5 questions to ask before you ask people to do stuff for no money

Doing stuff for no money is something many of us choose to do in our spare time for our friends, family or causes that we care about. When you start a social enterprise you usually do a fair bit of this in your working day too! But it is not sustainable. It’s obvious, I know – but in spite of the logical conclusion everyone will agree with, people keep expecting it to be different. One definition of madness is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.

(If tl:dr scroll to end for the five questions, you’re welcome)

The early days of choice

Several years ago I started getting involved with and running events in my spare time (for free). These were mainly BarCamps, unconferences and in 2008, hack days. The latter grew and through a lot of 24 hour days, the loss of one marriage, many friends (and possibly 100% health of my liver and nervous system) has has now become a successful and flourishing social enterprise: Rewired State (RS), alongside an extremely powerful NfP: Young Rewired State (YRS).

Until the beginning of last year, I managed to build and run this alone, hiring people as we became able to, choosing when to do stuff for free (still a great percentage of the time) and when to not, when to sacrifice the holidays for a greater cause and what to throw everything at.

There came a point when I looked at what the organisation had grown into, what clients were wanting and needing, how we were providing a service that was still ahead of the game. In a rapidly changing world we were suddenly more and more mainstream, organisations were facing very real challenges that we are uniquely able to resolve, and fast. It was time to get serious, scale up fast, or stop. Meanwhile Young Rewired State had a community of young self-taught programmers that was doubling every year, from tens of kids, to 100s, now 1000s of them across the world, and we are changing their lives.

Now I am not a CEO. I am a founder, an entrepreneur, an ideas person with a will as strong as an ox, and two children to support single-handedly – so I am not allowed to fail; that would mean three people up the swanny (not to mention those employed by the organisations). So at the beginning of last year I realised the limits of my own skill in running a business, I had taken this as far as I could on my will and best guess, now it was time for those who know how scale and grow a commercial and social enterprise to take over and make sure we did the right thing: continuing to meet the needs of clients whilst shoring up a well-supported and honoured network of developers. I had to go (well, to the Board at least, and get a job again doing what I do best!).

It took a year to find this person, with some hiccups, missteps and ill-judgments (they are very, very hard to find), and in fact it took a year and some external skill to ready the organisation to be taken forward – I will be brutally honest, we nearly lost it, we nearly lost both of them. All pro bono projects had to go, people had to go, we had to scale right back to super lean, in order to get into the racing blocks.

To Pro Bono or not to Pro Bono – no longer my right

I *had* to step right back to allow those who knew what needed to be done to get it done – this was hard, brutally hard, but necessary and I know it was the right thing to do. The only hangover from last year in this regard, is the shift of the right to do stuff for free.

When I was running the organisations I could choose to do stuff for free. I could donate my own time, and shift profits from one project to cover costs for other pro bono projects, and I was comfortable in that space. It meant we stayed pretty small, but small and stable was fine. This was not about being hugely wealthy, this was about having a sustainable income, providing one for others as and when we could, and finding new ways to solve very real challenges faced by business and government.

I can no longer make decisions on pro bono work, except with my own time, but for a very good reason. In order for us to increase our impact, to scale up to meet the demands of clients, and to scale up YRS in order to include *all* the young people who need to be a part of this community – we have to get very real about money, about skills, about ability and about roles.

I am still asked, as I am sure everyone is who runs a social enterprise, to do stuff for free. I always say if I am happy to give away some of my own time; but if it involves more than me, I say that people are welcome to ask the CEO of Rewired State: Julia Higginbottom, and the MD of Young Rewired State: Ruth Nicholls, if they are wanting Rewired or Young Rewired to do stuff for them for nothing. I warn the asker that it is highly unlikely to pass the test of ‘Is it worth it?’ (bearing in mind both of those people lived through us nearly losing the lot last year), and I do feel a pang of guilt, no not guilt, obligation, that I am letting them down – these people doing the asking. But that is madness…

The consequences of your request

If we don’t do what we do, then right now, no one else does what we do – this is why both RS and YRS are successful social enterprises. We have a responsibility to stay, to grow, to do the very best we can for ourselves and for the communities and organisations we work with.

So, I think there are some questions everyone should ask themselves before they ask anyone, or any organisation to do something for free:

  • Can you do this yourself in your spare time?
  • Is the person you are asking to do this thing for you for free, in a financial or personal position to give this to you for free?
  • Can you trade something that translates into something that saves or makes that other person or organisation actual real cash?
  • Are you a bigger organisation than the organisation you are asking to do stuff for free? (If so, are you being fair?)
  • Why do you need this to be done pro bono? (All part of the same 5th question: Can you find funding? Can you make your procurement processes less impossible to navigate? Can you get a sponsor?)

Asking people to do stuff for free always has consequences for the person you are asking or the organisation they represent. Be mindful of the consequences – whether personal, financial or commercial. It is your responsibility to ask after very careful consideration, not theirs to refuse only if they have a damn good excuse. Even if the whole enterprise has been built on personal sacrifice and doing stuff for free in the early days.

Get in… Funded by “The People”

So today we are celebrating. Today we reached/exceeded our PeopleFund.it target of £20,000 http://www.peoplefund.it/young-rewired-state/.

