The NatWest SE100 has named us in their list of leading UK social enterprises. Our Founder, Katharine, tells more about Dot Dot Dot’s story

The NatWest SE100 champions growth, impact and resilience amongst socially-oriented ventures in the UK. Our founder, Katharine, talks of being a finalist in the growth category, her inspiration, and her vision for Dot Dot Dot’s future.

What does being a social enterprise mean to you?

The fact that social enterprises make a positive difference in the world while achieving business success is really exciting – and it’s great to see Dot Dot Dot on the #SE100 list, alongside lots of other organisations achieving that same combination. 

On the one hand, being an independent business which covers its costs by trading gives Dot Dot Dot the freedom to grow and innovate to achieve our social impact goals without depending on funding from external sources.  This is particularly important at a time of scarce government and philanthropic funding.  It also means that charitable funding can be used for other causes.

And on the other hand, the fact that we are in business to make a difference by providing inexpensive housing and by supporting volunteering is much more motivating than simply trying to make money.  Inevitably, running an organisation is sometimes challenging, but when you know you’re doing it for a purpose you care about, you’re willing to work harder to deal with the difficulties you inevitably face along the way.

What inspired you to start Dot Dot Dot? What did you want to achieve?

I started Dot Dot Dot in 2011 because I wanted to do what I could to address the housing crisis.  I could see that expensive rent and bad property management held people back – if you are struggling to afford a poor-quality home, what chance do you have of achieving your own goals in life, let alone finding the time to help others?  That situation is not only unfair for individuals, it’s also a terrible waste for society as a whole, because we miss out on that energy and potential.

At the same time, the property guardian model was arriving in the UK, and I could see how useful it was for property owners and residents.  Property guardians live in buildings on a temporary basis to take care of them when they would otherwise be empty.  From the point of view of property owners, it’s a reliable, flexible, cost-effective way to manage empty buildings, while for the guardians themselves it’s a way to live more cheaply.

What struck me was that if you choose people who care about their homes and the communities around them to be property guardians, and manage them in a positive, fair way, you can actually deliver a better security service than if you take less care with the people you house. 

So that’s where Dot Dot Dot came from – ever since we started in 2011, we’ve been trying to do the very best job we can of providing good, inexpensive homes to people who would like to contribute to worthwhile causes, and who are happy to take care of the building they live in on behalf of owners. 

What sets Dot Dot Dot apart from other property guardianship companies?

From the very beginning, Dot Dot Dot has been focussed on providing a great service to everyone affected by our work – property owners, property guardians and local communities.  This matters to us because, as a social enterprise, we are committed to making a positive difference in the world, so we are not in business to cut corners, take risks or look for shortcuts to make a quick buck.

This focus on quality and ethics is unusual in the housing sector, but it has allowed us to build a reputation for high standards and professionalism which spreads by word of mouth. 

It also allows us to achieve our wider purpose, to support people who would like to volunteer – every month, we hear amazing stories from our guardians about what they have been enabled to do, and this is what motivates us to maintain our high standards and to continue to grow so that we can house more kind, generous people and support them to make an even bigger difference.

You also have been nominated in the “Growth Champions” category – how did you manage it and what are the key factors of success? 

Growth has never been Dot Dot Dot’s top priority.  When making decisions internally, we focus first on behaving ethically, second on ensuring that the business is sustainable, third on making a difference, and fourth on ensuring that we go above and beyond for staff and guardians.  We could have been quite happy doing those things as a niche east London business – that would have been a success in itself.

However, during the first few years in business, we saw how well our approach worked for everyone involved.  We could also see that if we grew geographically then we could achieve even more good by providing more housing and supporting more volunteering, so we started spreading the word about what we offer to a wider audience.  Today, we’re working all over London as well as in Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and in towns throughout the home counties.  We’ve won that work because of our reputation for quality and reliability, and also because many people – property owners and property guardians alike – want to be part of our mission, and see the value of the volunteering our guardians do.

What were your key actions in response to COVID 19 for keeping your guardians safe but also to keep the business flowing?

As a housing provider, our first responsibility is to make sure that our residents are safe in their homes and our staff are able to work without fear.  We shifted to working from home whenever possible before the lockdown started, and expect to continue until the risks are much lower.  We have also minimised face-to-face contact between our staff and guardians – for example, we have switched to holding video viewings of properties for new guardians. I’m extremely grateful to the team for the innovative and resourceful work that has gone into making this possible.

We also see that our work is needed more than ever at the moment, given the income hit many people have experienced, and because of the way the crisis has demonstrated the importance of volunteering and how much difference it makes to have thoughtful neighbours around when things are difficult.  So we are very keen to make sure that we are continuing to take all the opportunities we can to create more housing and support more volunteering as time goes on, to build a recovery from this crisis.

How do you think the housing landscape will change after the COVID 19 crisis? What role will Dot Dot Dot play in that new landscape?

I hope we will get to the other side of this crisis with a fresh understanding of the importance of the basics of life – our health, our homes, and the communities around us who help us when times are tough.  We’ve seen the emergence of neighbourhood Covid-19 support groups on WhatsApp, and a million people have volunteered to help the NHS during the crisis (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/13/a-million-volunteer-to-help-nhs-and-others-during-covid-19-lockdown). 

At the same time, though, we will also have to deal with the economic effects of the crisis – many people will have significantly less money to spend.  We came into this crisis with a severe shortage of housing, and there is no sign of a solution to this yet.  So without significant government investment, it seems unlikely that the housing situation will improve anytime soon.

That’s bad news, but all of this makes us more motivated than ever to deliver the work we’re here to do by providing good housing and supporting volunteering in order to build a society that works better for everyone.