Spotlight on: Karolina Gerlich – from volunteer to CEO of care workers charity the National Association of Care and Support Workers

August 24, 2021

Karolina became a Dot Dot Dot guardian in 2017, living in Canning Town, east London. When she wasn’t a full-time care worker, Karolina was spending much of her free time volunteering with the National Association of Care and Support Workers, acting as CEO. Find out from Karolina how guardianship and volunteering enabled her to gain a full-time paid role as the chief executive of the charity she had dedicated her spare time to.

During the first two years of my guardianship with Dot Dot Dot, I was working full time as a care worker. At the same time, I was dedicating a huge amount of time to volunteering as the CEO of the National Association of Care and Support Workers. I was spending much of my time helping to give care workers a voice, representing the workforce and participating in meetings with stakeholders. Ultimately, all of my voluntary work was around championing those in the profession as skilled professionals who make a huge contribution to the economy and to society. 

Being able to dedicate so much of my time to representing care workers with this organisation meant that as of March last year, I was given a full-time paid role as CEO. In my role as chief executive, I run the charity and develop stakeholder relationships and engagement. As care workers are a low-paid workforce, we give out financial grants to to support their wellbeing and mental health – there’s a lack of funding in the sector and so due to many having to self-isolate during the pandemic, there were also a huge amount of care workers were missing out on fair pay. Last year we gave £2.2 million to over 3,200 care workers. 

I first found out about property guardianship in the Evening Standard. When I did my research, Dot Dot Dot stood out from other organisations doing the same thing because of the volunteering element – lower costs combined with volunteering was an idea I could really get behind. Other companies seemed to prioritise profit over people, but at Dot Dot Dot, they’re much more focused on doing the right thing and putting their guardians first. 

I viewed a 2-bed property in east London that I ended up moving into – there was lots of space and the value was unbeatable for London. If I’d wanted to privately rent somewhere of the same size, it would have cost me double the amount. I ended up being a guardian for almost three years, which was an overall positive experience for me as it meant that I was able to use my money more wisely rather than most of it going towards living expenses. If I was looking for affordable housing in the future, I’d definitely look to live with Dot Dot Dot again.

Read more stories from our 10 great guardians who we’re highlighting as part of our tenth birthday celebrations. 

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.

Five simple steps to re-styling your home

July 14, 2021

Once you’ve secured your new home, you’ll probably be thinking – how can I start decorating? One of the benefits of being a Dot Dot Dot guardian is that in a lot of our properties you have the creative freedom to paint and refresh your space so you can really feel at home. As we recently created a show flat in Queen’s Park, we’ve got plenty of top decorating tips to share – with one key thing in mind – how to decorate affordably. 

1. Stripping wallpaper

Time to ditch that tired wallpaper to give your walls a fresh start? Thankfully this one-day DIY job can be done fairly painlessly. First, make sure your floors are covered with old sheets or newspaper to protect them from debris. Next, test how easily the paper peels off the walls with a putty knife – if it comes away easily, then you’re dealing with an easy task. If it doesn’t budge then you’ll need to use water and a chemical stripper. We’ve got the method for both below:

Peelable wallpaper

You’ll need:

  • Putty knife or an old bank card cut into the shape you need 
  • Soap
  • Water
  • A cloth

This simple method entails loosening the edge of the paper with the putty knife, and tearing carefully. Repeat all around the room until the walls are free of wallpaper, and voila – all that’s needed now is a thorough clean with soapy water. Make sure the walls are completely dry before you begin painting.

Traditional hard-to-remove wallpaper

  • Water
  • Wallpaper stripper like this one from B&Q
  • Spray bottle
  • Putty knife or an old bank card cut into the shape you need 
  • Soap
  • Water
  • A cloth
  • Rubber gloves

Mix your wallpaper stripper with water as per the instructions on the bottle, then pour into a spray bottle. Spray the mixture onto a small section of the walls and leave to absorb for a few minutes. Then, as with the peelable wallpaper, use the putty knife to loosen the edges of the paper and scrape off, repeating the spray, absorb, peel method all around the room. Lastly, go over the walls thoroughly with soap and water to remove any residue left behind!

2. A fresh coat of paint

A good place to start is to consider what you want the finished look to be. Don’t forget that you don’t have to paint all four walls the same colour – do you want an accent wall? Could the door frames be a standout colour? Make sure to consider your approach carefully before you begin. 

Once you have an idea of the style you want, pick up some samples and get testing your colour palette out. This will give you the chance to see what the colours look like at different times of the day and in different rooms. We recommend painting your samples onto paper and tacking the paper to the wall – just in case the light colour you might choose doesn’t cover up the dark sample you started with!

must haves for painting your walls:

  • Paint
  • Paint roller
  • Paint tray 
  • Drop cloths
  • Paintbrushes
  • Masking tape (for neat edges)
  • Damp cloth

Before getting stuck into the main event, ensure that all of your furniture is either out of the room, or completely covered with old sheets or newspaper for protection. Next, grab your masking tape and firmly cover where the wall meets the floor or skirting board, and the ceiling, to ensure clean paint lines.

