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.

Spotlight on: Ailsa, looking back at eight years of Dot Dot Dot guardianship

June 17, 2021

From our longest standing guardian of eight years, Ailsa

Back in 2012 I’d just started volunteering with Bow Arts after not being in London for long. At the same time, I got made redundant from my job and had to leave the digs I was in at the time. I was on the brink of having to leave London altogether until one day when I was leaving an arts exhibition, I was feeling flat and started chatting to the receptionist about my situation. She told me that her friend had just started up an organisation called Dot Dot Dot, and as I was already volunteering I’d be a great fit. 

I wasn’t sure at first, but I went on the website, got in touch and met with Dot Dot Dot’s founder, Katharine. We had a really honest and open conversation about property guardianship – and I was hooked on the idea. 

I decided to press on with becoming a Dot Dot Dot guardian and met Katharine at Blackwall Tunnel DLR stop from where we walked through a housing estate to a little fifties flat at the top of a tower block in east London. She showed me the flat and I immediately thought, yes, I’m having it! It was so exciting to bump into other guardians on the stairs – it was all so new to all of us, it felt like such a novelty. We used to do ‘come dine with me’ evenings and visit each other’s flats for drinks. For me, they became my London community;  my best friends. Ten years later, I’m still close with several of them after bonding so much in those early days. 

I ended up staying in my fifties flat for six months where I paid £260 a month before we were asked to vacate the building. Luckily a 1-bed flat came up in an area nearby. Katharine was also living here at the time so we ended up living close by to each other. I ended up living in five different properties over the eight years that I was a guardian – I knew I wanted to stay living in east London and there were times that I moved out and privately rented somewhere else. It’s expensive, I had to share with other people in a small place and put my stuff into storage. And so I always came back to Dot Dot Dot. 

As a Dot Dot Dot guardian, you know that you’re going to live alongside good people who care about others. There was safety in it for me as well – I know what being a guardian involves and so I was keen to roll with moving to new places when we got given notice. Sticking with it, saving money and feeling secure allowed me to pursue my art career and volunteer with a big range of organisations. I’m not a guardian at the moment but there’s a good chance that I’d look to be a Dot Dot Dot guardian again in the future. 

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.

Counting the costs of empty properties

May 21, 2021

Many property owners focus on the lost rental revenue when calculating the cost of an empty building, but, says Dot Dot Dot chief executive Peter Brown, there are many more savings to be had when using property guardians.

When a mainstream use of a property comes to an end e.g. because an occupier has left, or the building needs to be redeveloped, the focus on the financial loss to the property owner is usually on lost rental revenue. This is understandable, because those figures usually quickly add up, but there are also significant costs involved with managing and stewarding empty buildings which can hit the property owner’s bottom line. 

In my experience, most organisations will underestimate these costs as they aren’t used to holding property empty. And in larger buildings that have had a commercial tenant, the property owner won’t have been responsible for the building’s day to day costs and so may not even have a sense of the running costs of the building, so won’t have been able to make an assessment for how much the building may cost to keep empty. Every month when we run through our budgets, I never cease to be surprised by how quickly the savings of using guardians, rather than leaving buildings empty, can add up. 

For example, we took responsibility for around 165 Council Tax accounts in the last financial year, saving 14 of our clients more than £220k in Council Tax payments alone. Single accounts ranged from individual studio flats up to our largest 90-person property, and, there were plenty – hundreds – more accounts where the guardians paid Council Tax directly, thereby contributing even more savings. We’re also working up the savings on utilities, maintenance and alternative security options for each of our projects, so we can give our clients a more complete understanding of all the money they’re saving by choosing to work with us.

The costs of empty property that we typically see fall into two categories – direct and indirect. 

Direct costs are things that clients would have had to pay for themselves if the building lay empty – for example:

  • Council tax: discounts and exemptions for empty property have not been available for a number of years, and in some areas policies to incentivise owners to use property means that Council Tax bills can double for longer-term empty property
  • Energy and utilities: even when equipment is switched off, there are often standing charges to pay for
  • Hard security products: many of our clients have historically used third party security products such as metal screens to secure their empty properties. These products are either rented or purchased, and so using guardians removes the need to pay for them
  • Repairs and maintenance: we will often be able to take on some of the routine repairs and maintenance, depending on the building
  • Health and safety, and compliance: even an empty building needs to be managed and kept safe, for visitors and to avoid it becoming a hazard.
  • Depreciation: though it’s hard to measure, an empty building will most likely lose value over time as it becomes more dilapidated. There’s a value in a building that is cared-for and looked after. 

