mentors as well as see the array of faith institutions in Southampton and Portsmouth who are keen to set up with Francis’s help.

The second is The Sunday Assembly who run big public meetings with the aim of helping people to “live better, help often, wonder more”. They get people together in churches and other available spaces to sing pop songs, meet their neighbours, hear how they can help out with local community projects and listen to inspiring speakers to teach them more about the world they live in. As co-founder and RSA Fellow Sanderson Jones put it: “Atheists make a mistake to look at church and throw it all out just because they don’t believe in God.” Mobilising other faith spaces will be crucial to the ability to scale the assemblies to other communities. An encouraging sign came when one Assembly in North London dovetailed with a church service, the Bishop was very encouraged by the Assembly: “in the process of time, with love people will come to know the God that we serve.”

Of course the guardian could not resist citing experts who say “I do think it’s going to appeal only to one particular section of the community… a middle-class cultural elite” and “atheist churches were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but petered out because people found other forms of social organisation that suited them better”. What Mawson said is relevant to these critiques: “start with people and action rather than research… avoid paralysis by analysis.” Sanderson is getting on with it and with the help of a Catalyst grant wants to provide clear instructions to help others launch Sunday Assemblies in communities across the world.

Atheists make a mistake to look at church and throw it all out just because they don’t believe in God – Sanderson Jones FRSA, co-founder of The Sunday Assembly

Matthew Taylor said in his 21st century enlightenment pamphlet that “The Enlightenment had to struggle against the dogma of religious and monarchical authority, but are there today new dogmas, deeply embedded in our culture and consciousness which we need to find a way to question? That our lives are the story of self-consciously directed individuals, owing our allegiance to the large but exclusive tribe of strangers we call a nation, ever seeking to progress our material interests in a universe governed by knowable rules; this feels natural to us.” He noted that it is predicted that by 2050 four out of five of the world’s citizens will be religious believers, which makes it even more important to mobilise the religions’ methods, networks and spaces to tackle today’s problems.

I wanted to end with what Lord Mawson had learned from building his Bromley-by-Bow centre, which I think sums up what Catalyst is about, supporting RSA Fellows to try out new ventures. He said that: “answers to macro-political questions must be sought in the micro-experience of local activity… rewarding those who bother to get off their backsides to work together on practical projects and discouraging those who want to take the lazy, pontificating, seminar-attending approach.”

The Sunday Assembly was profiled by BBC London news here. Come along to the next Sunday Assembly or start your own.

The Cathedral Innovation Centre was profiled in last week’s Radio 4 Sunday episode (33 minutes 21 seconds in) and will be the ‘Big Idea’ in Monday’s RSA Fellowship newsletter.

Alex Watson is Catalyst Programme Manager at the RSA – follow him @watsoalex

Prisoners in work: a broadcast to the nation

April 18, 2013 by · 1 Comment
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Sunday’s episode of Channel 4’s Secret Millions series focused on a venture supported by RSA Catalyst. Led by Fellows, it aims to reduce reoffending by making offenders more employable: manufacturing and assembling quality furniture during the time that is often spent sitting in cells and being unemployed on release. The venture was selected by the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs Network to be part of their Spotlight initiative and it also made perfect sense to me that this was the first Catalyst-funded idea to make it onto primetime television:

The size of the problem

Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) (1) underlines the positive impact that securing a job on release can have on reoffending rates – they are lowered by more than 50% if employment is found upon release among those serving short term (less than 12 month) prison sentences. A previous MOJ survey found that 68% of prisoners said having a job was the biggest factor in helping them to stop offending (2).

Secret Millions

While some employers such as Virgin, M&S and Greggs have taken a lead in employing offenders, many employers remain nervous, often irrespective of the nature of their crime, their skills-set and real (rather than perceived) risks. This will at some point affect the almost 100,000 prisoners in the UK and the roughly 1.25m benefit claimants and 0.5m JSA recipients who have been cautioned or convicted (3). Their difficulty in finding a job will also increase as the labour market moves online (difficult to access in prisons).

