Doing the right thing at Dot Dot Dot

September 20, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

From day one, Dot Dot Dot has set out to be a company that acts ethically – for our guardians, for property owners, for staff and for the wider community. As the founder, I believe that there is no point in being a social enterprise if you behave badly while trying to achieve your mission.  Indeed, proving that it is possible to be a successful company because you behave with integrity – not despite it – is in itself part of how we aim to make the world a better place  

Dot Dot Dot’s commitment to behaving ethically and fairly is written into our governing documents – the papers all companies must have which set out how they are to be run. Ethical behaviour is also at the top of the list of criteria we consider when making decisions at all scales – you can read more about Dot Dot Dot’s decision-making hierarchy in a previous blog post.

But how does this commitment translate into practice?  What does it mean to be an ethical business from day to day, and how do we know that we are on track?

Ethics and company culture

Our approach at Dot Dot Dot is to focus on creating a working culture where it is the norm to consider what is right and wrong when making decisions.  We try to ensure that team members bear this in mind in their daily work and are rewarded when they do so.  Adherence to our values is part of staff performance reviews, and when we are recruiting new staff we look for people who demonstrate integrity, fairness and concern for others. 

We choose this approach over a more prescriptive system where staff are trained on a list of moral rules.  This is because most of us have a sense of what the ethical thing to do is in most situations – the greater challenge is to remember to think about this when under pressure. We want to make sure staff feel empowered to do the right thing, even when it isn’t the most advantageous to the business in the short term. 

Current thinking on management best practice backs up this approach. Recent Harvard Business Review articles emphasise the importance of company culture as the best tool to prevent ethical lapses, and highlight the long-term risks to businesses which allow ethical considerations to slide.

And while there will always be edge cases, where you could argue a scenario either way, or where there is a trade-off between benefits to one group or another, these situations are often exact examples of where codes of conduct fail.  It’s more important to have staff thinking for themselves, and aware that they will be challenged by others if they don’t make a fair choice.

Watching out for ethical blind-spots

However, even the best-intentioned people can make bad judgements based on unconscious cognitive biases.  We may expect certain behaviours from certain groups of people or we may favour people from our own circles.  And we may see our own actions in a more favourable light than the same actions taken by someone else.  Because these biases are unconscious, it is hard to notice them and correct them. 

To deal with these challenges, we first try to make sure that we are aware of them as much as possible.  Everyone in the team attends training on diversity and inclusion, and recent mental health training means that the majority of the team are now Mental Health First Aiders. 

Our recruitment process

On top of this, we have put systems in place to eliminate unconscious bias wherever possible.  For example, our recruitment platform, Applied, allows us to assess candidates without knowing any of their demographic details, and which enables them to demonstrate their capacity to excel at the job rather than focusing on their track record elsewhere.  

This has helped us to bring in candidates who are perfect for their roles despite having career histories we didn’t anticipate.  It also means that our unconscious biases for or against any group isn’t a factor in whether they get shortlisted.

Creating accountability

Finally, we have created accountability for team-members at every level, so that individual judgements are checked by others with the power to challenge them.  

This goes all the way to the top – in 2019 we added a board of non-executive directors, with the power to challenge me as the founder, as well as the rest of the leadership team. The board was tasked with ensuring that we stay ethical,and create a thriving business. 

This has paid off – more minds considering a question from a range of angles usually leads to a better and fairer decision. It also forces me and the rest of the leadership team to think about whether we could justify our decisions if asked to.

What this means in practice

Weighing up what is right and fair when making decisions about our work has been a frequent occurrence during the Covid-19 crisis.  For example, we have had to balance our need to continue to collect monthly guardian fees with understanding that some of our residents have been thrown into a precarious financial situation and seen their mental health suffer. Our response has been to work out payment plans which are manageable for individuals rather than immediately resorting to aggressive debt collection.

We have also gone beyond government requirements to minimise infection risk.  Where we had to carry out face-to-face work to manage other health and safety issues, we have tried hard to do so in ways that were within the comfort zone of our team, our contractors and our guardians.  

Strengthening our ethical approach for the future

Part of prioritising ethics is keeping an eye on where systems and culture could be strengthened even further.  There is always more that every organisation can do to be actively anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist, so the work is never finished.  