But there are also other costs – indirect ones – that only become relevant once a property is empty:

  • Insurance – many insurers have clauses requiring property to be occupied without long void periods, and some insurers will charge more for empty property given the risks of vandalism or damage going unnoticed and unchecked
  • Theft or vandalism – these costs can be high in terms of both the cleanup and securing the building again. Unfortunately, we’ve seen even the smallest property being the target of metal thieves.
  • Squatters or unauthorised access – the court and bailiff costs associated with removing squatters can easily run into five figures.

So, when faced with an empty building, my advice would be to consider and make provision for a wider set of these costs and not just rent loss.

If you want to get an idea of how much property guardianship could save you, get in touch with us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

On the ground: Regeneration schemes and gradual decants – build and flex

May 20, 2021

Last month our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explained how we put in place the right support for regeneration schemes and other long, gradual decant programmes. In that first piece, he explained how we like to understand the properties, project and community to deliver a tailored service.  In this follow-up, he explains how tailored workflows and a flexible long-term approach can help our clients to achieve their goals.

Build a workflow that fits around the client

Our careful up-front research gives us a strong chance to hit the ground running in a regeneration or decant project. As well as giving us useful knowledge and a tailored model, we have already engaged in great conversations with our new clients, which helps us to establish working relationships quickly when the work starts.

Part of this preparation is about the detailed work of designing procedures and workflows that fit around our client’s existing operations and teams. This is key to the success of regeneration or decant projects. We need to be able to receive, manage and return properties to the client in a way that fits with their resources and needs.

At an operational level, this means understanding how the client wants to prepare and handle properties before handing them over to us. This usually involves agreeing a clear specification for the client’s voids or maintenance teams to follow. This will cover familiar areas such as:

  • Gas and electrical compliance
  • Clearance
  • Key cutting and locks
  • Fire safety systems

Some clients will do significant work and others will do none – this varies according to each client’s compliance needs, budgets and operational priorities. Our work needs to fit around the agreed specification, filling the gaps and ensuring that the property handover process is smooth and efficient. Getting this ‘recipe’ right is a key step – it gives our clients certainty about their own workflow, it allows us to make detailed plans, and it gives us an insight into the unique pressures and preferences of a new organisation or team.

Beyond that, we will also put in place the tracking, reporting, administrative and compliance elements of our service so that each client can access the right service and the right information in a way that works for them.

As well as the obvious property management issues, each client’s way of working needs to be accommodated. This is not just about ‘receiving’ properties, but also to their ongoing management and maintenance.

  • How are utilities handled and how should we transfer those services effectively?
  • Do operational staff prefer to share documents in paper form, by email or by using shared online drives and documents?
  • Do the client’s teams want us on site so that we can react to a flexible timetable? Or do they want a more structured approach with fixed schedules?
  • Do clients want us to liaise directly with their contractors and suppliers? Or should we work directly via the client’s own representatives?
  • Does the client have specific policy or practical requirements around anniversary or repeat compliance checks?
  • Are there particular elements of housekeeping or maintenance that are particularly important for the client? Perhaps one area or block needs special attention?

These are just some of the factors that we consider, and although this seems like a lot of detail, we are able to get ‘under the hood’ of these requirements quickly by combining our wide experience with good quality client conversations.  We have our own standards for high quality guardians and well-managed housing, and we understand how those can be delivered in a wide variety of operational contexts. We love the challenge of moulding our service so that we become a flexible and low-hassle part of each client’s toolkit.

A lot of this is worked out at the proposal stage before a contract starts, but detailed process-building continues after we are on the ground and working closely together with clients. We like to build high quality relationships with both decision-makers and operational staff within our client organisations. This allows us to respond intelligently and quickly, to find efficiencies, and to pre-empt risks and difficulties. 

Flex and change with the project

Regeneration and decant programmes can change and evolve significantly over time. Our detailed planning is not just about what a client needs now, but also about what could change in the future, and our experience helps us to understand how our service may need to adapt.

We are typically prepared for the changes in size, pace and structure that could affect us, but we are also used to responding flexibly to unforeseen issues. By working collaboratively with our clients, we constantly review the outlook and risks for each project, and we are ready to adjust plans rapidly if needed.

