Defying Conventional Wisdom

In the 6 months before “lockdown”, “social-distancing”, “R nought” etc. entered the lexicon, The Skill Mill had already been through a torrid time. Launching a Social Impact Bond (actually 3 years in planning) had taken its toll on the organisation emotionally and financially.

We know that we are resilient people and that we have the fortitude in ourselves and in our partners to work things out. We almost did. The SIB is designed to overcome the challenges governments have in investing in prevention and early intervention. It mitigates the risks of failure and brings in impact investors, who want to test innovation and scale successful programmes. Investors provide flexible funding to programmes that are designed to be responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups to improve their lives. It was all set to launch on 31st March. The “lockdown” was announced on 16th March and everything paused. We had ploughed all our resources into launching the SIB with virtually nothing in reserve.

Rewind a little bit for those new to Skill Mill. We are a top 100 Social Enterprise, certified by Social Enterprise UK and we have been operating since 2014. We employ ex-young offenders and deliver environmental improvement services. Fairly straightforward stuff you might think except it is not the norm to employ ex-offenders and especially juveniles. They simply don’t register in the labour market. We take some very raw material and through the course of 6 months provide real work and skills and qualifications and they then move on to further employment with partners or in the wider labour market. The results are astonishing. 128 young people employed so far. All the employees have complex issues. Almost all have experienced youth custody, many have been through the care system. All of them want to work and break the cycle. Since operations began in 2014 only 15 have re-offended. That’s less than 12%. The re-offending rate for all young offenders is 43% nationally and higher for the serious and persistent young people that Skill Mill typically employs.

Back to “lockdown” and what happened next is a measure of the organisation’s resilience and quality of the partnerships and nothing short of miraculous. We frantically started writing funding applications. One of the potential major investors in the SIB Northstar Ventures provided grant funding to support operations through the Northstar Foundation. The Charities Aid Foundation, an arm of CAF Venturesome another SIB investor did the same. The National Lottery Communities Fund also provided some additional funding to prop up Skill Mill. These are the organisations that are already committed to the Skill Mill mission. They care about the client group and they understand the effort it takes to make something like Skill Mill work. It sounds straightforward. It is certainly not. Breaking the cycle of re-offending is a massive challenge for society and one that will continue when the economic impact of Covid-19 really hits. Jobs are the key and providing meaningful employment and skills, especially for vulnerable young people who are most likely to be hardest hit is vital.

The Government’s furlough scheme has ensured that we have kept all the young people employed, the paramount objective. We then set about developing procedures and protocols to support a speedy return to operations as soon as restrictions were removed. We have now in place new Covid Secure Procedures, Standard Operating Procedures and Risk and Method Statements. The Leeds team returned to work last week. A big thank you must go to Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner and Commercial Estates Group for the support. Durham operations will re-commence week beginning 1st June. The stage is then set to restart the SIB engines and launch in July in all locations, just 3 months later than planned, and a whole lot wiser and stronger.