While David Cameron’s Big Society dream may be treading water its theme has been grabbed with gusto by one Yorkshire businesswoman.
Harrogate-based Michelle Beckett took over as managing director of the Skill Will social enterprise in September and has embarked on a drive to make it a national - and international - brand.
Founded in 2011 Skill Will has so far relied on the generous support of the 14,000-strong Yorkshire Mafia business network, with members of the network offering staff for a day or two a year, generally to help with the cleaning and maintenance tasks.
But Michelle believes there is much greater scope to utilise the core business skills inherent in these organisations, such as finance and marketing.
She said: “A lot of charities I would work with would get frustrated with people being sent in just to paint the walls or mend a fence and it’s something I sympathised with.
“So I thought, why not use our accounting, marketing and strategy skills, and all of the other business skills to make charities more efficient?”
Prior to joining Skill Will Michelle had worked in recruitment in Yorkshire for several years and had helped organisations in the third sector, including Skill Will.
She said: “I can’t really afford to give much to charity and I’m pretty rubbish at painting a fence, but I thought I’d love to volunteer.
“I’d often looked, but there was no real facility for doing that, so I started volunteering my skills as a social media trainer to charities, going into a couple of charities initially for half a day, just helping them get Linkedin and Twitter set up, and really giving benefit and it felt so good to do that.
“So almost from a selfish point of view I guess, because giving feels good, not for pure altruism, it actually makes you feel good about yourself and your skills.
“So I really bought in to the concept of Skill Will and started volunteering and helping out with the networking events.
“At that time Skill Will was mainly focused on matching small businesses with charities at regular networking events.”
Michelle continued: “So I came on board, knocked on the doors of the corporates essentially to get sponsorship for fundraising.”
This new approach did not go unnoticed She continued: “There has been some feedback from clients when I ran a networking event in my first week and they said they thought I was too feisty for the third sector!
“So I’m on a bit of a learning curve myself, but then I thought unapologetically ‘what am I to do? I need the big corporates on board, I need to be able to knock on doors and say will you help, sponsor, or place your staff on a volunteer programme?’ because, if I was to be shy about it, then there wouldn’t be a Skill Will to benefit the charities.”
Michelle has been pleased with progress and speaks warmly of how it has helped charities, which are struggling following rounds of cuts in funding from central and local government.
She continues: “I placed a consultant to work with Simon on The Streets. They are a North-based homeless charity and initially it was just to go in for a two hour strategy session to help the director, who had just taken over, and give her a few pointers and a bit of mentoring.
“This consultant came away and said, right, I’m committed to two afternoons a month for the next year and she then secured the charity £50,000 worth of IT support through the network.
“So they’ve got an enormous amount of value and when they added it up, if this was to be paid for, the work that we’ve done is about £70,000. If you think about those savings, that could pay for support workers to go out and deliver to the service users. So they are over the moon.”
“Aside from what we deliver into the charities and the soft benefits for the individuals there are all sorts of other softer benefits for business.
“For example, I think 92% skills-based volunteers said they were more likely to recommend their employer as a brilliant place to work if they had access to a skills-based volunteering programme.
“If you’re being released for two or three days a year to give your skills to a charity you are going to feel a bit more warm and fluffy really.”
The waves Michelle is making in Yorkshire are spreading far and wide and fit in with her ambition to make Skill Will an international brand.
“I’m already getting enquiries from all around the UK.
“We even had the Home Office on the phone recently talking to me about putting some of their graduates on a corporate volunteering programme.
“So instead of just classroom-based leadership and management development, our rota has been placed within charities and not-for-profits so they can really cut their teeth on consultancy projects effectively.
“We’re getting so much interest from around the UK; we are really going to have to grow fast. So I need to get a team under me as quickly as possible.”
At the moment Skill Will is headquartered in Leeds. Michelle’s aim is to have three to four regional offices around the UK, and then start to grow internationally.
After years in the recruitment and social media arenas Michelle says her skills and knowledge are a perfect fit for Skill Will.
“The elements of the job which attracted me; events management, public speaking, selling to corporates are all things I’ve done for years and I’m really enjoying it.
“The best bit is that I’m utilising skills I’ve had for years in business, which are now delivering real, measurable results for charities.”
Michelle is now looking at developing corporate sponsorship packages and wants to get some celebrities on board.
“We can really get the brand pushed out and get as many businesses as possible in the UK involved.
“I don’t miss recruitment and I’m delighted as I feel I have found what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.”
Michelle’s enthusiasm for the benefits of Skill Will for both businesses and charities is infectious.
And she even has plans to see these efforts make it into the Oxford English Dictionary.
She mused: “I decided to turn Skill Will into a verb a few weeks ago. I was driving down the motorway and thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a name for skills-based, pro-bono type volunteering?’ But that’s clumsy in the way it’s worded. It would be better if it could just roll off someone’s lips with “who do you skillwill for?” or “will you skillwill for me?”
With Michelle’s energy knowing no bounds it is not inconceivable that “skillwill” could become part of everyday speech.