This could mean tweaking a compliance policy to address an area of risk, or overhauling our entire contract to take on a new range of responsibilities. We often have insights and ideas from previous work that will help us and our clients to navigate changes. Although the details of every project will vary, there are common challenges that we are used to addressing:

  • Delays that mean old buildings are kept in use for longer
  • Changes in financial or political priorities meaning that the speed or scale of our work changes quickly or that previous decisions about properties need to be reversed
  • Changes to other suppliers that affect teams, workflows and responsibilities
  • Policy or legislative changes requiring us to evolve alongside our clients
  • Issues or crises in the local area that require us to change the focus of our social impact, resident liaison or other work

These are just a few examples of the issues that we have tackled with clients in the past. Because we can draw on insights from multiple projects and organisations, we can be a useful source of stability and knowledge for teams facing new phases or transitions in their major programmes.  An important part of our approach is that we structure our service to be effective throughout the lifetime of a project, with in-built flexibility and resilience, and a commitment to long-term outcomes.

Working sensitively to support regeneration programmes or the decant of multiple properties has always been a core part of Dot Dot Dot’s work. This experience informs every part of our operations, and we take pride in supporting clients in a tailored way through their most challenging and important programmes. 

 

If you would like to find out more about how we could work with you on a new or existing project, contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com

Data proves that everybody really does need good neighbours

May 19, 2021

A recent report highlights the importance of strong community infrastructure and neighbourliness explains our founder, Katharine Hibbert.

Saying that it’s nice to be on good terms with your neighbours is a bit like saying you enjoy eating chocolate – so unsurprising it doesn’t really deserve to be mentioned.  But a new paper from Cambridge University argues that strong community links are so important that they can be a matter of life and death in a crisis like the pandemic we’re living through. The researchers also argue that the infrastructure that supports them, in the form of the physical places where people meet and the staff and volunteers who activate them, deserve far more government support than they currently get.

During the pandemic more mutual aid groups were set up in areas of the UK with more social infrastructure, researchers from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy found.  That means that volunteers were more likely to pull groups together to help the most isolated and vulnerable community members in areas with more places like pubs, cafes, swimming pools and libraries.  While the researchers don’t have proof of causation, and the research was focused on towns rather than cities and rural areas, the correlation may be because community infrastructure enables people from a mixture of backgrounds to mingle on a regular basis, breaking down barriers and encouraging people to feel a sense of solidarity. 

The researchers also pointed to in-depth research by sociologist Eric Klinenberg into a 1995 heat wave in Chicago.  When temperatures got dangerously hot, more than 700 people died, and these deaths disproportionately occurred in areas with worse social infrastructure.  This correlation was much stronger than the link with poverty or population age.  Klinenberg argues that places which encourage regular, informal social interaction among a wide pool of people support greater trust and make it easier for neighbours to check on one another and to look out for those who may be more vulnerable – and in difficult times, this saves lives. 

When physical infrastructure promotes community cohesion

Greater involvement in local projects can also create a stronger sense of belonging in a community and feeling proud of it, the Cambridge researchers argue.  At the new Museum of Making, which will open in an 18th century silk mill in Derby this month, people living nearby volunteered to clean 11,000 bricks from the original factory which have been incorporated into the new design.  Meanwhile, volunteers have created England’s only community pub on a council estate in Brighton, bringing a closed-down pub back into use as The Bevy, which in normal times hosts dementia clubs and arts and crafts sessions as well as being open for food and drink, run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers.  During the pandemic, the pub switched to providing meals on wheels to local elderly residents.

The Cambridge researchers argue that this kind of community involvement – plus the beautiful finished museum and friendly pub – can make a significant contribution to boosting local pride and the feeling of having a stake in the fortunes of the area.  This in turn may make it easier for policy-makers and charities to tap into local sentiment and create interventions which are genuinely wanted and needed, rather than trying to fix problems without an engaged community that can give meaningful feedback on what is and isn’t wanted.

Quantifying neighbourliness

But more research is needed to provide rock-solid economic data to feed into policy-making, to ensure that the places and people that foster local ties and a sense of connectedness get the support they need.  The researchers echoed the call by former Bank of England head Andy Haldane for a greater focus on quantifying the value of neighbourliness, volunteering and civic pride.  We all know we like it, but if we can’t point to its value in pounds, shillings and pence, it risks being an afterthought when the government makes decisions.

