Social Value Within A Social Enterprise

For the last 4 years I have been involved in a charity that provides brilliant support to a local community and has improved the quality of life for many children with Cerebral Palsy around the globe. Paper Furniture Social Enterprise: teaches workshops, runs construction groups, and makes apparatus for children with Cerebral Palsy from reclaimed cardboard, newspaper and flour.

I have recently been thinking about what value we give to charities with a high social rather than monetary revenue. I have also been thinking about the sustainability of the project, and how to maintain a sense of purpose for those that spend their time.

Paper Furniture Social Enterprise — Volunteers Making Toys and Equipment

The Charity

Paper Furniture Social Enterprise is a unique venture. In association with Cerebral Palsy Africa and using Appropriate Paper Technology (APT), we provide low cost equipment in the form of standing frames and support chairs made from recycled cardboard, that would otherwise cost thousands of pounds, to children in the most remote parts of the globe.

You see small children with Cerebral Palsy aren’t necessarily unable to got to school, partake in social activity and go on to be influential contributors to their community because of their physical limitations. Equipment that gives the right support and mobility can enable them to travel with a parent, strengthen their core muscles and sit in a classroom with their peers. The equipment empowers them. Unfortunately, we aren’t all born in areas with easy affordable access to healthcare and support.

Cue the magic… With reclaimed cardboard, old newspaper and flour, we can make low cost solid objects. These materials can be sourced anywhere on the globe, and using the Applied Paper Technology technique, turned into durable equipment that can last decades.

Who makes it?

Operating out of a rented space in Alton, Hampshire, a group of 30+ volunteers make equipment, fundraise, plan trips and teach workshops in the UK and abroad.

I originally joined the group in Summer 2012 on internship via my Masters Degree. I took a week long workshop and then joined in with the different daily groups. I came to understand the strengths and constraints of building with paper, and by the end of the summer made a toy paper aeroplane large enough for a 4 year old. I learned about the history of the project (APT pioneered by Bevill Packer) and saw the planning and preparation for workshops to happen abroad.

I saw stakeholder value very early on, from the construction process to the improvements that a ‘knee-block’ chair had on the body of a child over time, and from the social bonding of the groups that met to make items to the empowered parents who had just completed a workshop to be able to make equipment for their own children. This initiative has been running for over 30 years, but I wondered why it wasn’t more well known…

Money and Value

In our society money tends to make headlines and charities are big business. The declared amount donated to UK charities year on year in the last 5 years has been in the ten’s of Billions. Our charities do a good job, and it feels good to give to give to a cause we choose to support. What we can’t give in time, money can enable, and for our money the value of our donation comes not in seeing direct results, but a trust that our contribution is for some good.

Social Value

Some 800,000 people work in the voluntary sector. When it comes to time, empathy, and help, some are wealthier than others. I know ‘giving’ means something different to all of us, and I found that to our volunteers, giving their time has meant that the weekly groups are not only producing paper furniture goods, but creating an important routine and social support network within the local community.

In the little workshop in Alton, Hampshire, four groups meet on 4 different days. Some make support chairs and standing frames (our two main pieces of equipment we make for children with Cerebral Palsy), others make baskets, toys and anything they fancy from our supply of ply cardboard.

PFSE has 3 types of charitable giving:

  1. We accept donations of old newspaper, cardboard, tools, tights, flour and money!
  2. Volunteers donate their time making items that are sold or taken along when we run workshops.
  3. Volunteers run workshops on the APT technique to physiotherapists, community support workers, parents of children with CP and anyone wanting to get involved. Sharing knowledge and empowering others to ‘do’.

And in return value is delivered in 3+ ways:

  1. Children that receive furniture have the chance to strengthen their core muscles and gain greater flexibility.
  2. Parents and community workers who can adopt the method and can produce items for their family or local community are empowered, and can generate income from what they make.
  3. Groups that regularly gather to make together, produce and reabsorb the benefits of support and social interaction with a group of people with whom they share a common goal.

The Future

A tremendous amount of organisation is done by one person a few people. My recent thoughts have been circling around how the charity could become self sustaining. Division of labour and open recognition of skills and time all participants could offer could be part of the answer. It answers questions of how participants can develop and maintain a sense of purpose within the project and how we can skills match to delegate and distribute the workload.

Keeping the technique fresh in the minds of those that attend workshops globally is also important. PFSE uses social media and a website to share information about recent trips and updates from volunteers in various countries. There is an issue with continuity of technique after the workshops have taken place. The workshops teach how we can use the structural properties of paper to make supportive and long lasting equipment. A refined technique that must be followed in order to ensure the safety of any child using it. However, items created for income generation can benefit from technique adaptation for craft and aesthetics. This is where a digital social and learning space could reach all who are involved and curious. Sharing projects and refreshing knowledge of the basic methods.

I am meditating on something that prioritises workload, and permits all members to do their part. With some mediation, the door could be opened to self-sustenance. I am working on some prototypes now.

Brainstorming Session with Volunteers

I ran a brainstorming session earlier this month to gather some insight into the structure of the charity, who and how each volunteer was engaged, and the important factors in their learning and teaching experiences. My main findings were:

  1. Skills were underused. This group of volunteers (7) were mostly retired, but had had careers in physiotherapy, education and other fields. Skills gathered over a working lifetime weren’t being used to distribute workload. Some of this could be because of availability, but also lack of knowledge of where their knowledge could be useful.
  2. Why factor. The most helpful and important method for learning to make with paper technology was through task repetition — making and seeing where they made mistakes and why it wasn’t right, and what it would lead to.
  3. Communication. There was a gap in common knowledge amongst volunteers of what needed to be prepared for upcoming workshops, what the other daily groups were making, what trips were coming up and what groups in other countries were up to.
  4. Workshop leading from defined areas. A suggestion to develop close ties and communication with a handful of centres abroad where they make paper furniture, that could be hubs where regular workshops are held could be beneficial. It could mean greater connection and transparency between volunteers around the globe. That could lead to more confidence amongst volunteers to lead workshops in other countries.

Pre and Post Education

So I have ideas for an online platform could support those who have taken the course and are now producing equipment for children in their local area. Keeping the main pillars of the technique fresh through online demonstration videos and feedback, an extended volunteer community. Offering support and maintaining continuity of technique.

Recently I have been working with workshop leaders within PFSE to develop a pre workshop kit, that would introduce the technique to participants of workshops that are due to happen, before we arrive. They already have a kit for building a small stool, but the idea now is to extend that to a kit that includes all tools and basic training needed to make an enduring object before we arrive to teach. The benefits of this will be that participants can receive feedback on their work early in the process that engages them in the learning process and solidifies the essential methods in their practice.

It will also emphasise the ‘Why?’, why do some techniques need to be done in a certain way, what will happen if I don’t do that? (The ‘Why?’ factor was one of the key topics to come out of a brainstorming session with volunteers earlier this month- July 2016). The nature of the process feels very experimental and the range of things you can make from Appropriate Paper Technology are endless, but the structural properties of paper have to be solidified in the mind of the learner to ensure what they make is safe and lasts.


I am excited to think about how the structure of the charity could be shaped by greater transparency. Transparency of method and of projects happening in tandem. Sustainability should come from communication and task delegation, which in turn will increase value amongst those who give their time and attract new volunteers too.

My next chapter will feature prototypes of my research findings.

I love working with people, if you have had any similar experience or would like to be involved, please get in touch