Social entrepreneur: Julia Ashley

Speed and ease of putting new ideas into action is vital for Julia Ashley, new business director at London-based housing association and care provider Central and Cecil.

Interview Transcript

What does Central and Cecil do that other charities can’t?

I love this question because it brings me back to something that I love to talk about which is: we’re big enough to be taken seriously but small enough to respond flexibly. So, to me you know a big national organisation you can become very rigid, there’s decision making hierarchies in place that can mean that particularly from my point of view a new business that decisions can take a long time to get through, new business opportunities can take a long time to get through, new innovations can be stifled along the way of those sort of hierarchies.

We’re pretty flat. We’re very local, if we have an idea today we can be out there delivering it tomorrow. And I think we’ve got examples of being able to do that. Somebody in our organisation has a great idea, it can get to the chief executive really quickly, and she’s created a wonderful environment where creativity and change is a good thing and people can try new things.

Does Central and Cecil operate like a business?

To all intents and purposes we are a commercial enterprise. When we talk about not-for-profit it doesn’t mean we should not be making surpluses because if we don’t strive to be business-like and operate as a commercial entity would, challenge our cost structure all the time, be really efficient with how we spend our money, we can never reinvest in new services. And that’s what we’re all about. It’s about getting those services out there to the people that need them the most from us and rely on us, to be able to innovate, to be able to bring new things to the table, to take the service delivery forward, so yes we have to operate much as any other business would.

How has the current downturn affected things?

From a business point of view it’s not really having a great effect. In fact it’s creating some opportunities in some areas.

For instance we’re working with a housing developer, a commercial housing developer that we’d never ever have worked with before. We’ve both spotted an opportunity to work together, it helps us both, and great things are happening from it. So within the terrible situation that we’re in we’re finding good things to do.

We’re financially very strong, we can ride this out unlike some other housing associations which actually might be looking to merge with us or other people like us. And from a people point of view I think it’s a terrible situation that we’re in where people are losing their jobs, but for years we’ve really struggled to get people to see care or charitable work as a career choice, and so we’re making the most of this opportunity so that we can attract people – once people work with vulnerable people that need them the job satisfaction is huge and I don’t think people ever go back, so we’re wanting to capitalise on that, make sure that employment is out there for the people who need it and that they’re coming to us and we’re going to be retaining them long after the recession’s gone.

How are you funded?

We’re largely government-funded. We’re a registered social landlord so we receive grants for development through what is now the Homes and Communities Agency and our tenants pay us social rent which helps us to keep the properties going.

From a care perspective we have contracts from the local authorities that commission care from us and we also do the fundraising bit and… we’re very, very successful in getting people to actually back us, trust us and believe in us and some of things that we want to do so for instance our added value services, our arts and education and personal development programmes are all funded though voluntary donations.

And I think the challenge for us which is why we need to be working with people like Bank of Scotland is that when we’re commissioned to provide services from the government you know the service is already defined for us and we’re sort of sometimes been quite reactive in chasing that funding and sometime you can get into the habit of being funding-led and I think what is different about our organisation is that we’ve got the passion to innovate but you know at that point we have often got untried, untested models that we want to test out. That’s difficult to get a government department, who are accountable to the taxpayer after all, to invest in that. So we need pump-prime funding so that we can create new services, take service delivery forward into the next century, next generation or whatever, and that actually we can through that provide the evidence by quite rigorous evaluation of what we’re doing so that we can prove to our commissioners that this is the brave new world out there, this is the way forward then they will commission those services as mainstream in the longer term.

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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