At Dot Dot Dot, we see the value of neighbourliness, volunteering and community involvement every day, and we get a lot of satisfaction from cooperating with the venues and projects which create the volunteering opportunities our guardians get involved with.  For example, it has been great to support our Newham guardians to get involved with the community-building efforts created by Civic, an organisation that is working to breathe life into local high streets. Guardians have volunteered alongside local residents to create a fruit and veg pop-up shop, a podcast and rehearsal room and a hub for making scrubs for doctors and nurses – efforts with tangible direct benefits, but which also help to build neighbourly relationships and local pride. Likewise, the guardians we house through our partnership with Poplar HARCA have been volunteering to host dance classes in a local community centre and delivering food parcels as part of a local mutual aid effort. 

We wholeheartedly echo the researchers’ call for more investment in and acknowledgement of places and people who make all of this possible.  It’s also great to see academic evidence of what we know from experience – that all of the effort our guardians make to contribute to good causes and local communities is far more than just a nice to have.

If you’re interested in neighbourliness and giving back to your community, you can apply to become a property guardian with us.

Dot Dot Dot and Keniston Housing Association announce partnership in Bromley

April 26, 2021

Former sheltered housing in Bromley is to become the base for a group of property guardians who volunteer in the local community, thanks to a new partnership between Dot Dot Dot and Keniston Housing Association.

The first guardians moved into Robert Whyte House at the end of last week. They will aim to keep the building secure and well-maintained for Keniston, and the area safe for the housing association’s other residents in nearby properties.

In the coming weeks, they will be joined by up to 20 fellow guardians, all of whom have committed to volunteering for at least 16 hours a month for good causes. Dot Dot Dot is unique in the sector for prioritising the creation of positive social impact through property guardianship. In 2020 alone, Dot Dot Dot’s guardians volunteered nearly 63,000 hours to more than 1,000 causes – a contribution of £638,000 to the voluntary sector.

The first wave of guardians have previously lived in other Dot Dot Dot properties, and their volunteering has included undertaking market research for Age UK in Croydon and running online community chair yoga sessions. 

Peter Brown, Chief Executive at Dot Dot Dot, said “We’re delighted to be working with Keniston in Bromley. We do some of our best work in places where our guardians are living alongside existing residents, because the people we house give so much back to the communities in which they live and are a visible, friendly and reassuring presence. 

“By working with Keniston, we can be a force for good in the local area; we’re excited to be up and running and housing great guardians.”

Jonathan Card, Chief Executive of Keniston, said: “Keniston chooses our partners carefully, and we’re very happy to be working with Dot Dot Dot on this project. We needed to be sure that the building will be kept safe and secure, and that the guardians will be able to live harmoniously alongside our residents in nearby blocks. We are excited to be working with Dot Dot Dot, and we look forward to a partnership that works in the interest of both organisations, but also – most importantly – works for Keniston’s existing residents, as well as the guardians themselves.”

If you’d like to find out how Dot Dot Dot could secure your property, visit our ‘request a callback’ webpage.

On the ground: How we work in regeneration schemes and gradual decants

April 16, 2021

From our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd

In our ‘on the ground’ series, our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, shares details about how our service works in different contexts. In a previous post, we explored how Dot Dot Dot mobilises its service in large or complex properties. This month, we look at the way that guardianship can support projects that involve large numbers of flats or houses as they are decanted across a regeneration or refurbishment project.

Regeneration and refurbishment schemes can bring some of the most important changes that communities ever experience. For housing associations, local authorities and other partners involved in their delivery, they are all-consuming projects. And regardless of the unique characteristics of each scheme, the decant stage can be risky and challenging. As ageing estates become increasingly empty, life for local residents can become worse just when timelines are most critical and when housing teams are most stretched. 

For Dot Dot Dot, this can be an opportunity to add most value. With a depth of experience in regeneration projects, and a commitment to delivering positive social impact, we can help housing teams to manage voids in a way that maintains flexibility and positivity in the decant process.

There are some common factors that apply across most regeneration projects:

  • Typically working with previously tenanted social flats or houses
  • A long overall timeline (often years rather than months)
  • Timelines for individual properties are variable and not always clear in advance
  • Properties are mixed in size and condition
  • Guardians will be housed among existing residents
  • Properties become available to Dot Dot Dot individually or in batches on a rolling basis
  • Working with existing housing or voids teams and processes

These factors set the basic parameters for our service, but what matters more to us is how we match the details of our service to each specific project. This article explains some of the factors that allow us to do this.

