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!

Dot Dot Dot staff give their time to good causes

June 4, 2021

During #VolunteersWeek 2021 we caught up with Dot Dot Dot staff who, like our guardians, often give up their time to volunteer for good causes. From a forest school for kids, to food banks and trustee positions, there’s loads of great work going on in our local communities.

Patrick Harrison, business development associate at Dot Dot Dot

I volunteer for my wife Sue’s forest school business, Branching Out-woods, mainly at a primary school in Braintree.

The theory of forest school is that the children choose what to do in the woodland, and the leaders assist them to do those things, which might be den making, craft, cooking, rope stuff, or almost anything in their imagination. There is a big role for risk taking and fires which the children learn to make for themselves. It sounds hippy-ish but the evidence is that it really helps a child’s development (and the adults! – it’s so hard not to give the answer but let the child take (managed) risks and learn from their mistakes). We do see the children change in a few weeks!

After week three of the six allotted sessions we see the children relax into it and make the time their own. When we ask them if they would like to see anything changed, the response is “No, this is our time to do what we want”. It seems many children have so much of their life structured and directed.

Katharine Hibbert, founder and director of Dot Dot Dot

I’m a volunteer trustee at Headway East London, a charity which supports people who’ve had brain injuries as well as their families. We have a day centre and various outreach programmes working with people from 13 London boroughs, providing everything from physiotherapy and counselling to an art studio and opportunities to make music. As a trustee, I’m responsible (alongside the rest of the board of trustees) for making sure that the charity is well run and makes the biggest difference it can, and I also try to get involved in a hands-on way when I can. I’ve been doing this for seven years now.

I got involved with Headway East London after visiting the centre and being so impressed by the positive, purposeful atmosphere. The members have had their lives changed by devastating brain injuries, and yet they find ways to enjoy themselves and do things which are meaningful and worthwhile. It’s very satisfying to feel that I’m making a contribution to that. I’ve also learned a lot – about brain injury, but also about running a charity, and that helps me in my work at Dot Dot Dot too.

Most of the work of being a trustee is fairly dry, and is mostly focused on risk management – it’s a lot of looking through accounts and policies, and discussing updates to them. The biggest difference I make is probably by sitting on the panel that recruits the charity’s senior leadership team – we recently appointed a new chief executive, which was a huge responsibility. But the most enjoyable and memorable bits are spending time with the members – particularly at the supper clubs we have every few months in non-Covid times, when members cook up a feast for scores of guests as a fundraiser.

Abi Carter, head of growth and partnerships at Dot Dot Dot

I volunteer at Paddington Development Trust, a charity that aims to help communities in north west London exert greater control over their own lives. We run employment and training programmes, and wonderful community health initiatives based around local people delivering health messaging to their peers. We also invest in improving the local built environment and have converted a Grade 1 listed church into a community arts and culture hub. I became a trustee in 2016 and chair a year later. I also volunteer at Tottenham Food Bank, based out of Tottenham Town Hall. I joined in April 2020 when Covid-19 hit and food banks all over the country were affected a) by their usual raft of older volunteers having to self isolate and b) by the surge in demand for their services.

I worked just down the road from Paddington Development Trust – at Lord’s, in St John’s Wood – and wanted to volunteer to see a different side to the area and learn more about the pervasive barriers that prevent so many people in London being able to enjoy and get the most from the city. I also thought it would be useful from a personal development perspective – being able to broaden my own skillset and networks beyond sport. At the food bank, there was a massive need for volunteers, but it also gave me a strong sense of purpose at a time when my plan to go travelling and studying after leaving a long-standing job had been kiboshed by Covid-19…and the alternative seemed to be just to sulk about it!

At the Trust, my most memorable moment was the first time I walked into Grand Junction – the church we converted into a community asset – when it had been scrubbed and renovated, and cleared of scaffold, and was actually hosting local people, running projects that had never been run in that part of London before, and giving them a place to be really proud of. The restoration has been over 10 years in the making and the source of many sleepless nights, and it was amazing to see how much blood, toil, tears and sweat had gone into making it such a joyous place for so many wonderful local people.

The early days of Covid-19 were carnage at the food bank, as you’d expect. We had queues of hungry and desperate people outside, and a paper-based system which wasn’t made to cope with volume. A few of us volunteers quickly helped the organisation that runs the food bank put an effective system in place to get the packing and distribution done, which mainly involved giving out orders with absolutely no authority – but it worked! At times we were delivering to 80/90 people in an afternoon, and the feeling of team work and people focusing on doing small jobs very well never ceased to give me a great sense of pride.

Mark Muldoon, relationship coordinator at Dot Dot Dot

I volunteer at all sorts of different places and I’ve always tried to do it in my local community – it feels good to not just live in my neighbourhood but to be playing an active role in it. I’ve been a volunteer event photographer at Poplar HARCA/Poplar Union since August last year and a volunteer painter and decorator at Civic in Custom House every now and then since last May. I’ve also been a food waste distributor for OLIO in Poplar since November last year and I’ve volunteered as a litter picker in Limehouse Basin for Moo Canoes. Through OLIO, I solely manage the redistribution of supermarket food that would otherwise be thrown away, ensuring as much of it as possible gets into the hands of less well off families in my local community.

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