As we grow and develop, we will continue to learn from best practice elsewhere, refreshing our own approaches, and sharing what we learn with others.

To find out more about our purpose and values, you can read about our mission or contact us at hello@dotdotdotproperty.com.

Social impact worth millions

August 24, 2021

Volunteering has always been at the core of what Dot Dot Dot does – our mission is to provide housing that makes it easier for people to do more good, and we do that by housing people who want to give time to good causes as property guardians.  So as we celebrate 10 years since we launched, we have counted up how much volunteering we have enabled during our first decade – and it’s a lot.  

The value of Dot Dot Dot guardians’ volunteering

Collectively, our guardians have given time worth £4.3m to good causes since 2011 – the equivalent of one person working full-time for more than 200 years.  But a good deal of that volunteering happens because our guardians are kind people who want to make a difference, and would do so whether or not they were housed by Dot Dot Dot.  

So how much more volunteering have we caused to happen, beyond what would have happened anyway? We have dug into the numbers and worked out that £1.8m of the value of the time guardians have given to charity is directly due to our efforts.

How we worked it out

We took two steps to arrive at this value.  First, we discounted the amount of volunteering our residents were doing before they joined us – so if, for example, someone went from volunteering 12 hours a month to 16 hours a month we only counted four hours for that person.  We found that, on average, 67% of our guardians’ volunteering was additional to what they had been doing before we housed them.

Then second we accounted for other factors which caused residents to volunteer more after they joined us – for instance, some people joined us because they knew they were going to start volunteering more as they went through a career change, so in these cases their extra volunteering wasn’t due to our work, and we didn’t count it as a difference we had made.  Overall, we found that 62% of the increase in our guardians’ volunteering was due to being housed by us.  You can read more about the data and calculations we used to arrive at these numbers here.

We’re glad that not all of our guardians’ volunteering is due to our work

These results tally with the way we see our role.  It would be worrying if all the volunteering our guardians did was due to us – we work hard to house people who actively want to volunteer, rather than to convert people who would rather not do it.  This is because if we were compelling unwilling people to give time to charity they probably wouldn’t give their best effort.  

By contrast, people who find a cause they care about and work that is intrinsically motivating will naturally try harder and be more committed.  The volunteers will benefit from it more themselves, too, through learning, friendships and increased wellbeing.  And our jobs at Dot Dot Dot are more enjoyable when we are supporting and encouraging people to do volunteering they believe in, rather than nagging them to do something they don’t really care about.  

So it is reassuring that 58% of our guardians’ volunteering is happening for reasons other than our work – it means that our recruitment process is working, and that people who would like to be property guardians but who would prefer not to volunteer are choosing to be housed by our competitors.

But we’re also glad to be moving the needle

But it would also be worrying if our work made no difference.  Our vision is of a society where people have the time and energy to give back to causes they care about, and we believe that providing our guardians with well-managed, inexpensive housing frees up both their time and their energy to get involved.  

It gives them more time because not having to pay high rent can enable them to work fewer hours, or they can live closer to their jobs and therefore cut down on commuting time.  It gives them more energy because it reduces anxieties linked to financial hardship and unsafe or unsuitable housing, and means that people are in a better place emotionally to think about contributing to a cause.  So we are glad to see that our work is making a meaningful difference to guardians’ volunteering.

The bigger picture

Supporting volunteering is only one of the ways in which we make a difference as a social enterprise.  We also have a positive impact by creating inexpensive, well-managed housing at a time of housing crisis, by preventing empty buildings from blighting neighbourhoods and by being active contributors to the growth of social enterprise as a sector.  

But since we have had volunteering in our DNA since day one, it’s great to know that our guardians have given such a lot of value to good causes over the past ten years, and we’re very glad that we were able to enable them to do even more.  We look forward to housing and supporting even more generous, motivated people in our next decade.

Read more about our social impact and contributions to the charity sector.

The value of Dot Dot Dot’s social impact over the past 10 years: How we calculated it

August 18, 2021

In June, Dot Dot Dot celebrated its 10th birthday, and August marked a decade since we housed our first guardian.

We’ve worked out the total value of our guardians’ volunteering over the past 10 years is £4.3m and the value of the impact Dot Dot Dot has made is £1.8m. These two figures make us very proud, but how did we get to them?