Our approach has three important stages:

  • Understand the properties, the project and community
  • Build a workflow that fits around our client
  • Flex and change with the project

This month, we will look at how we go about understanding the properties, the project and the community. Next, we’ll look at what we do once those foundations are in place.

Understand the properties, the project and the community

To develop the most effective proposals for regeneration or decant projects, we like to develop a full understanding of the context.

Understanding the properties

At a basic level, it’s great to understand the likely size, location and type of properties that could become available over the course of a project. More than that, though, we like to understand the age, condition and quirks of the buildings. By combining our wide experience with each client’s deep knowledge of their own housing stock, we can develop a proposal that addresses the particular needs of each block or area.

  • Are there special risks to manage in a particular area of compliance or maintenance?
  • Are theft, vandalism or unauthorised occupation live concerns in particular areas?
  • Do utilities, services or access have any quirks, issues or special requirements?
  • Are there any major differences between properties in condition or in compliance needs?
  • Are communal and structural elements in good condition, or do we expect these to require active management during our work?

Understanding the project

The scope and size of the project, the timelines over which voids might occur that require guardianship security, and the overall schedule of the regeneration are all important.

But as with the properties, it’s important to tap into the more detailed knowledge held by those leading the project and by those handling the properties on the ground. Perhaps there are existing high-profile risks or issues to address, or perhaps there is a deadline looming to prepare for a new phase.

As well as understanding any current pressures or needs within the project, we also try to get a sense of how our service will need to evolve over time. Perhaps we will need to receive or return a very large number of properties at critical points; we might need to deal with particularly challenging properties in some phases; the project could face delays or changes that require us to scale up or down or to take on different compliance responsibilities at some point in the future.

Understanding these factors means that we can not just provide a good service now, but that we can ensure it will remain effective across long (and often uncertain) project timelines.

Understanding the community

This is a subtle but critical part of our planning process. Each community affected by a decant or by a regeneration programme is different, and guardianship can play different roles.

In some cases, guardians are an important component of ‘humanising’ the regeneration process. We might propose ways to give our guardians visibility in the community, helping existing residents to understand the role of guardians or to benefit directly from their presence or from the volunteering that they will carry out.

In other cases, it might be more important to provide a discreet and low-key presence, supporting security but taking a sensitive approach to resident relationships. 

By understanding this, we can shape every part of our service from how we present and maintain the properties, to the way that we select and induct the guardians who will live there. Our unique approach to generating positive social impact in the communities in which we work means that, where it helps the client and the community, we can just tailor our basic service. For example we can signpost our guardians to volunteer for causes which are aligned to our clients’ CSR objectives or based in the local area, and we can report on metrics that clients can then present to their key stakeholders.

The fact we put such great store on how our guardians will interact with existing residents by providing security, reassuring footfall, and, in many cases, contributions to uber-local community projects means that regeneration environments have been the scene of some of our most valuable work. 

If you want to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to Meanwhile Thoughts, our monthly newsletter for property owners.

Guardian of the month: Laura Chaitow

March 26, 2021

From our Oxford guardian, Laura Chaitow

As a critical care nurse I have experienced, first hand, the stress and trauma of working in the Coronavirus pandemic. I originally set up a role to support my colleagues well-being 2 years ago. However, due to social distancing it has become difficult to support my colleagues in the way I would have liked. I have, this month, set up debriefing sessions over Zoom. These run 6 times a week for at least an hour but generally as long as people need them to be. This is a free service I have set up to support colleagues who are struggling to come to terms with the unprecedented stress we have been experiencing at work.

I’m a lead for staff mental health and wellbeing in my department and was originally working on a project to build a mindfulness room for staff to use. Then the pandemic happened and we lost our funding. I kept thinking I needed to do something to help my colleagues and then when I became a guardian it made sense to use my volunteering to help NHS workers. It all comes down to the need and whoever wants to come – most of them are girls who I work with but my aunt works as a psychologist and my mum is a nurse too so I’ve spoken to some of their colleagues.

