Cherie White is the founder of Think for the Future, a social enterprise that was established in 2012 to use a data-driven approach to tackle social and emotional barriers to learning. They work in partnership with national organisations to provide schools with innovative solutions to ensure that young people reach their full educational potential. They are having a great impact in over 50 schools in the UK. They gather and visualise their social impact evidence as one of the strategic outputs for both, them and the schools they work with.
Three months ago I could have met Cherie for this interview at a café in Nottingham but in these weird times we had to resort to a couple of virtual calls. She is the kind of person that, with a kind and gentle touch, makes you feel things are under control. She is knowledgeable, clear and certain about the need of making a positive change as well as this change and social impact needs to be achieved and demonstrated with evidence in order to ensure its sustainability. Cherie is a passionate entrepreneur with a social-driven heart that inspires by her action. Genuine!
Why Think For The Future (TFTF)? What did trigger the initiative? What impact does it have?
The reason for setting Think For The Future up was my fascination of combining charity and business. My aim was to create a robust enterprise with a demonstrable social impact and not relying on grants.
I had my eyes open to the education system when I was 18 and set up a small schools project and University and was interested in testing this concept of social enterprise where you build a business model around generating impact and not reliant on donations. However, I had a grant that helped me to test the idea and I used it to try to deeply understand the problem more than defining a potential solution. This moved to us to testing multiple different models to understand where we can generate impact within the education system and we landed on our Behaviour & Resilience mentoring where we had very successful data from our test programme.
Think For The Future kicked off in 2012 and our current programme started in 2016. I set TFTF up and ran the organisation on my own with just 2 delivery staff for the first 3 years, now we have a core team of 9 people with 30 full time mentors across the UK and we are growing every 6 months. We have 5,000 young people in our programme and by Term 2 we see that 72% of them reduce their negative behaviour incidents by 52%.
How is Think For The Future socially innovative? Which innovations are you looking at for the near future?
Our main innovation is that data tracking sits at the core of how we work meaning we are taking a data approach to behaviour improvements and we do it in real time which is key to make strategic decisions.
Mixing human delivery with a clever tech platform is helping us to sell our business because we can demonstrate the impact and positive results of the programme to other schools that are potential clients. It is also helping us manage our mentors with a score system and therefor to manage the quality of our performance.
Impact is the core of what we do and is driving our businesses decisions. Our mentors are the type of individual carefully picked to generate maximum impact with our young people. In consequence data tracking is helping us to make operational and strategic decisions.
In the near future we are looking into developing other programme streams within the education system looking at putting trained coders into schools to teach coding qualifications.
Can you tell us about your own journey, was it easy to be a social innovator? Why? What do you think is missing in the social innovation ecosystem?
I grew up in a council estate in South East London and went to low performing school where a lot of my friends went down bad paths, I went to University in Nottingham and wanted to understand further the education system particularly in low income areas to understand the challenges they have and what solutions would be viable to ensure young people can achieve their full potential.
In the early days it was really hard because TFTF idea was still intangible. Although I knew that the opportunity was there and I could have an impact in young people, I couldn’t define the idea clearly and obviously I wasn’t able to demonstrate its value yet.
I think it’s very hard to build a business around generating social enterprise and you have to ensure you are very close to the financial model as often margins are low and you need to be innovative in your delivery models to sustain and self-grow. Then the risk is that data is not correlated to what is actually happening. We worked really hard on this and this is not our case, our data is linked to our results and that means that can be used as I said before.
At the beginning I felt really supported by organisations like The Young Foundation, UnLtd and Social Enterprise UK that were actually very helpful – still are as I still email them asking for things. There is loads of help at my finger tips that I could probably use even more, like access to finance, networking events, mentors, etc. I think there are loads of options if I need pro-bono experts like a lawyer, accountant, finance expert, etc. I have access to all of this support now and I had back then.
What I miss in the social innovation ecosystem is having a space and ability to really test ideas and to test business models. I think there are few financially successful social enterprises which means high quality development and support is not always available. In terms of expert support probably what I missed is someone who can help me with the smaller day to day logistics and operational issues of running a business or even setting up a business. Operational support would probably cut a few corners rather than the kind of the bigger picture support which is great but less practical.
What do you think is the role of social innovators today in the coronavirus and post-coronavirus world? And TFTF’s role?
I think that social innovators can contribute to what we need as a society which is to build socially conscious structures and innovations to shape the world in an economically friendly way. Huge amount of aid is coming up from the Covid-19 but it might go to cover urgent needs. That means that loads of education social enterprises for example will go under because they were created in a time when the Labour Government flowed around a huge amount of grants in the educational sector. Many social enterprises were created then based on a business models that rely on grants and donations and I think, unless they re-design their models, it will be very difficult for them to survive in a post-coronavirus world. That is why I think being financially sustainable is so important. This is the time when we social entrepreneurs will need to be more financially savvy than ever and provide social solutions at the same time.
Companies that have 50-60% of their budget based on grants or donations and are not providing coronavirus response programmes will struggle. Social enterprises will struggle unless they have a resilient business model.
In the context of the pandemic Think For The Future For is active and we have many mentors working at the schools. The programme had to be slightly tailored but not drastically. What we are doing is collecting quite a lot of data to see how coronavirus is affecting young people. We want to support schools rebuild and support out young people to ensure they are not disadvantaged by the current situation. We will see what this data tells us and if there is anything we need to do.
What is the one advice you can give to an aspiring social innovator today with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?
Looking back at my own journey I would say test your models sufficiently to understand the social impact you are having. You can do this by focusing on the numbers and see what they are telling you. When we started we gathered small data from one of the school where we were testing our idea. This data showed us a trend and a correlation ant that kept us on that track. You don’t need to collect masses of data but enough to verify what you are doing I think is key.
Remember, as I said before, to build a socially impactful idea with a robust business model from the financial perspective. Do not rely on grant funding or donations.
Thanks Cherie! It’s been a very instructive and inspiring interview. I am sure our readers will enjoy it. Hopefully we can have this coffee face to face, and soon.
Mónica Nagore Santandreu. I am passionate about social innovation as a tool to tackle our most urgent social challenges. I currently work for The Young Foundation designing and executing complex multi-stakeholder projects and supporting community-led and intermediary organisations to co-create positive change locally.
Previously I worked for the Innovation department at the City of York Council managing a transnational project with the cities of San Sebastian, Syracuse and Tallinn and supporting the transformation team. For several years I worked at Minorca Council in Spain where I led various departments in the areas of housing, innovation and employment.
Would you like to learn more from other inspiring social innovators?
Check out the Social Innovation Academy – the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation.
If you are interested in keeping up with the project, you can subscribe to our newsletter, become one of our friends or follow us on social media (LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook). We welcome all requests for collaboration here.
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.