When Year Here was founded, inequality in Britain had been rising for 30 years, with the gap between rich and poor approaching Victorian levels. People’s life chances are systematically diminished by inequality and poverty. Poorer people can expect to live fewer years in good health, and their housing situation will be far more precarious. Poor children, or those who grow up in care, will fare much worse at school.
This was the world as we found it in 2012, with a suite of knotty social problems. Society was out of ideas for how to give our ageing population the care and dignity they deserved. Our housing crisis locked hundreds of thousands of us out of a reliable, safe place to call home. And parental wealth was still depressingly predictive of people’s life chances. These problems create misery and fuel injustice. Solving them matters.
Our social innovation fellowship called upon people who were ambitious about making society better to spend a year testing and building smart solutions to social problems. To prospective Fellows, we said: starting something could be your best shot at impact.
Ten years on from that beginning and our 276 Fellows had contributed over 200,000 hours of service at the frontline of inequality in London – in Pupil Referral Units, homeless hostels and community centres. They worked on 74 impact consulting briefs to drive systemic impact and founded 50 new social businesses.
As Year Here closed its doors to new Fellows in 2022, the country was in political turmoil, struggling to bounce back from Brexit and the economic ravages of the pandemic, and facing a cost of living emergency. The pandemic had exacerbated inequality even further. Over our first ten years of operation, climate chaos has become a lived reality for many around the world.
The job was far from done. So our imperative remained the same, even without recruiting any more Fellows. We aimed to build the Year Here movement’s collective strength to keep fighting poverty and inequality in Britain.
With teachers, consultants, lawyers and artists among their ranks, 276 people became Year Here Fellows. They brought manifold professional skills and precious lived experience – of disability, the care system, racial injustice, chronic illness and insecure housing.
As we closed our doors in 2022, our Fellows had been named six times in the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and three times in The Observer’s 50 New Radicals. Eight had won a Shackleton Award and 27 had won Women in Social Enterprise Awards. Between them they had given TEDx talks; written in The Guardian, Vogue, iD and the Huffington Post; and been featured on BBC News, ITV News and London Live.
More important than the awards and press, this community has been tenacious in working towards building a fairer society. Whether their work is high-profile or under-the-radar, they are equally persistent in the pursuit of social justice.
After the programme, Fellows’ destinations were multitudinal. A year after graduating, 39% of our Fellows were leading their own social ventures while 25% worked for another social start-up. The remainder were working in government, frontline delivery or the private sector.
Year Here was once described by Rob Trimble, the then CEO of the Bromley By Bow Centre, as ‘a gentle tidal wave of social innovation’. As we concluded our last Fellowship in November 2022, this gentle wave showed no sign of ebbing.
THERE’S A WORLD OF DISCOVERY IN YOUR OWN BACKYARDToo often, new leaders are disconnected from their own society. They may be focused on global poverty rather than issues at home. Or they’re swept up in the silent segregation that keeps the university-educated moving in different circles from the rest. Our Fellows got a grounding on their home turf and forged relationships with people from all walks of life.
SOLVING SOCIAL PROBLEMS STARTS WITH UNDERSTANDING THEMOur Fellows contributed to frontline services and got insight into the lives of marginalised people and those that work with them – like the immigrant family struggling to get by without strong English or the harassed care worker who finds herself spending more time on paperwork than caring for residents. This human-level insight is vital for social change.
SOCIAL CHANGE HAPPENS WITH PEOPLE – NOT TO THEMOur Fellows know that meaningful change comes from undertaking projects and initiatives with people – not to them, for them or at them. We didn’t parachute them into poor communities to ‘save’ people but instead encouraged everyone to begin their efforts by listening, learning and establishing meaningful and equitable relationships.
LEADING CHANGE IS A SERIOUSLY DEMANDING PURSUITLeading social change calls for an understanding of complex systems of injustice, practical business skills, and the tools of the heart: empathy and compassion. The sooner we acknowledge the inherent intellectual, creative and personal demands of driving change, the better we can prepare people for that almighty challenge.
The fellowship was immersive, action-oriented and grounded in the lived experience of Londoners in care homes, temporary accommodation units and youth services across London. Fellows were supported by industry mentoring and a rigorous social innovation curriculum and, throughout, had a focus on one of society’s most pressing issues, such as the housing crisis, educational disadvantage, climate injustice or health inequity.
Fellows tried their hand at building creative, sustainable responses to social problems in three very different contexts. In the first few months of the programme, Fellows were placed in a frontline organisation and challenged to lead an innovation project. Next, they played the role of consultant on a social innovation brief set by a real client. Finally, they developed a social venture idea from scratch – prototyping it in the real world and pitching it to fellow entrepreneurs.