I had promised myself that I would save up the blog post I wanted so much to write about crowd-sourced funding until after we had actually achieved it. So within minutes of the target being reached – here I am.

Firstly, thank you so much to everyone who either donated or promoted our call for funds. Part of the reason I was so excited when I happened to catch a tweet about the launch of http://www.peoplefund.it (PFI) was that we had found a way to involve the people who have been such a huge part of Young Rewired State (YRS) over the years and have really wanted to contribute, even if it was only a fiver, and I hated having to just go for corporate sponsorship – which is its own special nightmare.

It’s the crowd, man

I know that Kickstarter exists and is excellent, but have always been confused as to whether UK organisations could apply – and still am – so PFI appeared at exactly the right time: just as we were cranking up the calls for participation for YRS2012 we had a way of including the community that champions what we do.

It is so important to me and to what we are doing with Young Rewired State, that this is something that can be truly community-based, and community-funded*, and I really do feel that the people who have chosen to pledge money to YRS are as much a part of this as we are. I will work hard to ensure this happens as we race towards August, and to celebrate this at the festival of code itself.

But the pledgers were not only individuals, some were start-ups, some start-ups founded by YRS alumni, others were small businesses who really know how important this peer-to-peer interaction and learning is, and have benefitted directly or indirectly from it.

I will come back to this point in a mo…

It was hard work

Believe you me, this was not a case of submit the information, set a target and sit back and let PFI/twitter do the work. Sure we had an early high with those who were already bursting to be involved in some way pledging their cash, then a lull during which time Stephen Fry tweeted about it, as did Martha Lane-Fox and other luminaries – this rarely translated into money donations, but it did certainly raise the profile and we won in a different way by more kids signing up to come along – which is just as brilliant. I asked PFI to send a timeline of donations, it’s here if you are interested! (Thanks Jake!)

It took a *lot* of hard work and time. I became horribly mercenary, everyone who wanted me to do something or talk somewhere would be hit by a request from me to donate! My poor, poor social networks were reminded pretty much daily that they could contribute, through a variety of thinly veiled pointers to the donation site. My family did not escape, in fact my poor Mum – who had worked out how to pledge through GoCardless, then cancelled the pledge when she later looked at her online banking and did not recognise the direct debit – is still insisting on sending a cheque. Rewired State events were hijacked by pleas for donations to YRS and friends with rich friends mercilessly ‘reminded’.

But £20,000 is a LOT of money. Maybe not in bubble world, but in the real world, it is a huge sum. And ten weeks is not a long time to raise it. No matter how good the cause or idea, it needs to be relevant and there has to be value for money.

So this is a massive and resounding success, and I am just so pleased that it worked out.

Peer to peer funding

So as much as peer-to-peer learning is key right now, so it seems is peer-to-peer funding. But there is a missing element to this.

When Young Rewired State first started in 2009, we were sponsored £23,000, mainly from government if I remember correctly. Once the weekend was over, we had £5,000 left and so we looked for somewhere to donate that money. We gave it to Jonty Wareing and Hackspace, they had not found premises and needed a small lump to help them.

It was a perfect transaction, we had it spare, they needed it and they were providing something that would help the YRSers of the future.

This year the Real Time Club got in touch with us, after being pointed in our direction by the fabulous Simon Peyton-Jones and the Computing at Schools network (yes I blasted them too!), they had a similar situation with some excess money at the end of their year that they wanted to put towards a good cause. I went to meet them and explained about YRS, they talked to me about it and agreed to donate some money. Not only this, but one of the people I was introduced to there took me to the school for which they are a governor: Anson Primary, a remarkable school, doing wonderful things and now a YRS centre. Win!

It would be nice to think that as this crowd-sourced funding jag becomes more popular, so the circle continues. It would be nice if as the community funds projects, so the projects, once they become successful or if they end up with excess, helps the funding community. What a way to encourage individual enterpreneurism? What if a reward for pledging money to a community project or any project for that matter, came with a promise to assist anyone who was thinking of starting something themselves.

Just as YRS is a real example of P2P learning, so we can learn from the actions of the alumni, who all come back, year on year, to help support and assist the newbies coming through. It would be good to see this fostered in P2P funding and next year when I do this again (oh yes I sill, sorry gang) I will find a way to do just that.

Finally a HUGE thank you to the people at People Fund It, they have been hugely helpful and supportive and of course, those YRS alumni and mentors I have stumbled across working at GoCardless!

*Post Script

The PFI £20k is not the total sum we are having to raise for YRS, we are having to raise further funds through traditional sponsorship. This is to cover the costs of the event itself on the Friday and Saturday. The money raised using community funding is for the kids, hardship funds for travel, believe you me this will be hammered this year!, and anything else they might need during the week – it is a very specific amount and a very specific purpose that feels right to be funded by the community. Other costs such as toilets, marquees and AV can be funded by the corporate sponsorship we raise. If you want to know the total amount we need to raise for YRS this year, it is £50,000 (including the PFI £20k) – and if we don’t use it all, we will be donating it back to other social projects, naturally.