The value of all our guardians’ volunteering

In the 10 years up to June 2021, our guardians volunteered a total of 339,058 hours, and 77.7% of those hours were volunteered by guardians living in London.

We use the National and London Living Wages as the basis for calculating the value of each hour volunteered. Aside from the fact it’s good practice and Dot Dot Dot is a Living Wage Employer, those wages are equivalent to that paid for entry-level roles in charities, and we think it’s reasonable to assume a majority of our guardians are undertaking work of at least this value.

If our guardians were working and not volunteering for free, then their employers would be paying costs associated with employing people e.g. National Insurance, pension, sick pay contributions, and a good rule of thumb is that these add a further 30% to a salary. So, we:

  1. Broke down all our volunteering by the year in which it occurred
  2. Assumed in each of those years 77.7% of the volunteering was done in London
  3. Worked out the London and National Living Wage rates plus 30% on-costs for each year
  4. Calculated an hourly wage for both London and non-London based volunteering weighted across the 10 years we were looking at.
  5. Multiplied those weighted hourly wages by the number of hours volunteered in and out of London over 10 years

Value of London volunteering (263.448 x £13.09) + Value of out-of-London volunteering (75,610 x £11.31) = Value of all Dot Dot Dot guardians’ volunteering: £4.3m

Working out our social impact

We are very proud that the total value of our guardians’ volunteering was £4.3m over the past decade. However, we really wanted to understand the impact that Dot Dot Dot had made in 10 years i.e. what was the value of the volunteering that only happened because guardians were housed by us.

To do this we needed to get some data from our historic and current guardians to calculate:

Hours volunteered x monetary value of those hours x %age of volunteering at Dot Dot Dot which was/is additional to any they did before being housed by us x %age of volunteering at Dot Dot Dot which was/is attributable to being housed by Dot Dot Dot

To make this as robust as possible we needed data from a representative sample of guardians – we needed to be confident that not just the people who volunteered a high number of hours had responded. So:

  1. We asked all current guardians to tell us how many hours they volunteered in the the couple of months before joining Dot Dot Dot – in order to compare the difference between the hours they now volunteer
  2. We also asked them how important a factor being housed by Dot Dot Dot was in any extra volunteering they did
  3. We asked all former guardians the same two questions

We compared the average hours volunteered by current guardians with those of former guardians, and found them to be very similar, within a couple of percentage points. Fundamentally, we were confident in the representativeness of our sample.

Now we needed to look at the additionality and attribution points, and calculated that:

  • 66.85% of volunteering was additional
  • 62% of that additional volunteering was due to people being housed by Dot Dot Dot

We received replies from enough people to give us a strong confidence level of 95% with a confidence interval of 5.5% in their answers. So, for example, for the numbers above, we were 95% confident that, if every guardian had responded to our survey, then between 61.35% and 72.35% (66.85% ± 5.5%) of their volunteering was additional.

Which meant we could do our calculation, and found the value of the impact Dot Dot Dot has made in support of charitable causes in its 10-year history is £1.8m.

London Out of London
Hours volunteered 263448.066 75609.934
Weighted wage £13.09140069 £11.30840146
Additionality 0.6685 0.6685
Attribution 0.62 0.62
Value of Dot Dot Dot impact £ 1,429,467.32 £ 354,383.24 £ 1,783,850.56

Read more about the value of our social impact over the past 10 years.

Spotlight on: Helen, our beekeeping guardian in Letchworth Garden City

July 30, 2021

From Helen, Dot Dot Dot guardian in Letchworth Garden City

Every Wednesday I volunteer in Hitchin, Hertfordshire with Buzzworks – a charity whose mission is to help people learn about the world of bees and train people in the art of beekeeping. I started off by helping to maintain the education centre gardens, before moving to assist the head beekeeper. We extract the honey from the hives which are then put into jars and sold at a market in Hitchin every month.

Before I became a Dot Dot Dot guardian, I was already volunteering with Friends of Norton Common. I used to go dog walking on the common and one day another dog walker told me about the group. It’s a lovely mix of people who are very knowledgeable, together we make sure that the green spaces are well maintained and safe for visitors to enjoy. We have such a laugh and come rain or shine we are there. Plus it keeps us fit and healthy and helps us feel connected to each other and nature. I’m learning many new skills and can do things now that I never thought I would.