I try to structure the month’s sessions around a theme, and this month is ‘compassionate inner voice’. They’re generally very loose themes as I like not having a huge amount of structure to what we have to talk about. Everyone brings a cup of tea or a glass of wine and it’s just a no pressure chat – sometimes it’s a Covid-free zone! A lot of the people who join either live alone or have lost relatives to Covid. A couple of the women I work with have had really intense struggles with their mental health and it’s made worse by the fact that many are single and can’t see their parents. They’re all such a wonderful bunch and I’m glad I can offer them support. I’m quite ambitious and would be keen to turn the sessions into a way to give back to others and create new projects from this one. Watch this space!

I used to live alone in Oxford and it was so expensive. In January last year I decided that I could no longer afford it and moved back in with my parents. It was a struggle at first having to move back home at 29 after having my own independence. I started thinking that I wanted to move out but at the same time I wanted to save and hopefully own my own place one day. It was then that I got chatting to a friend of mine who is a guardian in Oxford. I thought I’d just have a look but there was nothing available and I thought there never would be. But my friend encouraged me to apply with Dot Dot Dot in case – when I did something came up immediately which felt really fortuitous and was perfect for the stage I was at in my life.

Being a Dot Dot Dot guardian has given me the space to think more creatively and be more self reliant. I love my own space and never thought it would be an option. It’s in such a lovely area, in this beautiful forgotten crescent by the river, a few minutes stroll into town. Having the ability to live alone in Oxford, is such a privilege. I was always so envious of friends who had their own houses for pennies and I was really craving that level of independence but didn’t want to have to worry about finances and not be able to save. I have these moments where I look around and it’s so empowering to be a woman in my own space in my own flat in central Oxford. You’re able to make it a home and paint the walls – I’m such an intuitive person and if my space doesn’t feel comfortable then I struggle.

I’ve got a pink living room now and my boyfriend is a carpenter. And so he put a new wooden floor in my bathroom and made me some kitchen units. I recently bought home two chairs from the hospital that they were throwing away and I’m going to upcycle them. I learnt how to upholster on YouTube and I’ve bought some tweed offcuts on Ebay that I’m going to use for the covers. I’ve got some other really fun pieces that I’ve made or found in charity shops, and my flat is filled with macrame! Lockdown has given me the time to decorate my flat, and probably none of this would have happened otherwise. Having the time to follow those ideas through and complete projects has really boosted my self-esteem and been really wholesome.

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.

Spotlight on: Aoise and Zoe, International Women’s Day

March 19, 2021

For International Women’s Day, we highlighted two of our guardians who are supporting women through their work and volunteering, helping to build a more equal future for all. Read more from our former guardian Aoise who’s paving the way for women leaders in social enterprise through her work with Supply Change. And our east London guardian, Zoe, who has been supporting vulnerable women and children in temporary housing through her volunteering with the Magpie Project.

 

Aoise, Supply Change

From our former guardian, Aoise

I was trying to find a place to live in London, and to do that in an affordable way was really difficult because London is so expensive…My weekend jobs were mainly waitressing which wasn’t that well paid, so I really wanted to be able to find a place that would allow me to continue with Year Here (a programme for entrepreneurs driven to create meaningful social change). That’s where Dot Dot Dot came in.

Living with Dot Dot Dot and not having to pay huge amounts of money for housing was a huge aspect of being able to carry on with Year Here. It gave me that breathing space to explore options with Supply Change, the social enterprise I set up with two of my fellow alumni, and really build on the learning I had gained from Year Here. It gave me a great launching pad and foundation.

The whole ethos and mission of Supply Change is to help social enterprises win and deliver more contracts. Our supplier base is over 50% women-led, which I think is quite common across the sector, and from the outset we try to support them to get them in front of buyers. We believe that redirecting some of that buyer spend to social businesses and social entrepreneurs can be really meaningful, especially when they’ve got past the stage of relying on grant funding. Directing revenue and regular contracts to these businesses is a really really great way of supporting social enterprises and the women who lead them.

Another way I support women entrepreneurs is through Supply Change itself. We are completely women-founded and we are a 75% women team. There are a lot of amazing women leaders in the social enterprise sector. Three female leaders in procurement is definitely a change in the way things have been done previously. We are paving the way for a lot more women to be leaders within the social enterprise sector and social procurement.

Zoe, The Magpie Project

From our east London guardian, Zoe

For a long time I had been looking to be involved with an organisation focused on supporting women, but hadn’t found myself with enough time to do so. Then after becoming a guardian with Dot Dot Dot, I found myself with more time to dedicate to issues I cared about. After learning about the incredible work that the Magpie Project does to support women and their children, I knew their cause was the one I wanted to be involved with.

