The will to help others was there from the start. Like many thousands of others, Jack Graham spent his gap year overseas. He worked in a rural school in South Africa in 2001. Unlike most, after university he went back to Africa where he became Head of Operations for a small HIV charity in Zambia. Some time later, prompted more by the behaviour of officials in bigger NGOs, disillusion began to creep in. When he was required by his own organisation to purchase t-shirts that they didn’t need to beef up ‘delivery costs’ to 90 per cent of the budget, disillusion grew stronger over the absurdity of European funders’ rules. That was when honesty kicked in: “It’s pretty easy to kid yourself you’re having an impact when you’re not.”
A return to UK led to “a bit of soul-searching and a healthy dose of unemployment.” One embarrassment was recognising that he had never worked with poor people in my own country. But his commitment to help others remained as strong as his drive to pursue social change. He joined The Young Foundation in 2008 and stayed for over three years. ‘Faking It’– an early employability project based on the TV show of the same name – helped Jack gain practical experience and helped 12 unemployed young people find work. It was a one-off, which was another lesson of life in the voluntary sector: even great success does not guarantee future funding.
He gained wider experience with The Young Foundation’s Learning Launchpad fund investing in and supporting entrepreneurs in the field of education. He was a member of the start-up team for The U, set up to build happier and healthier communities by forming neighbourhood networks around practical skill sharing, such as first aid and conflict resolution. He oversaw the development of two pilot delivery sites in Sutton and Northumberland. He came to understand how the world of social enterprise looks to its critical friends, co-writing a report on ‘Growing Social Ventures’ in which he interviewed a cross-section of CEOs of large foundations and social investors.
Yet, an itch to set up his own social enterprise remained. His ambition was daunting, but inspired by his own early experience: to turn the gap year on its head by getting more young people to engage in voluntary projects at home rather than abroad. Young Foundation employees are allowed to spend part of their time developing a project of their own, and Jack knew how he wanted to use that precious asset. “Social enterprise which had been under a public spotlight for a decade,” he observed, “but it was still not achieving the promise that it had held out.” After a year of intensive talks about his idea, he knew the answer to another challenge: “Where is the next generation of social entrepreneurs going to come from?” They are going to come from his own charity, Year Here.
He already had the slogan: ‘Why you should escape to Southall, not South Africa’. The aim was to recruit ambitious and entrepreneurial young people to spend a year tackling social issues in their own backyard. There they would learn to understand the extent of poverty and inequality in Britain as well as gain the confidence and vision to do something about it. His plan for a British gap year was one of the winners of the Evening Standard’s Winning Ideas for London competition and secured him a £50,000 grant from Nesta. It led to the launch of the scheme in March 2013 with a reception at 10 Downing Street. The test programme is using 12 graduates as ‘guinea pigs’ before gap year students follow.
What’s most interesting about Jack’s career so far – he’s 29 – is that for all his wide range of contacts, in-depth experience in promoting and guiding new social entrepreneurs, as well as writing a guide to growing social ventures, creating his own venture took huge amounts of time and commitment. His message to his first round of recruits is simple: you need more than just good ideas. You need to know how to test them and learn how to pitch them to potential funders. His practical experience and consistent drive to do better than expected have led him, and the Year Here graduates, to an interesting place. I can’t wait to see where he’ll go next.