I’m so grateful to Dot Dot Dot for providing me with a safe space in Letchworth so that I could continue living here after moving out of my previous flat. I work in social care and wouldn’t have been able to afford my own space. Now, I have the financial security to be able to enrol in courses and invest in my personal development. Plus, I’ve managed to pay off all my debts and become independent.

I cycle to both volunteer locations every week which makes me feel great and means that I’m not using my car which is good for the environment and my mental health. I’m passionate about normalising conversations around mental and emotional health, and whenever I volunteer I am able to discuss these topics with the other volunteers.

Read more stories from our guardians on their volunteering and how living with Dot Dot Dot has given them the freedom and flexibility to pursue their goals.

Six tips for sourcing furniture on a budget

July 28, 2021

You have just had a meeting with the Dot Dot Dot team to welcome you to property guardianship, and you’ve been given the keys to your new space! What next? 

Alongside cheaper living costs, a welcoming guardian community and an opportunity to give back to causes you care about, living with Dot Dot Dot also enables you to get creative redecorating your home. The prospect of filling an empty space can often feel daunting, so just follow our guide to sourcing furniture on a budget based on our recent experience of  furnishing  a studio flat in Queen’s Park, north west London.

1. Connect with friends who are giving stuff away

If you’ve got a friend who’s decided to Marie Kondo their life, now is the time to get in touch with them. Start contacting friends and family early to ask if anyone is having a clear out. You’ll find that people are more than happy to donate their unloved items. We were kindly given some cushions, a print for the wall and a chair!

2. Keep an eye on Freecycle, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree

There is a wealth of furniture being given away or sold cheaply online if you’re willing to look for it. We found a 2-seater sofa worth £500, a coffee table and a bedside table that were going for free, so it’s worth signing up for email notifications and keeping an eye out for gems. You could try:

3. Get creative

Decorating on a budget sometimes requires creativity to get the ambience you’re looking for. For the creatively challenged, there’s some easy options out there for you. Try putting dried lavender in an old glass bottle, or installing a lantern-style light shade for softer lighting. We found three light shades for £6 on Argos. 

4. Look for cheap soft furnishing options in charity shops

Charity shops are not just for clothing – you can also find some great homeware if you know where to look. We found a fluffy grey rug which is great for sectioning off the living space in a studio flat. There are also plenty of online guides to the best areas for charity shopping.

5. Get same day delivery on Argos

Argos offers same day delivery on most of its items, so it is a good resource if you are keen to get settled into your new space. It has everything from lamps, to bed frames, to kitchen appliances, so you can order everything in one go. They also have some great artificial flowers and plants if you have a tendency to kill the real thing.

6. Hire a van with Zipcar

If you want to make the most of sites like Freecycle and need a van to pick up larger items, Zipcar is the place to go. They currently operate in London, Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge, and you can hire a large van from £10 an hour or £95 for the day. Pick up and drop off points are easy to come by, so it’s perfect if you need to transport furniture from A to B.

For more inspiration for decorating your space on a budget, check out our guide for re-styling your home. If you’re not yet a Dot Dot Dot guardian, apply now online.

 

What “doing our best work” means in practice

July 22, 2021

One of our key goals at Dot Dot Dot is to “do our best work”. That mantra is meaningful to us because it expresses several different important concepts at once, explains our CEO, Peter Brown.

These concepts link our identity as a social enterprise to our choices about how we go about doing the work that we do.  I’m clear that everything we do at Dot Dot Dot must contribute to our mission of providing housing that makes it easier for people to do good, and understanding the conditions that need to be in place to achieve that is vital.

Our tenth birthday has provided a welcome opportunity to reflect on all of the projects we have set up, the areas where we have worked, the people we have housed and the hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteering that our model has supported. We have been thinking about what worked well and of course about the times when we could have found better ways of doing things. 

How best work translates into great results

Dot Dot Dot’s mission hasn’t changed and the company values that we are well known for aren’t changing either. But by exploring the concept of ‘best’, all of our staff can form a view of how they can combine their skill, energy and professional commitment to deliver exceptional results.