The programme brushed over the difficulty of negotiating the bureaucracy of the prison service when helping prisoners to get employability skills through work in prisons:

  • As Kate Welch (one of the two RSA Fellows who co-founded the venture in the programme, Reap & Sow) explained, owing to the responsibility that a Governor has over an individual prison, expanding a social enterprise would take considerable time persuading each Governor;
  • There are also problems in that the longest a working day is allowed to be in many prisons is 5 hours long. Even those hours are restricted by staff shortages and emergencies/searches. This Howard League publication discusses some of the institutional barriers in more detail;
  • Selecting the right people who have the skills for the job can take time. And getting the data on how they do upon release is also not easy – as a Fellow voiced at a recent Social Entrepreneurs Network event.

Some of these barriers are reducing as government sees it as more of a priority to “Make Prisons Work.” 

(Presenter:) It’s a product with a conscience, do you think that’s a selling point?”

(Furniture retailer:) “To have a strong story behind a product is always very good”

(P:) “We were looking to sell it for about £1000…”

(FR:) “I think that’s feasible”

(P:) “How would you feel about having this in your shop. Is that something you would consider?”

(FR:) “Definitely”

Turning problems into opportunities

It was genuinely encouraging to see that some key elements of the social enterprise these Fellows wanted to test appeared to be viable. The furniture retailer interviewed signalled that the £1000 price-tag for the furniture was commercially-viable. The retailer also said that the social side of the enterprise – it was helping turn around the lives of the offenders – was a selling point. This echoed with what I heard from the CEO of Blue Sky Development. They have employed more than 500 ex-offenders since 2005 and 60% of the business is funded by delivering commercial work (4), in which he said firms are keen to take part.

Not only can the “turning-around-lives” line help sell products, but it also helps reduce some of the costs of producing them. Reap & Sow made use of the RSA Fellowship’s cultural partnership with Northumbria University to get students and designers in residence at arguably the top design school in the country to do the designs (helped along by our Catalyst grant award).

One interesting dimension comes in the form of studies that show ex-offenders display more entrepreneurial traits than average. It is this kind of evidence, when combined with problems set out above that has informed the RSA’s Transitions project, which is working with a prison in Yorkshire to test a new approach. It is aiming to provide prisoners and ex-offenders with resettlement services alongside opportunities for work and skills development both in custody employing ex-offenders on site and on release, with the assumption that some people will become ‘sole traders’ but will need support on developing their business, while others will go into employment but will sometimes need additional support. (Here’s a recent post from our Chief Exec on its importance and progress.)

There have already been smaller-scale successes by focusing on self-employment: Startup has supported 230 clients into self-employment and their clients have a re-offending rate of under 5% (5). Baillie Aaron FRSA set up Venturing Out which helping offenders plan micro-enterprises in prison. She now runs Spark Inside, who provide life coaching to young offenders before and after they leave prisons. Spark Inside believes that coaching can help ex-offenders break down long-term goals into small steps; for example how to use what might at first look like a dead-end low-paid job to build up the sufficient skills and capital needed to launch a business.

The RSA as a Catalyst

Many start-ups fail and we don’t expect every project that we support through Catalyst to become a gigantic social enterprise. Reap & Sow has been put on hold because of a breakdown in the working relationship of the two Fellows who co-founded it (which is why you never heard the words “Reap & Sow” and the programme is quite unclear where the idea came from, whether it was via Acumen Trust or Katie Piper herself). But given the success of the first batch of production both for the ex-offenders and the response from retailers the Fellows are looking to make tweaks to the model and set up new vehicles to take it forward.

As well as supporting the success of individual ventures, we hope that Catalyst-funded ventures offer lessons to others trying to tackle a similar social problem. Getting the venture’s concept out to a primetime audience of at least a million will inspire others to run something similar and increase the demand for products made by ex-offenders.