The Magpie Project is an amazing charity that supports vulnerable women and their small children that are living in temporary accommodation. They work incredibly hard to get these families on their feet, and they stand up for them in ways that others haven’t. Since I started volunteering for them my role as a volunteer has involved a bit of everything. On a regular shift my role involves helping during a day session at their centre in various ways, as well as creating illustrations that they could use.

Since the pandemic started the Magpie Project has been working very hard to find ways to continue supporting its families in a safe and socially distanced way, and they’ve been very successful in finding ways to deliver help such as food and essentials to their homes. Even when the Magpie Project centre had to close its doors because of the pandemic, it found ways to continue delivering help to families that would otherwise be destitute

I volunteered for them remotely by creating some videos for the children and families to do illustration and creative activities at home. Volunteering for the Magpie Project allowed me to support women not only by helping with the work that they do every week at their centre, but also using my own skills, such as creating illustrations they could use to raise awareness about their cause, or to sell and to raise funds for the women and their families.

Becoming a Dot Dot Dot guardian enabled me to dedicate more of my time to causes I care about, which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible given the high cost of living and rent in London.

Dot Dot Dot not only gave me the opportunity to pursue my own path, as I was then able to afford enough space to have my own studio at home to develop my work, but also gave me the opportunity to give some of my time to others and help causes I feel are meaningful and worth supporting.

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

When is a social enterprise like a submarine?

March 12, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

You might think that Dot Dot Dot – a social enterprise which gets empty buildings into use, and which never gets closer to the sea than our projects in Southend and Shoreham – has very little in common with the Royal Navy’s submarine service.  In fact, our process for decision-making was inspired by that used by submariners – and it serves us in our day-to-day work for the same reason it is useful to sailors operating 500m under water. 

When a Royal Navy submarine is at sea, the crew make decisions based on three priorities, only moving to the second once the first is satisfied, and only moving on to the third once the second is achieved.  For submariners, these rules are: 

          1. Be safe 

          2. Remain undetected

          3. Achieve your mission 

This means that submariners don’t start trying to carry out the orders they have been given unless they are sure that they won’t be spotted while doing so, and preserving lives normally trumps staying hidden. 

Dot Dot Dot’s decision-making process is different in content but similar in structure.  When making decisions at all scales, we work through the following hierarchy, only moving on to the next step once the current one is satisfied.  In our case, the rules are: 

          1. Act ethically and with integrity 

          2. Be a sustainable business 

          3. Create positive social impact 

          4. Go above and beyond for our stakeholders 

          5. Grow 

This means that all forms of dishonesty and cruelty are ruled out, even if the behaviour is legal but morally dubious, and even if it helped the business and we would never get caught.   

After that, it’s important that we stay in business.  We cover our costs through the fees paid by our guardians not through grants, so we need to earn money to continue to do our work.  We make no apology for aiming to make a profit – being in the black opens up opportunities, makes us independent and gives us a margin for error.  We also have a responsibility to our team, the people we house and the property owners we work with to create a stable environment.  People rely on us for jobs and homes, and we play a key role in some huge regeneration projects, so we shouldn’t take big risks or make high-stakes gambles that could put this in jeopardy.   

But being a sustainable business isn’t enough on its own.  We’re proud of doing well, but we come to work to make a difference.  Once we’re confident that our risks are managed, we lean into the social impact aspects of our business model.  Fortunately for Dot Dot Dot, support for volunteering and communities iintegral to what we do.  Simply by staying in business we prevent empty buildings from blighting neighbourhoods and we enable people to get involved in causes they care about.  But there is always more that can be done – and when we have the resources available, we look for ways that we can make volunteering and neighbourliness even easier and more appealing for guardians.  We also seek ways to improve standards in the property guardian sector and share what we have learned with other housing organisations and social enterprises. 

On top of that, once we’re happy that we’re working towards our vision of a society where people have the time and energy to give back to communities and causes they care about, we look to do a great job for the individuals and the specific organisations who work with us, and for the Dot Dot Dot team.  For example, we invest extra money in making the communal areas of our larger shared buildings welcoming, clean and comfortable so that guardians can enjoy them.  We tailor our service to the needs of each property owner we work with – this blog outlines how we’ve done this in Henley for South Oxford Housing Association.  And we try to provide a good working environment – for example, by encouraging team-members to make use of our flexitime scheme to ensure that they can get out and about during lockdown.   