Results here can be seen through the lens of social impact, or through creating consistent housing that’s both safe and well-managed, or when considering the financial performance of our operations. It’s also the case that the positive results of our work can be felt in several directions too, because our social enterprise business model has benefits to several groups all at once: the people we house benefit personally and financially, the communities where we have buildings benefit from great neighbours who are community-minded, charities and good causes benefit from our guardians’ volunteering, and of course our clients benefit too.

For me, the phrase “doing our best work” also fits with a more focused way of thinking about and describing the value that we create. So for our marketing and services teams, it’s about making sure we recruit and house guardians that are diligent, conscientious and who make socially responsible occupants. There are plenty of housing choices and options out there, and we choose to house people who understand our approach and who will benefit from our good-value accommodation. It’s our guardians who look after our clients’ buildings, who will vacate the buildings when we need them to, and who will contribute to communities through their volunteering, so our choices about who to house is crucially important. We know that people who are committed to supporting charitable causes are more likely to be conscientious about looking after our clients’ buildings, to be good neighbours to our clients’ existing residents, and to have the support network and resilience necessary to leave their homes with 28 days’ notice.

Finding the clients who allow us to do our best work

For our business development team, it’s about finding buildings where we can apply our efficient and effective management model to make appealing temporary homes that meet our safety standards, all while delivering projects which are financially viable for all involved. We seek clients who understand the inextricable link between our model and the quality of service we can provide as a result, and who may also be excited about our social impact creation in the communities where their buildings are based. Our model has always been distinctive, and, as we embark on our second decade of existence, we continue to demonstrate how the fact we exist to create a positive social impact actually allows us to deliver a better service to clients and communities.

If you’d like a conversation about how we look after your empty buildings and how our distinctive approach to property guardianship can help you, get in touch at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com

Bringing a youth club back into use with London Borough of Lewisham and Grove Park Youth Club Building Preservation Trust

July 22, 2021

Grove Park Youth Club in Lewisham was opened in August 1966. Having been a valuable asset to the Lewisham community for over four decades, it was forced to close in 2013 due to budget cuts. 

In 2018, 52 years after the youth centre first opened, we partnered with London Borough of Lewisham and Grove Park Youth Club Building Preservation Trust (BPT) to secure the building with property guardians and bring the youth club back into use. With the property now handed back to Lewisham council in its newly restored condition, the Grove Park Youth Club will reopen its doors to the community on 26th July 2021 for the first time in eight years.

A lost community asset

The loss of youth services has not just hit Lewisham; funding cuts have forced councils and local authorities to close the doors of youth and community centres all across the UK. The YMCA found that every region in England has suffered cuts to youth services by at least 60% since 2010, leading to severe consequences for young people and the communities in which they live. As Dot Dot Dot founder Katharine Hibbert explored in a recent blog, physical social infrastructure like libraries, cafes and youth centres are essential to community cohesion, and can even be a matter of life or death. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded issues around youth provision even further. Youth charity, UK Youth, found that, despite more demand, 83% of youth centres reported that their level of funding had decreased, while 64% said they were at risk of closure in the next 12 months.

It is little wonder that the Grove Park community were devastated at the loss of another community facility when the Grove Park Youth Club was closed back in 2013. Originally earmarked for demolition, the youth club was initially occupied by another property guardianship company. Despite the building being secured, the community, and in particular the Grove Park BPT, were committed to bringing the youth centre back to its former use.

Partnering with Grove Park Youth Club Building Preservation Trust and Lewisham Council

In collaboration with Lewisham council, youth service providers and local groups, the Grove Park Youth Club BPT put a plan in place for the revival of the youth club. The trust reached out to Dot Dot Dot in 2018 after hearing about our work and social purpose. Not only would we be offering security for the building while renovation work and fundraising was undertaken, but our guardians’ commitment to volunteering helped to bring the building back into good condition. Our experience of collaborating with councils and third party groups like Civic in east London made us the right fit for the trust’s mission to bring the last purpose-built youth club of its kind back to life. 

Bringing the youth club back into use

Since August 2018, our Grove Park guardians have contributed 787 hours of voluntary work, with each guardian contributing most of their voluntary hours to the revival of the centre. 

Their work has included arranging community clean-up days, putting together plans for a community garden, writing funding bids, recruiting volunteers and stakeholder management.

