SE100 Storyteller Award: House of St Barnabas
It’s hard to imagine a swankier form of social enterprise.
The House of St Barnabas (HOSB) takes up one corner of Soho Square in central London and is hard to miss – this Grade I listed Georgian building is emblazoned with the legend ‘House of Charity’ around its exterior.
It is more than 250 years old, beautiful and now a private members’ club. It’s also pretty cool – artwork by Damien Hirst and Banksy adorns the walls.
The House of Charity, founded in 1846, moved to the premises in 1861, and would offer shelter to “all who found themselves in a condition of friendlessness and destitution that is not the manifest result of idleness or vice”.
It’s still offering shelter and combatting homelessness today, albeit in different ways. The membership fees paid by the 2,500 members part fund an employment academy that gives those affected by homelessness an opportunity to train in catering or hospitality roles and, in 69% of cases, go on to get a job.
Business and events administration training is on offer too and support for the individual is also given serious consideration. Former alcoholics may feel a role in the kitchen away from the bar would be safer for them, for example. But bar staff will also be made aware of the vulnerabilities of their colleagues and subsequently know not to offer them a drink.
Those who go on to work after graduating from the academy are offered ongoing support over the next 12 months to ensure they keep the employment they’ve gained.
How to tell a great story about your social enterprise
The Employment Academy started running in 2013 so by 2014 it was decided that the story HOSB was telling publicly needed to be updated.
The first thing that visitors to the website see now are portraits of some of the staff (any of whom might have experienced homelessness) alongside bold slogans.
Statements such as “We are a charity pledging to break the cycle of homelessness” and “Our not-for-profit members’ club is run to help the people we support back into lasting work” serve as clear messaging that makes the social mission the focus of the enterprise.
Chief encouragement officer at the House of St Barnabas is Sandra Schembri. She explains that prior to 2014, visitors to the website would have two options: to click on either the “charity” or “social business” options presented to them.
“We realised we are one thing which the two are embodied within and it was that move of putting our mission front and centre that was the step change for us. It enabled more people to get what we were about and think ‘I want to engage with them’. 2014 was the year we were brave enough to understand that our audience would come with us,” Schembri says.
Why HOSB are winners
David Dinnage, director of communications at Big Society Capital, was on the judging panel for the storyteller award. He commented: “The HOSB tell their story very eloquently and they clearly put people at the heart of everything they do. It is bold, engaging and authentic.”
As well as the pictures of staff and the mission statements, the organisation has encouraged staff to describe their experience of engaging with HOSB. When Pioneers Post visited, we met Denise who, after completing training as a commis chef with the employment academy, found herself back working at HOSB for Benugo, which is contracted to supply catering there.
She has written two blogs for the HOSB website and rediscovered her love of writing as a result. One of them relates how “after two decades of being just a mum, ill health, bad decisions and addiction, I wanted a purpose”.
Reflecting on her experience at HOSB she writes: “I am sure it is the end of one chapter and the glorious beginning of the next.”
Since the focus of the marketing material has shifted, both membership and applications are on the rise, as is interest from partner organisations. Of the £1.7m the club needs to run the organisation annually, around 80% of revenue comes from membership fees, venue hire, putting on events and a cut of the artwork sold. The rest comes from donations from foundations and individuals.
The people who are the focus of the House of St Barnabas’ social mission are now the focus of its marketing materials and business has improved as a result. That’s certainly a story worth telling.
Nominations are now open for this year's NatWest SE100 Social Business Club Awards. Winners will have a film produced for them for their own marketing purposes, along with a share of the prize money. Find out more here.