I recently had the opportunity of speaking to Michael Norton, Founder/Director of CIVA where he is currently establishing the International Centre for Social Franchising.
Michael is also the author of “365 Ways to Change the World” (published around the world), “The Everyday Activist” and Click2Change (which encourages internet activism). He's written two standard books on fundraising which continue in new editions, “The Complete Fundraising Handbook” and the “WorldWide Fundraisers Handbook”.
Michael has a professorship in social entrepreneurship at the Graduate Business School, University of Cape Town, and is an Philanthropy Instructor at Beijing Normal University. He speaks widely on social entrepreneurship and changing the world.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I’m a serial social entrepreneur, taking ideas and turning them into successful projects and then establishing them as sustainable organisations. I concentrate on the following areas:
Youth programmes led by young people that encourage active citizenship.
Projects that promote social entrepreneurship and support social entrepreneurs.
In 1975 I set up Directory of Social Change, which became the UK’s leading provider of information and training to the non-profit sector.
In 1995, I left to set up Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action through which I then initiated a raft of innovative projects worldwide. These are just some: a banking system for street children in South Asia; village publishing in India; UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs in the UK, and similar foundations in India and South Africa; Changemakers, YouthBank and MyBnk all of which provide opportunities to young people to take an active role in society; FoodWorks, with volunteers cooking donated food in donated kitchens so as to provide meals for the needy (Best New Charity 2010); and the Otesha Project, which promotes sustainable living in a fairer world, supports environmental entrepreneurs and coordinates green jobs in East London.
In 2011, I launched Buzzbnk, an internet platform to enable the crowdfunding of social ventures and is establishing a network of Innovation Labs initially in London.
Tell me about how you got into business?
I started by volunteering at a youth club, working with the young people on aspects of citizenship. This led me to wanting to create my own project, which I launched in 1966. It was a language teaching scheme for incoming immigrant families, where a volunteer tutor would give a one-to-one class in people’s homes one evening a week, which then also led to the establishment of a centre in Tower Hamlets for English classes for Bangladeshi children. This was the first-ever project of this nature in the UK. I then decided that this aspect of my life was more important to me than my career in banking then publishing, which led to me changing course in 1972 to put my efforts into the social sector.
What were you doing before you founded the company?
I had been a merchant banker, but without a bonus! Then at age 28 I became a publisher, ending up as Managing Director of a book club company working for a large printing/publishing company.
You are the co-founder of UnLtd, take me back to the early days of starting it all up and why you decided to do it?
I discovered a brochure inviting applications to the Lottery to have a £100million legacy fund from which to make awards to individuals. They were seeking ideas for how this should be organised, and proposals from consortia. I had recently attended a lunchtime discussion on social entrepreneurship, so decided to recall those who had participated to discuss the idea that we might bid for the funds and establish a foundation to support social entrepreneurs. In the end, 7 organisations came together to do this, including Changemakers of which I was Executive Chair at the time (focussing on youth action). With the help of McKinsey’s we produced a fantastic bid which won out, and in 2003 we had established UnLtd and were making our first awards.
How did the idea for CIVA come about?
CIVA is a virtual organisation through which I pursue my charitable interests. After 20 years of supporting charities through the Directory of Social Change (undertaking research, producing information and publications, and organising and running conferences and training), I decided I wanted to do something that would make a more direct impact on the world. So with just a table, a computer and my brain, I set about changing the world by turning ideas into action.
Tell me about the early days of CIVA, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
It wasn’t hard at all. My first project was to work with homeless people by providing them with a space to think about how they might contribute positively and then use their time to do creative things. The project was called StreetLife, and we had a rented space one afternoon a week for activities. The people attending went on to create a series of SpeakOuts where they could air their needs and ideas to decision makers, and StreetLife led directly to the creation of Groundswell, a homeless people’s self-help network. I was also given a large sum by the Nuffield Foundation to spend on projects which brought my expertise to India, and I was working with three others to establish Changemakers which was the first-ever organisation that adopted and promoted a youth-led approach. From that beginning, things just developed.
What is CIVA and what are you trying to solve?
CIVA is an incubator of social enterprise, both via the projects that we directly initiate and develop, and to support others who come to us for advice and practical help. We are trying to support the progression of ideas through to action, and to support creative and enterprising people who would like to make a contribution to changing the world, either with their own ideas or by linking them to projects we want to get started.
How have you been able to fund it?
It is low cost, and funded on a project by project basis.
Could you give us an example of a setback you had in the early stages of the business, how you overcame it and what you learnt from it?
I had just got £350,000 from the Department for International Development to establish a development publishing initiative in India, and I was working with a fantastic inspirational Delhi-based publisher. Three weeks after launching the venture, he died of a heart attack. Working from the UK to establish something in India is to say the least hard. And my first step was to find a small group of people to work on the idea under a committee that I set up in Delhi. This did not work for a variety of reasons. So I considered cancelling the venture and handing back unspent money to DfID. But then I developed what I called “Worst case Scenario Planning”. The worst was that I would do my best, but fail. I could cope with that, so I set about doing my best. We formed a partnership with ActionAid to establish Books for Change and a parallel venture publishing books in the local language for rural readers. Both these continue, but would have been far more successful had my colleague not sadly died.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
It’s been a continuing series of highlights, seeing ideas turned into successes. And also seeking the people I select to work with becoming starts in the world of social entrepreneurship.
What should we be expecting from yourself and CIVA for the rest of the year?
More ideas, more things being started. I am currently working to establish the International Centre for Social Franchising to promote the rapid scaling up of ideas globally. From an idea in 2011 and a paper I presented at Cape Town University, we got started in October 2011, and things are going really really well, and we are doing exciting work on health innovation, on supporting replication in the UK and extending the ideas of social franchising into the work of a major international development agency. And we are working to establish Innovation Labs in free space donated to us by social housing providers on housing estates in London, as centres to promote creativity and entrepreneurship. We are adopting a really low cost model for running these centres, and the second is just about to open…. In Victoria.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Just do it. You can. The world needs you and your ideas. And it’s people who solve problems, either individually or working together. Not governments.
2. Get started. That is the crucial first step. As Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism said 2,500 years ago, “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step”.
3. Learn from your actual experience of doing . Not from how-to books. Samuel Beckett said “No matter, Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”