Killian Troy, a Trustee of BPT and a local to Grove Park, lived in the property for two years and contributed almost 300 hours to the cause: “For me, the benefit of being a property guardian is that I live somewhere that doesn’t contribute to London’s housing crisis. We make good use of buildings that would otherwise stand empty or be developed, and I am able to live with others and together we are working in and contributing to the local community.” Nearly two-thirds of our guardians volunteer for causes in their local area, and benefit from stronger social ties to their communities.

Through housing property guardians that care for empty buildings and the communities around them, we have created the opportunity to partner with property owners and third parties like the Grove Park Youth Club BPT and bring a well-loved community asset back into use. Beyond providing property security for empty assets like in standard property guardianship models, we partner with our clients and local groups to invest in their communities – proving that meanwhile use can and should be worthwhile.

If you’d like to hear more about how we work with our clients and their partners, you can sign up to our newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, or contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

Three cheers for the bureaucrats!

June 25, 2021

Our culture celebrates those who come up with ideas far more than those who translate them into reality. Yet, says our founder, Katharine Hibbert, it’s the diligent administrators putting ideas into practice that make for a successful, sustainable business.

As we celebrate a decade of Dot Dot Dot, there’s one thing that would astonish ten-years-younger me.  You might think it’s the fact we’re still in business – but I had a hunch that property owners and guardians would choose a better quality and more impactful option if it existed.  You might think it’s our scale – but although we’re now one of the biggest 10% of social enterprises in the country, I made spreadsheets in the early days modelling what growth would look like.  Although at the beginning I wasn’t sure I could make my plans a reality, I drew up the vision of what success would look like, then I put aside my doubts and acted as if it was possible.  It turns out that what I imagined wasn’t too far off the mark.    

But the one thing I never imagined and didn’t predict was just how much I would come to love excellent administrators, thoughtful bureaucrats and reliable middle managers.  Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve always been fairly comfortable with chaos and uncertainty.  You wouldn’t pursue a dream of building an organisation from scratch offering something that doesn’t exist yet, let alone doing it with zero start-up capital and minimal business experience, if you didn’t secretly quite enjoy being well outside your comfort zone.  My personality had always led me into roles which lacked structure and where no one really managed me.  In my previous career, as a journalist at the Sunday Times and as an author, I was more or less given free rein as long as I produced decent writing on time.  If I’m honest, I found all forms of administration a terrible bore, and I avoided it as much as I possibly could.

However, almost as soon as I started working on Dot Dot Dot, I realised that it didn’t matter how good my ideas were if I couldn’t overcome the practical hurdles to realising them.  That meant things like making sure that our properties met the relevant health and safety standards, that staff had the right employment contracts, that the books were balanced and that we had enough insurance cover.  And all of that meant bureaucracy and administration.

I found that there was lots of fantastic support available to would-be social entrepreneurs to help them develop their vision and imagine their business model.  There was rather less advice available focused on the nuts and bolts of actually making things happen.  I repeatedly came up against hurdles like the difficulty of finding an insurance broker who would construct a bespoke policy for a new business model, and that of identifying a reliable accountant without having an accounting background myself.

Some of it I managed to do myself.  But a great deal of it got done through the efforts of my colleagues.  Dot Dot Dot’s very first employee, Sam Norwood, joined as a paid intern and stayed on for more than a year afterwards.  He helped me to figure out how much support to give guardians in finding volunteering opportunities that suited them, and wrote our first volunteering handbook – he has since gone on to become a teacher and launch his own charity, Write Back.  Our second employee, Saffron Clackson, took a two-year career break from her job in the Civil Service to work on Dot Dot Dot from 2012 to 2014, and built us proper HR, book-keeping and property-management systems.  And Ben Richardson – now Managing Director of Caring in Bristol, a homelessness charity – put a huge amount of effort into working through tricky issues in guardian management during his time with us as a Relationship Manager from 2013 to 2016.   It’s the same story today – Dot Dot Dot’s success is thanks in large part to our excellent team who methodically work through problems and solve them step by step.

Before working on Dot Dot Dot, I would probably have seen that kind of work as an unglamorous distraction – something that ties you down and takes you away from the big ideas.  Now, I see that building a business involves constant triangulation between the ideal vision and the practical constraints you’re dealing with.  Doing that successfully requires system-builders who pick up new ideas and translate them into practicalities, not just a room full of charismatic generalists who love to solve problems on the fly but who also don’t mind creating new ones along the way.  Crucially I also had to get my chaos-loving tendencies in check and learn to cooperate with people who like to create order. 