There are some fascinating stories in the programme, not least the attitudes of the presenter who was herself a victim of serious crime. You’ve got 26 days to watch it and if I haven’t persuaded you, I’ll let Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”

If you want to get in touch with Kate Welch, you can do so via

RSA Transitions is doing a feasibility study to deliver a site next to HMP Everthorpe. If you are interested in finding out more see here or get in touch with Rachel O’Brien

Alex Watson is Catalyst Programme Manager at the RSA. He is also a volunteer member of the Independent Monitoring Board of a London prison – follow him @watsoalex

How to create and not just consume – with RSA Catalyst

November 29, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

I saw two main strands to the RSA’s recent Generation Enterprise report written by Adam Lent, our Director of Programme. One charts the increase in entrepreneurialism among today’s generation of young people and analyses its causes and effects. This was explored both by the headlines that the report received in CityAM, Evening Standard and in the RSA Event with Madsen Pirie and Martha Lane Fox. I want to explore the other, Adam’s identification and analysis of the social effects of what he calls ‘self-generated value’. ‘What’s that?’ you might ask:

“in a growing number of areas, the consumer no longer has to rely on the insight of the entrepreneur to obtain value. Instead, the consumer can generate that value for him or herself. Think, for example, how the most potent source of detailed factual knowledge across the world is now an online encyclopaedia written by its readers.” (See my colleague’s blog for some well-known examples of where SGV has been applied in practice).

As Adam, says, the phenomenon has been identified before, and called pro-sumption (the merging of the production and consumption). But he goes on to say:

“What is truly revolutionary about the new worm-hole [caused by the creation of the internet] is not the collapse of the distinction between production and consumption per se but the new capacity of individuals to start generating value for themselves in ways which continue the capitalist trend towards the creation of ever greater value for millions of consumers.”

Though I will be reading Tapscott and Williams’ Macrowikinomics and Doc Searls’ The Intention Economy to find out more, I wanted to illustrate my initial understanding of this through some of the RSA Fellows’ ventures supported by RSA Catalyst in a few different areas of value-creation. In one sense, these examples don’t really do justice to what Adam is focusing on. His focus is on quite conventional products and services purchased in the private sphere (music and t-shirts) rather than any kind of service in the social sphere (personal education, food waste and care). Indeed, half the point was to show the value to society of improvements in private consumption. But I think hope these examples demonstrate the trends Adam identifies in the private sector to an audience from the public and third sectors, drawing on manufacturing and commercial expertise to deliver more effective undertakings explicitly for the public good.

Production of knowledge-based goods. Services like facebook and twitter offer blank slates upon which users inscribe their own value and meaning, together creating huge value for its participants.

  • Omnifolio is building a service for users to track their traits, work experience, formal and, crucially, informal educational (such as books read, lectures attended). They hope resulting profiles will help people find, train for and better communicate one’s suitability to potential employers.

Pricing and distribution. Adam gives some examples of sites dedicated to getting consumers to club together to negotiate on price over a product the ‘crowd’ desires and how consumers now exert greater control over when their purchases are delivered.

  • Plan Zheroes; rather than businesses throwing away and paying councils (sometimes by the tonne) to take good food to waste, this map makes it simple to find a charity nearby and organize to drop off surplus food to a local soup-kitchen, community group or food redistribution programme. Over 300 businesses have signed up so far. By giving the market small amounts of information about waste, participants are helping others provide a service that takes away the guilt of throwing away edible food at the end of the day.

Marketing. It may seem strange to see marketing as an integral part of creating value. But it is indeed since advertising can make low-value product look or feel valuable and that consumers are swamped with a huge variety of products and services, the difference between which is increasingly meaningless.

  • Rate My Care; an online platform for rating social care providers, providing a resource for people unsure where they should residential to an elderly loved-one. As well as opening up marketing of particular services, these ventures also emphasise the need for consumers of services to give input into the re-design and improvement of the services.

The Generation Enterprise publication is a good read and the lecture a good listen. I hope it sparks ideas for a new solution for people to generate value for themselves. If it does this, feel free to throw your idea into the Catalyst programme.

Alex Watson is Catalyst Programme Manager – follow him @watsoalex

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