Good Things Foundation: A club anyone who cares about digital inclusion can and should be part of

We spoke to Chief Executive, Helen Milner OBE, about their journey to becoming a mutual and beyond.

Who are they?

Good Things Foundation is a social change charity that supports socially excluded people to improve their lives through digital.

As technology continues to alter life as we know it, many people are finding themselves digitally excluded. Good Things Foundation has identified that digitally excluded members of society are often also socially excluded, including some of the most vulnerable and isolated people in society. In fact, 82% of those they help are also socially excluded.

Through a combination of projects, networks, research and learning tools, Good Things Foundation delivers social inclusion powered by digital. This might be by helping people to gain basic digital skills so they can use the internet to find a job, implementing large-scale health interventions, and combatting loneliness and isolation through establishing digital communities.

Man at laptop

Partnering for impact

Whatever role digital can play in improving people’s lives, it is likely to be on Good Things Foundation’s agenda. In 2017/18 alone, they helped 320,000 people to improve their lives through digital; supported 7,700 who didn’t speak English as a first language through their ‘English My Way’ programme, and could count 5,054 local centres in their Online Centres Network.

The partnerships they form are focussed on maximum impact, which is why they have projects running in collaboration with the NHS (three-year Widening Digital Participation Programme), Google (their Digital Garage in Sunderland), the Department for Education (digital inclusion programme) and J.P Morgan (tackling economic exclusion in the UK) to name a few.

From good to better…

Good Things Foundation has a phoenix story to tell. It began with Chief Executive Helen Milner and employees feeling that their arm of a wider organisation should follow its social mission instead of becoming commercialised, amid a wave of arm’s length bodies being dismantled or sold.

Bird rising

Helen led setting up a staff-led mutual that split from Ufi Ltd (now Learndirect) and in December 2011 they were successful in winning the contract to run the UK Online Centres Network.

“We felt we had a social purpose,” explains Helen, who just a few years later, in 2015, was awarded an OBE for services to digital inclusion. “We decided to spin out and stay true. We bid to run the online centres network and through sheer grit and determination, we won.”

Like others who establish a mutual, she found that at first not a lot changed. “We stayed in the same office, sat at the same chairs. We had been thinking like an independent business already and had the same jobs – all staff TUPE-transferred over.”

Except, their success felt anything but certain. “It was very frightening at the time,” she says. “For a while there was no money, and I had to get us a £25,000 part-loan-part-grant to tie us over.”

But the contract began, and the service thrived. Since then, they’ve supported 3 million people, which has been helped rather than hindered by the fact they are free to make their own choices, being staff owned. “In those early days, we put a flag in the ground around our values. We knew we wanted to be not-for-profit, and we had a vote in which we decided not to take bonuses. Setting up on our own was quite a risk, but it didn’t feel turbulent. We were very open about the perceived risks but also the opportunities.”

Why a mutual?

Helen spent a lot of time researching governance structures, including other co-operative models. “My leadership style has always been about transparent and collaborative working, and it was nice, being a mutual, to have this built in. It was important to keep hierarchy but also to have staff on the board and to give people a vote and voice.

“We wanted to be a new kind of organisation that could pick and choose the best from the social enterprise sector. We learned through delivering programmes and were able to diversify and grow. Being a mutual gave us the freedom to be entrepreneurial and dynamic.”

The future

Diversify and grow, they did. In just seven years they broadened income streams from the one contract to running projects across several government departments, and with many corporate partners, trusts and foundations, not only in the UK but also Internationally, with projects in Kenya and Australia.

“We look at a map, we look for gaps, we go online and we ring people up,” says Helen. They don’t wait for opportunities to come – they go out and find them. “Our network partners are community centres, libraries, parks… We even have a fish and chip shop in the network. What they have in common is they’ve realised society needs people to become more equal in the digital world, and they all can play a role in that

“Everything is online now. There’s no silver bullet but we give people the tools to manage their way out of situations; and bring people physically together. Some people don’t think ‘digital’ is relevant to them, so we educate and have a great curriculum. I believe everybody should be equal in our society, digitally and otherwise.”

We agree wholeheartedly. Their model has evolved to be a charity, and they are one of the first charities to incorporate the mutual model. As well as transforming lives, they’re a best-in-class success story.

This year, Kenya – next year, the world.

Are you interested in helping Good Things Foundation bridge the digital divide? Find out how.

Inspired to look at Mutual models as an option for your public service? Email tom.davis@baxendale.co.uk for an exploratory chat.

Read stories of people Good Things Foundation have helped.

Read the latest from our blog