Next, with your roller brush at the ready, work from the ceiling down, moving your way methodically around the room. Roller brushes are good for covering large areas quickly but you will find it easier to use a paint brush when it comes to painting closer to the ceiling and floor/skirting board. 

You’ll want good ventilation to keep the air flowing through your property at this stage – make sure to keep windows open and consider having a fan on to encourage air movement (plus, the fans will help speed up the drying process). 

If you’re covering up dark walls, don’t forget that you’ll probably need to apply several coats to ensure complete coverage, or first use a primer. 

Once you’re done with the fun part, you’ll want to clean your brushes and rollers to keep them in good condition for next time. For latex and water-based paints, all that’s needed is a thorough rinse through with soap and water. For oil-based paint, you’ll need some mineral spirits to really wash the residue away. 

Top tip: people will often give away free paint that they no longer need or want on Freecycle and Facebook Marketplace. Check out these options if you’re looking to source paint on the cheap!

3. Easy to lay flooring

For a cheap and effective option to cover up any worn out flooring, you’re in pretty safe hands with a roll of lino, or stick on vinyl tiles. As the simplest and most cost-effective way of sprucing up your floor, peel and stick tiles can look more professional than you might think. B&Q does a great range of simple colours from just £8 per M2. 

If you’re after something soft under foot, you might consider opting for carpet tiles. Most of them will come with sticky backs making application simple and straightforward. Check out Screwfix’s range of shades and hues for prices from £39.99 for a pack of 16 tiles. 

A third low-maintenance option is a good coat of paint. This oft-overlooked method of sprucing up a floor can add a sumptuous accent to your new room – plus, it’s a great way to use up any leftover paint you might have from refreshing the walls! 

4. “Upcycling” second-hand furniture 

Tired and dated furniture might not be on the top of your list to collect via Freecycle or a charity shop – but what if you were to give it a revamp? Instead of buying new and often badly made pieces, restyling a second-hand table means you’ll be  creating a unique item for your home. 

Check out car boot sales, charity shops, Freecycle and Facebook Marketplace for inspiration. If the item is wooden, consider how you might give it a spruce – does it just need sanding and re-varnishing? Or would it benefit from a coat of paint? Remember that chalk-based paint works best on wood, and you’ll need to add a top varnish or wax layer to protect your piece and give it a finished sheen. 

If you have a chair with grubby material on it but have never re-upholstered before, don’t worry. YouTube is a great resource for simple how-to videos to make the most out of your new item. Plus, a simple search on Ebay will throw up a wide range of fabric offcuts for low prices to give your piece a brand new style. 

5. Deep clean

Top tip: if you’re looking for an economically and environmentally friendly cleaning solution for your home, a solution of bicarb, vinegar and lemon can actually clean just as well as many commercial cleaning products! The Guardian’s handy guide provides a run down of how the experts give their homes a going over with these three simple ingredients. 

Start with cleaning the bathroom. Spray your shower, bath, toilet and sink down with your chosen bathroom cleaner and leave to soak for a few minutes. Using the rough side of a cleaning sponge, get to work scrubbing down the bath or shower, focusing on areas that need special attention. 

You’ll then want to give the kitchen some attention. Starting with the fridge, use an antibacterial spray and go over all exterior surfaces. Remove shelves and trays from the fridge and clean thoroughly with soapy water.  Repeat this step with any other white goods you have in your kitchen. Then wipe down drawers and cabinet faces, and clean your sink with bleach making sure to rinse thoroughly afterwards to avoid staining. 

Next using glass cleaner and a microfibre cloth, go through the property to remove marks and stains on all of the windows and mirrors. 

Lastly, using a hoover or a dustpan and brush, make your way through each room to clear up any dust and debris left behind after your wall-painting and floor-laying. A damp cloth can be handy to really get into the corners of your rooms to ensure a polished finish. 

Discover more about Dot Dot Dot guardianship and how to apply to become a property guardian. Stay posted for part two, where we’ll be revealing six tips for sourcing furniture on a budget. 

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.

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.

Life as a Dot Dot Dot guardian: Mahmoud, Oxford

February 26, 2021

From Dot Dot Dot guardian, Mahmoud, Oxford

I first heard of Dot Dot Dot through a friend who was a property guardian in Oxford. At the time I was living in a flat near my restaurant, Za’atar Bake which was expensive for the area. When the lockdown started last year, I realised I needed to save money in order to be able to sustain my business – otherwise I’d lose it. I saw that there was a Dot Dot Dot flat available so took my chance and applied. Now I’m saving hundreds of pounds each month which gives me peace of mind that my restaurant will be OK.

Last May, we started offering free home-cooked meals every day during lockdown to the homeless and others who couldn’t afford to buy their own food in our community. We thought maybe 10-15 people would show up. We ended up regularly giving away 60 meals a day. A lot of the money I’m saving through living with Dot Dot Dot is redirected to the restaurant and goes towards providing the free meals. I’m grateful to know that I can do this with comfort and continue to do so once we can reopen which I’m hoping will be in March for our community.