Our curriculum spanned human-centred design, community organising and the lean startup method. We partnered with leading innovation players, from New Philanthropy Capital to Bain & Company; and a diverse faculty including Sophie Howarth, co-founder of School Of Life; criminal justice philanthropist Lady Edwina Grosvenor; and the poet Lemn Sissay OBE.
The programme also had a focus on Fellows’ leadership development – the inner work needed to become authentic, courageous and critically-engaged leaders. We created space for personal growth through intimate group sessions, regular coaching and mentoring and WildCamp, our wilderness personal development experience.
Fellows graduated with a portfolio bursting with projects, ideas and experiences; a peer group of emerging social innovators; a powerful address book of new connections; and, in many cases, a promising social startup. 92% of our Fellows rated the programme positively.
Year Here offered a postgraduate course in social innovation – but it was markedly different to other traditional higher education options. Rather than spending a year in a lecture hall and paying £10,000 for the privilege, we challenged Fellows to learn by doing: by working on real social impact projects. Our partners paid us to be involved, and that covered most of the tuition costs for each Fellow. There were no course fees for our Fellows.
But a year living in London without a full-time salary is undeniably tough. Over the years, we developed a financial support package including access to low-interest loans, travel discounts and bursaries – as well as cheap accommodation.
Access to the fellowship was far from perfect, and we were continuously striving to open the doors to social entrepreneurship even wider. In 2020 we established the Year Here Foundation, our charitable arm, to further this mission.
In pioneering a new model of higher education, we demonstrated that an experiential learning approach could be more accessible than traditional courses and more powerful than a conventional ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogy. We offered a postgraduate course, but we didn’t have professors, a campus or any formal accreditation – very little of the accoutrements of most postgraduate courses.
As our founder Jack explained in our Here and Now publication:
Over our first decade we worked with over 100 paying clients to deliver social impact projects across London. In their frontline placements, Fellows undertook an innovation project. Later they formed social innovation consulting teams and responded to a brief set by a local authority, housing association or social enterprise client.
Frontline placements gave Fellows a chance to build for lasting impact, like with the Repair and Care project, which was designed by 2015/16 Fellow Sneh Jani Patel. While on placement with Origin Housing, Sneh noticed that many older residents needed support – but weren’t asking for it. By embedding a simple welfare check into the outreach activities of Origin’s repairs contractors, Sneh developed a mechanism to spot vulnerabilities that would otherwise go unnoticed.
We worked on 74 impact consulting briefs for clients like the Greater London Authority, the European Union and Guys and St Thomas’ Charity. These projects gave Fellows a taste of working as a consultant at the interface between government, business and civil society. For example, a team of Fellows were commissioned to boost the reach of the Mayor’s Civic Crowdfunding Programme, which gave Londoners an opportunity to shape the future of their city. The team led workshops around London and created a set of tools for Londoners to take on small-scale regeneration initiatives, like urban farms and street art projects.
It’s not about creating more apps to make middle-class lives marginally more convenient. It’s about entrepreneurship that solves problems that matter. We called on our Fellows to pick up the tools of business to bring down the system of inequality.
Our 50-strong portfolio of social businesses, each with a new angle on a tricky problem, flourished. At the end of our first ten years, they had collectively reached over 60,000 people, from homeless teens to refugee cooks and isolated older people, and they’d generated over £8,500,000 revenue. By the end of 2022, they employed well over 100 full-time staff.
Formed and finessed during Year Here, our ventures were designed based on insights Fellows gained during the course – and developed in partnership with the people they are intended to help.
Ventures tackle a vast array of inequities and injustices, from Breakthrough, The UK’s first apprenticeship provider to recruit directly from prisons, to InCommon, a social enterprise that connects groups of school children with their older neighbours in retirement homes to combat loneliness. Or from Migrateful, a cookery school where the teachers are refugees, to #100DaysofNoCode, an online learning community that trains underrepresented groups how to build websites, apps and software.
Our ventures have been backed by Nesta, Bethnal Green Ventures and The Mayor of London; won countless awards; and received coverage in The Guardian, Huffington Post, The Evening Standard, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Financial Times, VICE and BBC News.
Despite the accolades, starting a business is scary and seriously hard work. And building a venture that has national impact takes serious perseverance. So we aimed to accompany our founders for the long haul. Our venture network remains tight today, offering founders collaborations, connections and camaraderie to stay the course.