Setting-up an Education Focused Social-Enterprise: 10 tips for success

15th January 2015


I was just heading out at the time and only had 5 minutes to respond; so I sent over 10 things that immediately sprang to mind.

They weren’t the most deeply cogitated tips so I figured a few sentences of explanation would be helpful and might come in handy for others in the sector too.

1. Recognise the limitations of volunteers.

When I was a teacher I was Head of gifted and talented. At one point the Aim Higher programme offered me as many student volunteers as I could shake a stick at. This sounded brilliant so I immediately booked in ten of them. It seemed a labour saving no-brainer and Aim Higher reassured me it was the volunteers who’d do all the work.

Fast forward a few weeks and I soon discovered how much time I needed to spend explaining why Cheryl hadn’t turned up to her volunteer’s session because she’d just got with her new boyfriend Billy and, aged 13, this meant she’d much rather go and eat chips and slush-puppies with him than hang out with Sam, her well-intentioned mentor from Imperial College.

That was fair enough. As her teacher, I had responsibility for Cheryl. However, when Sam himself didn’t turn up – despite Cheryl having turned down chips, slush-puppies AND Billy, things got trickier.

Of course, Sams have their own lives to live and that’s fair enough – but it’s a big deal for teachers and Sams aren’t always much more reliable than Cheryls.

2. Use high quality research to inform your approach

There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about education, but there is some stuff we do know. Make sure your idea draws on that.

(but do so in a nuanced way. Headlines tend to be based on averages and most kids aren’t average.)

3. Go beyond “inspiring” and focus on concretely upskilling

Please don’t launch another project designed to inspire kids. Have you met a kid? They’re full of inspiration! However,  some kids are down-trodden and despondent about the fact that they’re not on track to achieve their dreams. If they can’t read, write or add-up – and if they’re miles behind the kids around them, then they probably aren’t going to be rocket scientists.

So! Help them become rocket scientists rather than just getting them to want to be rocket scientists even more!

(I’m a bit obsessed with this point and have written about it a lot, for example here – for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, here – for LKMco and here – for the Teaching Times).

4.       Don’t underestimate how crowded the market is & don’t over-rely on direct marketing

When I was a teacher my first task every morning was to pick up the staffroom (recycling) bin and empty my pigeon-hole of leaflets and flyers into it. I’m sure I threw away good stuff; I’m also sure my lessons would have been less well planned if I’d taken the time to research each of the myriad organisations who mailed me.

5.    Plan for how you will evidence your impact right from the start

A couple of organisations a month come and speak to me about how to show their impact. One of the first questions I ask them is what sort of baseline data they have. Most of them have none, some of them have something – but very few have something that directly relates to the impact they’re committed to delivering.

Sort out your theory of change and get some baseline information that directly relates to it as early as possible. (And keep any surveys REALLY short.)

6.    Don’t focus on London

Pretty much every city business has a schools’ outreach programme. But where are city businesses located? Mainly London. Where are schools underperforming? Not in London – and this is no secret.

At last year’s Teach First impact awards the panel were well aware of this issue and asked many of the charities and social enterprises where their projects would be focused. Almost all of them said ‘we will start off in London’.

I know it’s harder to start out elsewhere – but it’d be great to see people try.

Who knows, the rewards might be greater too!

7.    Keep your costs low, be nimble and adapt

Once you get out there and do stuff you’ll soon find out what works and what people want- make sure you can respond to it.

In setting up a new education-enterprise, the ‘unknown-unknowns’ definitely outweigh the ‘known-unknowns’ (and the ‘knowns’). Don’t lumber yourself with intimidating costs. They’ll lead you to spend all your time fundraising or trying to cope with a model that is fixed and unresponsive to the information you gather.

When I set up LKMco I thought I was going to have a gap year; then there was a global financial crisis; then there was a change of government and then youth-services imploded. The pace of change still hasn’t slowed and neither has the speed we’ve adapted at.

8.    Recognise that if demand doesn’t emerge you may not have got the product right.

If people aren’t flocking towards your product it may be your marketing or comms aren’t right. It may also be that the system is messed up and that if only people understood – they’d fight over you.

You may also need to change your product.

9.    Be clear what it is you do well and are an expert at

Have you got a clear answer to the question ‘why you’? Teachers, youth-workers, your competitors and most of the other people working in this sector are an impressive bunch. Hopefully you are too! In which case, we need you and welcome you! Thank you!

But be clear that you have the knowledge, skills and expertise that people need; not just good-will, passion and mission.

On the flip-side…

10.  Make sure your mission is powerful enough to motivate you every day and make you love what you do.

… you’re entering a sector that includes some of the most committed people out there and you are about to take on a huge and inspiring challenge. It involves a lot of risk but also MASSIVE fulfillment and potential for impact.

Make sure you’re totally committed – that’s what’ll make it brilliant. Revel in the fact that you’re surrounded by people who share your passion and learn from them.

Above all, good luck! It’s an amazing thing to do and I have NEVER regretted getting into this space.

LKMco has helped over 30 schools, youth-organisations and social enterprises ensure young people receive the support they need in order to make a fulfilling transition to adulthood.

Four years of consistent impact measurement have shown what we can achieve – for example:  

– In 2013-14, more than two thirds of the people LKMco interacted with felt

  • More confident about their ability to support young people’s transition to adulthood
  • They had developed plans and ways of working which allowed them to support young people’s transition to adulthood
  • In a stronger position to support young people’s transition to adulthood.

– Around half felt this impact was significant or transformative.

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