We also did a meal for 90 people on Christmas Day for people who didn’t have anyone to spend it with – we were really supported by the community who gave us a Christmas tree, decorations, lighting and we were even gifted 300kg of rice! Oxford Hub (a social action charity committed to bringing people and organisations together) invited us all to have a free buffet to say thank you and I even spoke to the Oxford Lord Mayor about more ways to give back to the community. It’s great to see people paying attention and thinking about other ways they can help.

Since we started offering free meals we have also seen our sales increase through people coming in to support us and our bond with the community has gotten stronger. We didn’t want donations or to make money off the back of offering free meals, so the best way that we can be supported is through people coming and enjoying the food at Za’atar Bake. Giving is about giving to everybody and doing charitable work is an amazing feeling. I want to spread good vibes and hope to the Oxford community and I’m proud to do it. It keeps us all going to see people being positively affected by what we’re doing.

I love sports and staying active, and last June I set a challenge for the community called ‘Running for 30k’ (or ‘Walk for 30k’!). People had one month to either run or walk everyday until they reached their goal of 30k – the aim was to get people outdoors in the fresh air and enjoying sport. Once they’d reached their goal of 30k they were able to come to my restaurant and claim their free lunch or dinner. So many people got involved and one woman told me it was the first time in her life that she felt fitter and lost weight. It shows what happens when you give people a challenge and spread hope.

A lot of people don’t think about giving time to charity when they’re busy with their lives and working hard. It’s all too easy to not think about giving back. Since living with Dot Dot Dot, I’ve not only saved money but gained flexibility in my life in order to give what I can to my community. I enjoy living in a society where we do what we can to help others.

You can find out more about the work that Mahmoud and his team are doing for the Oxford community here. You can also read more stories here from our guardians on how living with Dot Dot Dot has given them the freedom and flexibility to pursue their goals.

Spotlight on: Tom – what it’s like to volunteer for Samaritans

December 18, 2020

Writer for The Economist by day and volunteer with Samaritans by night, east Londoner, Tom, has been a Dot Dot Dot guardian for three years. Writing from his 2-bed flat, Tom describes the reality of his eye-opening role as a listening volunteer, and how being part of an army of like-minded people looking to make a positive difference is an extremely rewarding venture.

It’s 10.30pm on a Monday and I’m one of hundreds of Samaritans volunteers on duty tonight. I cycle from Poplar along the Thames path and under the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to my local branch in Lewisham. The river is peaceful and the path quiet. It’ll be silent when I return just after 3.

Becoming a listening volunteer begins with an information evening and a short selection process. Training normally involves several sessions which mix theory and role-play. These are usually in person but have been virtual during the pandemic. New volunteers are then assigned a mentor and you work together to develop your practice until you’re ready to take calls independently. However, you’re never “flying solo” – there’s always at least two on duty in a branch at any one time plus a leader on call. Training is stimulating and eye-opening. I was part of collaborative and close-knit group and many of us have stayed in contact. “This is not work experience” we are told early on. And it’s a really important point. Volunteers are discouraged from seeing training at Samaritans as just a stepping stone to a career in counselling. To train as a listening volunteer is to share the mission of the organisation and commit to regular duties in the long-term.

Contrary to perception, and despite being founded by a vicar, Samaritans is not a Christian organisation. The Rev Dr Chad Varah described its beginnings as “a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone.” The Daily Mirror called Chad the “telephone good Samaritan” and the name stuck. Now, over 20,000 volunteers in over 200 branches provide emotional support over the telephone, via email and by letter. There’s currently a pilot project trialling instant messaging too.

When people find out I volunteer at Samaritans, they usually have lots of questions. Our strict confidentiality policy – everything said in a contact remains within Samaritans – means volunteers do not share what’s been said in a call, even with those closest to them. There’s lots of support within the organisation. Common questions asked, that can be answered, include how often do you do it (I volunteer once a week) and do you always do nights (no, you can generally choose your hours but you are expected to contribute to the night shifts).

Volunteering for Samaritans is extremely rewarding: after each shift you know you have helped a number of people. You sense you’ve made a difference at the most basic level – you have been there for someone. You feel part of an army of like-minded people with similar motivations. Although the charity is vast, each branch has its own ways of doing things and each is its own unique community. As a guardian, my regular duties enable me to fulfil my 16 hours and often more.

There are lots of development opportunities within Samaritans. Each branch relies on volunteers taking on additional roles: from management, to mentoring to fundraising. Volunteers are supported to develop their skills and follow their interests. Two years into my Samaritans journey, I’m now helping my first mentee begin theirs.

You can donate to help Samaritans maintain their listening service at www.samaritans.org/donate-now. Whatever you’re going through, you can call Samaritans any time, from any phone for free on 116 123. You can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org. For more, visit www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan.

Read more of our guardians’ volunteering stories over at our guardian spotlight

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