Transforming lives – with office supplies

Recent research shows businesses are increasingly driven to achieve social good. Colin Downie, sales and partnerships director at Wildhearts Group, agrees, and tells Pioneers Post how his organisation is helping global giants like Johnson & Johnson and Serco to spend their money well.

How can paper clips and printing paper transform the lives of young entrepreneurs around the world?

Colin Downie believes he knows the answer.

Downie is sales and partnership director at the Wildhearts Group, a Scottish social enterprise founded in 2014. One of the companies it has launched, Wildhearts Office, sells businesses the essential office supplies they need, from staplers to notebooks to ink cartridges. Having tapped into the UK’s massive procurement market – valued at £260 billion in 2015, according to the Institute for Government – it then ploughs 100 per cent of its profits into The Wildhearts Foundation, a registered charity helping children and entrepreneurs across the globe.

“That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning,” Downie explains. “We are driven to create money for the foundation.”

It is the principle which drives social enterprises all over the country: the more the company sells and the bigger the profits it can generate, the greater the good it can do. And Wildhearts Office is generating plenty of cash: turnover has grown over 20% every year for the last three years.

Money exists in the world. It’s how you capture it, that’s the trick

The money generated for the Foundation is used in two ways.

It helps entrepreneurs in the developing world through small investments, as part of the booming field of micro-finance. The people who receive the investments can then build-up their businesses and take on their own staff, creating a more sustainable future in countries as different as Ghana, Jordan and Guatemala.

And the Wildhearts Foundation runs Micro-Tyco, a free training programme for young, would-be entrepreneurs in the UK and around the world. Micro-Tyco has been rolled-out across schools and universities, and helps young people develop the confidence, ideas and networks which will help them thrive in the world of work. To date, over 40,000 people in 22 countries have benefitted from the programme.

In its efforts to raise the money which goes into these projects, Wildhearts Office already boasts an impressive client list including corporate giants like Johnson & Johnson, Zurich and Serco. 

The company gives consumers a more sustainable option in other ways, too. Wildhearts offer to remove waste paper from a business, for example, take it to a paper mill and get it recycled before selling it back to them. 3,500 of the company’s 25,000 products have a ‘green tick’, meaning they are produced with the highest standards of care for the environment.

“Money exists in the world,” Downie says. “It’s how you capture it, that’s the trick.”

And Wildhearts sees no reason to stop at helping companies stock up on stationery.

It has already branched out into janitorial supplies and, just in the last year, into helping businesses with off-site storage and data archiving, with the launch of WildHearts Horizon. Downie argues that off-site storage has the potential to deliver even more cash for good causes, through profits which could dwarf what the company already makes.

It is big thinking consistent with his whole approach.

Colin Downie WildHeartsWildhearts Office is always looking for the next opportunity to make money, he insists. Like any salesman, he says, during each deal he is always thinking: “What else can I be selling you?”

But Downie (left) is impatient to achieve even more. He is keen to lead a campaign to change minds across the business world.

“The narrative in the [private] sector has to change,” he tells Pioneers Post. Decisions about social impact are still too often left solely to corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments, he argues.

He wants businesses to look again at the whole culture of procurement spending.

“The average CSR budget at a FTSE 100 business is £10 million,” he points out. “The average procurement budget is between £2-3 billion. “Imagine the world we’d live in if that £2-3 billion was all spent with social enterprise.”

He may be in luck. The latest research suggests that businesses are increasingly driven by strategic plans for the social good they can do, as well as the profits they can achieve. The pressure is partly coming from consumers, 84 per cent of whom told a recent Ipsos Mori survey that they believed companies should do more for society.

It is also coming from millennials entering the workforce, who expect their employers to think seriously about social impact. Another survey found that 8 out of 10 younger employees wanted to work somewhere that cared about its effect on society.

The average procurement budget is between £2bn and £3bn. Imagine the world we’d live in if that £2-3bn was all spent with social enterprise

Dr Mairi Mackay who heads the British Council’s Global Social Enterprise programme, welcomes the role that WildHearts is playing to help businesses translate their desire to deliver more social impact through their procurement policies. “Unlocking the potential of business to support more inclusive and sustainable growth through their supply chains is critical to achieving the systemic change that will reduce inequalities and benefit the communities we work with around the world,” she says.  

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a framework which has inspired a generation of employees to think about the positive impact their companies can make. There are sixteen SDGs, ranging from alleviating poverty to gender equality and building stronger institutions to protect citizens. These have proven useful to younger employees as they try and force their companies to focus on helping the world while they make cash.

As Downie puts it, “young talent coming into companies are demanding that business really get to grips with the problems the world has.”

And attitudes in the boardroom appear to be catching up with this demand. Last month David Cruikshank, the Global Chairman of Deloitte, declared himself “optimistic” that senior executives will find ways to “make a positive, measurable – and sustained – societal impact.” Cruikshank’s comments came in a report which found that 65 per cent of executives saw progress towards inclusive growth and a sustainable future as key issues for their business strategy.

Wildhearts will be pleased to hear it.

In the meantime, the Foundation has already helped 225,000 people around the world, through investments worth around £5.5 million. “And we’re only getting going,” Downie says happily.

Header image: Women in Ghana who have received a WildHearts microloan. They are members of a microfinance trust group which helps the women to support one another, share ideas and guarantee each other's loans. They then become part of a thriving business support network.

British Council