I also learned – the hard way – that it’s administrative details that are most likely to trip up businesses like Dot Dot Dot.  Our worst crisis, when we came the closest to failing as a business, was caused by a string of book-keeping errors when we outsourced the work to an inadequate provider and didn’t check it thoroughly enough.  It led us to underestimate the costs we were accruing, which could have made us insolvent – we were lucky to catch it in time.  It wasn’t ideas and vision that saved us in that case, it was colleagues diligently combing through the data and putting the mistakes right.

Our culture celebrates those who come up with ideas far more than those who translate them into reality.  Ten years ago, I felt the same way.  Today, though, I am full of appreciation for thorough, careful people who quietly get the job done right day in and day out.  It isn’t a toast that you hear very often but, on our birthday, here’s to the quiet, diligent people who get things done.  Cheers!

Property guardianship isn’t just for Londoners: Letchworth Garden City

June 25, 2021

In 2019, we brought our mission to provide safe, affordable housing for those who want to do more good to Letchworth Garden City, the world’s first garden city, in North Hertfordshire. We have partnered with Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation (LGCHF), a self-funded charitable organisation, to secure a block of flats in the town centre, housing 36 guardians in 19 1- and 2-bed flats across the three years. 

Letchworth still upholds its original vision, set out by Ebeneezer Howard before its conception in 1903, that income generated by managing local assets will be reinvested back into the community. LGCHF continues this work today, working to invest in initiatives with its community in mind. 

We are proud to support the foundation not only in securing their empty assets, but in their placemaking objectives, assisting them to ‘support, fund and deliver activities to meet [their] charitable commitments for the benefit of our local communities’. Since the project began in 2019, our Letchworth guardians have contributed 4,147 hours of voluntary work to local charitable causes such as Letchworth Foodbank and Love Letchworth.

Not just for Londoners

Property guardianship has typically been associated with cities, and particularly London, and if you asked someone to describe a ‘typical’ guardianship property, they will probably describe an unusual building, likely a pub or a bank, in a desirable location in the heart of the city. In reality, the need for property guardianship is widespread, and there is no such thing as a typical property or a typical guardian. We have taken on a huge variety of residential and commercial properties, and myriad projects in areas beyond the M25, from Shoreham, to Manchester, to Henley-on-Thames. 

Empty properties are not just a problem for London’s housing circles; all over the UK, long-term vacant dwellings are a security risk, a nuisance to the communities that surround them, and a financial burden for their owners. In 2020, there were 268,385 empty buildings in the UK, with 30,548 of those in London. Outside of London, it is a similar story: there were 26,275 empty buildings in the East of England last year, which is almost the population of Letchworth. Our experience has shown that towns are not exempt from the predicament of empty buildings; there is just as much of a need for property guardianship in Letchworth or High Wycombe as there is in London. 

Setting up outside of the city

The age of the Letchworth’s original buildings and its additions in the 60s and 70s has inspired LGCHF’s plans to regenerate several of its assets. The long-term nature of the regeneration has left some buildings empty with an uncertain purpose, leaving them vulnerable to potential security risks. With our broad experience of delivering property guardianship outside of London, we were able to mobilise a management plan quickly, allowing LGCHF the time and space to solidify their plans whilst we secured the building. 

Filling voids in non-traditional property guardianship areas requires a tailored approach. With a different target audience in our smaller, town-based projects, we have to think differently when marketing our properties. Motivations for moving and priorities may differ from those looking to live in a city, people might use different channels to look for their housing, or they may not have heard of property guardianship before.

One thing that all Dot Dot Dot guardians do have in common, however, is that they are interested in giving back to their community. One tactic we employ is to build a base of interest through contacting voluntary organisations, in order to reach volunteers who are looking for housing. This also helps us to establish a network of organisations, to which we can direct our guardians’ voluntary efforts. This was important in Letchworth, where the foundation’s mission is focused on funding charitable initiatives in the area. In a survey we conducted in 2020, 67% of Letchworth Garden City respondents volunteered in the borough. 