Finally, we look to take on new work and grow – but only if we’re confident that all the other priorities are satisfied.  Growth is important to us – scale can support stability, and the more work we win, the more people we can house and the more volunteering we can support.  But growth which doesn’t support impact, which harms the service we offer to existing clients, or which puts our business sustainability at risk, is ruled out by these decision-making principles.  So all the proposals we provide to property owners are priced and specified in such a way that we can do a great job of the work from beginning to end, while creating significant impact, providing good homes, and avoiding putting staff under undue pressure.  If this means we lose out on some contracts, that’s a consequence we’re prepared to accept – we’re not here to get as big as possible at any cost. 

Why does this approach to decision-making work for Dot Dot Dot? 

This decision-making process works for Dot Dot Dot for four key reasons: 

          1. It’s fast and frugal 

Making decisions in a business with many moving parts and many different priorities can be challenging.  This is particularly the case for Dot Dot Dot, which – as a social enterprise – exists to create meaningful positive impact as well as to make a profit, so we have to navigate the trade-offs this creates.  These decisions are always difficult, but simple tools help.      

For example, we have always maintained high health and safety standards in the buildings we manage – even when this has caused us to lose money on projects because we underestimated the costs of doing so.  This is because we believe that asking people to live in buildings that aren’t up to appropriate standards is unethical, so when we have faced this situation we have preferred to harm the business rather than break rule one.   

On the other hand, during a period of financial pressure we deprioritised some bespoke social impact projects and didn’t hire to vacant positions which would have made life easier for the team as a whole – meaning we prioritised the sustainability of the business over creating extra social impact and going above and beyond for staff.  But we also shifted our priorities back once the period of pressure was over.   

Our decision-making process doesn’t spit out exact answers to what we should do – in the same way that the submariners’ rules of thumb doesn’t tell them how to remain undetected, just tells them to prioritise doing so.  But it does ensure that we’re thinking about the right things in the right order.  

          2. Simple rules help in the face of uncertainty 

Academic work on optimal decision-making emphasises the importance of simple rules of thumb in situations of high uncertainty.  This is why submariners need clarity – once they’re in enemy waters and out of communication with home, they can’t know exactly what they’ll face or get instructions on how to react, so they need guidelines which will remain reliable whatever happens.   

Fortunately, the complexity we face at Dot Dot Dot is less threatening than this but we are operating in competitive and shifting market affected by forces outside our control.  We could spend months trying to work out a fiveyear strategy which sets out exactly what we’re going to do in what order, but then a change in market conditions, a change of mind by a key client, or a global health crisis, could disrupt the whole thing. 

Under these circumstances, work by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer and others suggest that the best bet is to keep things simple.  Our decision-making hierarchy does that for us, alongside more detailed year-to-year planning.  If we have spare resources, we put them into enhancing our social impact, then improving life for our stakeholders, and then trying to get into new markets.  And if we don’t have spare resources, we double down on the basics until we are in a stronger position. 

          3. It allows delegated decision-making  

One of the great strengths of social enterprises is that people choose to work in them because they believe in the mission and support the values and culture.  This doesn’t mean that social enterprises shouldn’t try hard to pay decent salaries and provide pleasant offices, but it does mean that people are more likely to be aligned around shared goals and priorities, and less likely to be secretly pursuing their own agenda. 

In these circumstances, putting the tools in people’s hands so that they can autonomously prioritise their work means you can get more done, more quickly.  A simple approach makes this easier – if managers can be confident that colleagues are making decisions in line with an agreed process, they can be allowed to crack on with more independence, which makes work more satisfying as well as more efficient.  It also means that when team-members encounter new challenges at short notice, they are more likely to make the right call.   

          4. The worst-case scenario is not a catastrophe 

Following these rules mean that our worst-case scenario is that if the business fails, at least but we’ve made every effort we could to avoid harming people or leaving them excessively out of pocket.  In our view, this is part of acting with integrity.   

In other words, our rules – like the submariners’  support the ‘minimax’ decision-making approach described by Gigerenzer, where one aims to minimise the potential harm in a situation of maximum loss It’s the right approach for a business like ours, and it also makes for better sleep at night. 

Find out more about our core values, our commitment to providing good-quality housing to property guardians and raising standards in our industry.

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