“I hope that (…) we show how important it is to provide good housing, and do that in a way that supports volunteering, and community building.”
Holly Budgen, London October 2016 Associate, in conversation with Katharine Hibbert, founder of Dot Dot Dot, a different kind of property guardian company.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Katharine Hibbert: journalist, avid cyclist, trustee of Headway East London, author of Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society and founder of Dot Dot Dot.
Dot Dot Dot is the kind of get-it-in-a-sentence social enterprise, which has great impact and a clear revenue model; I’ve been eager to find out more for a while. It houses property guardians, who do great volunteering, in properties that would otherwise be empty, to benefit residents, property owners and the wider community.
We caught up about social enterprise, waste and purpose… and Cosmopolitan!
So why the name Dot Dot Dot?
It started off as a working title, but it stuck because it represents the fact that we have three sets of stakeholders: guardians, property owners and communities. And because you would write an ellipsis when you’re denoting a gap, and we exist to fill the gaps. And plus, who doesn’t like dots?
How did you come up with the idea?
I’d been looking at the problem of empty homes for several years before starting Dot Dot Dot — I wrote a book and a TV programme on the subject, and did some consultancy. After spending that much time working on it, I was very troubled by how bad the housing situation is — it’s really letting people down, and I feel very strongly about it as a problem that needs to be solved. So I came up with some ideas for what you could actually do on a practical basis, as one person, without many resources, that would help a bit.
Why is Dot Dot Dot a social enterprise, and what does Social Enterprise mean to you?
The main reason why Dot Dot Dot is a social enterprise is because it’s our mission to get empty buildings into use and to house people who do awesome voluntary work. That’s the primary reason why we’re in business, and everything we do is geared to enable us to do more and better at it.
So that’s the ‘social’ bit of it, but the ‘enterprise’ bit is important too. We are selling services that people want to buy, both property owners and property guardians. That allows us to cover our costs of delivering our service by trading, which means we don’t need to depend on grants to keep us going from day to day. And that helps us to be more scaleable — grants are in short supply, especially at the moment, whereas there are lots of property owners who we can be useful to, and lots of people who would like to live in our buildings, so we’ve been able to grow solidly.
It’s also important that we keep our options open to take on investment when appropriate in order to grow more, and being set up as a business rather than as a charity helps with that too. I think it is entirely appropriate and fair that when people invest money and effort and take on risk, the rewards reflect that.
It’s few years on, since you wrote your book, “Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society”. Alongside Dot Dot Dot which is addressing the problem of waste in housing, at On Purpose we work with a lot of social enterprises like Winnow, or FareShare tackling waste in food for instance. But is enough changing systemically? Are you feeling pessimistic or optimistic about how things are moving for our ‘wasteful society’?
I’m definitely optimistic. I think with both food waste and housing waste, public attitude has changed, and it’s becoming less and less acceptable to throw away food or leave homes empty. Perhaps that’s a product of nine years of austerity, and the fact that wages for most people are stagnant — when times are tough, the waste becomes more striking. So perhaps it’s because the wider economic situation is bad that people are thinking about those issues more, but at least that means that people are coming up with new ideas and solutions.
I think that it’s important to try and mitigate the problems as best you can, using the resources you have. We do need significant systematic change to really solve the housing crisis or the problem of food waste, but that will take time and we have a problem right now.
And often, in mitigating the problem in the short term, you can show how it might be possible to make change systematically. I hope that by showing what a difference our housing makes to the people we house, we show how important it is to provide good housing, and to do that in a way that supports volunteering, and community building.
On Purpose is the name of our community, and we talk a lot about Purpose. You are someone who it seems has been guided by a sense of purpose in your life. What does ‘purpose’ mean to you?
I’m very driven and motivated by a sense of purpose; that’s what makes me work hard and take risks. I want to live in a world where people are generally kind, generous and honest, helpful, and looking out for each other. If that’s generally what people do, that makes all sorts of things possible. If you work on the assumption that people around you are generally kind and honest, you can be more open and trusting yourself and generous. You don’t have to worry so much about bad things happening. Or if a bad thing happens you can see it as an anomaly rather than the norm.
I don’t want to live in a world where all the rewards accrue to people who are greedy and vain and not generous. So part of what I’m trying to do with Dot Dot Dot is to create systems and environments where the easy thing to do, the ‘no-brainer’ decision, is also the kind thing which helps everyone. So, for our guardians, hopefully we make it easy and enjoyable to volunteer, and reward them for the effort they make, so that it’s worthwhile for those reasons as well as for the value they find in the volunteering itself.
The great thing about having a sense of purpose in the work that you do is that it gives you something to check what you’re doing against — when you’re making even quite detailed decisions, you can ask yourself whether what you’re doing is compatible with what you’re trying to achieve overall, which can be really helpful with tough choices. And it also helps you to bring in other people who also share that purpose — one of the most enjoyable things about working on Dot Dot Dot has been bringing together a team of people with a shared determination to achieve our mission.
Finally, I hear you’re running a housing project with Cosmopolitan. Can you tell me a bit about that?
The features editor at Cosmopolitan got in touch to say she wanted to run a campaign about housing, and she asked me to come in and help them work out some ambitious yet realistic campaign asks which make a tangible change for their readers.
Somehow during the conversation, the idea of housing some of their readers came up — we wanted to demonstrate how much difference good, inexpensive housing would make to their lives, and to show Cosmopolitan readers how many brilliant opportunities there are out there to get involved in voluntary work.
It was a challenge, because what they wanted was a place where lots of their readers could live together, and it needed to be in fairly central London, and it needed to be with an owner who would like to have the publicity, so it took us quite a long time to find an appropriate building, but we did it!
For us it’s great because it’s a chance to help with their campaign to improve the private rental sector, and also to spread the word to more potential guardians. And we see all the time how much difference our housing makes to the people we house, so telling that story a bit more widely is a really good thing.
You can find out more about Cosmopolitan’s Home, Made campaign here.