Taking care of everything

As property owners well know, there can be a huge number of moving parts to consider when managing empty assets, particularly assets that are empty for unknown lengths of time. In Letchworth Garden City, we took on all of the facilities management for the block, allowing LGCHF to allocate their time and resources elsewhere. As we take each project on a case by case basis, we can build in different levels of management where required.

Property guardianship is not only for property owners in London – wherever they are, we give our clients the time and space to support their future plans whilst we take care of everything in the meantime.

If you’d like to find out more about how we collaborate with our clients, you can contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com or sign up to our newsletter.

Dot Dot Dot…10 years and counting

June 23, 2021

Dot Dot Dot chief executive, Peter Brown, reflects on what he’s learnt after moving from a housing association to work for a social enterprise.

So Dot Dot Dot is 10 years old…and I’ve been part of it for seven of those years. The first time I heard about Dot Dot Dot was in about 2012 when someone in my network mentioned that someone he knew had started a property guardianship social enterprise. That turned out to be Katharine, who had recently started her social enterprise and was looking for properties to house people who did great volunteering. The concept has been proven with some early successes, but more properties were needed. 

At that time, I was working for the local authority housing organisation, Tower Hamlets Homes. Like most housing providers of that size, we had a small number of properties that couldn’t be used for longterm local authority tenants. I was looking for a solution that was better than just leaving the properties empty and hoping for the best, which had been the strategy up to that point. Having people who also volunteered whilst looking after the properties met a business need, because it cut risk and costs, and gave long-term tenants great neighbours. It made my housing management colleagues feel good that properties were being put to a good use by working with an organisation that was innovative as well as trustworthy. 

Because I worked for a client before I came to work at Dot Dot Dot, I got to experience the full value of what happens when you partner with an organisation that is purposeful, exists for all the right reasons and has a clear, socially responsible approach to doing business. Perhaps it’s unusual to switch from a housing provider to supplier, but many of the values that housing organisations hold true are shared by Dot Dot Dot, The way that work is carried out has changed over the years, but the Dot Dot Dot business model, our desire for impact and the commitment we have to good results for everyone hasn’t altered.

I have always been a fan of the social enterprise model. To my mind, they occupy that space somewhere between purely commercial organisations and fully mission-driven charities, and try to take the best bits of each, aiming to create something powerful, purposeful and, crucially, sustainable. It’s been a pleasure to be part of Dot Dot Dot’s journey this far and to get to work with so many great clients, colleagues and guardians over the years.

Most of my career before I joined Dot Dot Dot was in the public sector, and for organisations much larger than Dot Dot Dot. When I contrast what it’s like to lead Dot Dot Dot with those earlier professional experiences, there’s something quite freeing about organisations like ours that are smaller and able to be nimble. At Dot Dot Dot, we are very focused on doing the right things for our clients and those we house, and increasingly we will be focusing our efforts partnering with clients who we think will enable us to do our best work. At Dot Dot Dot we are trying to do one thing – provide housing that makes it easier for people to do good – and everyone in the team wants to do this and to find ways to do it well. 

It’s also good to be able to stay connected with people working in all kinds of housing organisations – the big, the small, the specialised, as well as the more general. Through our careful choice of guardians who want to volunteer, and our diligent management approach, we have always made sure that we can add value to our clients’ work and projects. We know that we get our strongest feedback when we are working in situations where choices about what guardians are on site and how they are managed matter the most. These situations commonly are the more complicated regeneration and development programmes, and bigger buildings in the areas where property owners have a long term stake and ongoing interest. They are often settings where clients have sensitive projects and often with longer-term residents closeby.

Another reflection is that I’m more certain than ever about how vital a brilliant team is. Dot Dot Dot has a great team of people working for it – with its Board supporting the exec – and the collective value of the team’s commitment, energy and skills is immense. We couldn’t achieve what we have over the last 10 years without our people.

Over the years, the way we have done our work has of course changed – we have more staff, we have evolved and improved how we work and, as we have become bigger, we have become more professionalised and created more specialised roles. When I began at Dot Dot Dot, we could travel to all of the properties in our portfolio by bike (or bus if it was raining!), since they were all in East London. We aren’t so local anymore – we have properties throughout London and the south east, as well as the south coast, Oxford and Cambridge and Manchester – but the commitment we have to our work, our desire to create a positive impact and our sense of values has not changed at all…and hopefully won’t do in the next 10 years.

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