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  1. Impact Philanthropy
February 18, 2014updated 11 Jan 2016 3:22pm

Giver and the Gift: How a recruiter charitably went to the aid of the SOS Project

By Spear's

Author: Chloe Barrow

The Giver

John Grumbar

Former CEO and Chairman of Egon Zehnder International

The Grumbar file

After Charterhouse, the London School of Economics and INSEAD, John Grumbar spent ten years in the securities industry, becoming a member of the London Stock Exchange in 1974. He joined Egon Zehnder International in 1982, becoming CEO in 2002 and executive chairman in 2006.

Old skills, new venture

I retired from Egon Zehnder three years ago and was wondering what to do next. Having advised hundreds of clients on leadership at a very senior level, becoming an Ashoka mentor was a natural progression. The organisation identifies world-class social entrepreneurs and then introduces them to people like me who help them execute their ideas.

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What interested me was seeing people coming into inspirational leadership roles from a non-traditional route and with unconventional objectives. You couldn’t get much more unconventional a route than Junior’s. Reoffending is a global conundrum, but Junior has found a novel way of having a big impact.

Inside knowledge

Junior realised that the best people to influence young offenders coming out of custody are ex-offenders themselves. This technique had a tremendous impact on the reoffending rate, reducing it from 75 per cent across the country to zero among Junior’s clients in the first year. His reoffending rate is now 10-25 per cent, proving that his is a brilliant solution to an intractable problem.

Junior’s managed to build a structure that really works. He’s got a team of individuals that are confronted by new and unexpected situations every day — and ultimately it’s the client who judges whether they do a good job or not, very much like at Egon Zehnder. But in his case it’s often a matter of life or death as there are knives and guns involved, so it’s important his team are equipped to deal with this.

Why it’s worked

Governments everywhere, particularly in this country, are trying to cut back on their expenditure, and keeping people in prison is hugely expensive. What’s more, the gangs are getting bigger, more powerful and younger.

The authorities and general public have realised that traditional solutions are not working. When Junior and his team came along it was immediately evident that they related to these offenders in a way nobody else had managed to do. So they embraced this idea very quickly and readily, and Junior is, ironically, now helping the highest levels of the police force.

Ashoka only selects fellows if their social solutions are scalable nationally and then globally. No doubt soon they’ll invite Junior to go to one of their globalisation weekends to see how he can start it in the US or elsewhere. But that’s a year or two down the road. In the short term the goal is to get it absolutely across the UK — and that’s going to take up to five years.

Fundraising challenges

My role was to think of ways to accelerate this system and help it grow. So we decided to extend the operation, called the SOS Project, into my home area, Kensington and Chelsea. The borough is immensely rich overall but has some of the greatest pockets of poverty, gang warfare and youth offending in the country.

One of the biggest challenges was raising money. I contributed a bit but I wasn’t able to give on the scale the project needed. I knew nothing about raising funds, but what I did know was how to get people excited about an idea. So we held events and raised tens of thousands of pounds. Then various attendees gave dinner parties for their rich friends, so it cascaded down.

The rewards

To see these extremely complex and acute social problems being addressed so effectively by someone like Junior is very inspiring. He’s a natural leader, and I’ve seen a lot of leaders in my time.

I’d recommend anyone who has the opportunity to work with someone like Junior to do so, because it’s unlike anything you experience in normal business life. It’s a privilege to be working with people who know what it’s like at the tough end of life and want to do something about it.

The Gift

Junior Smart

Founder of the SOS Project

An SOS calling

Junior Smart founded the SOS Project in 2006. SOS supports ex-offenders reintegrating into daily life by helping them access benefits, housing, education and jobs. He was elected as an Ashoka fellow in 2008.

Humble beginnings

When I first designed the SOS Project, I was still in custody and people had very negative expectations of me. But I thought if I could just turn one person’s life around, then the time I’d lost in prison had not been wasted.

In the last year of my ten-year sentence I volunteered to mentor young offenders at Rochester Young Offenders Institute. This meant I had to go from an open prison to a closed prison each day. People thought I was nuts! They said: ‘You’re given five days out in the community — why would you do that?’

I was inspired by what people wrote in the prison magazine about their hopes and expectations for the future, so I thought about introducing support groups focused on setting plans and goals for people’s release, and was put in touch with St Giles Trust [a charity working to break the reoffending cycle].

I designed the project based on the various models I’d seen in prison. I’d seen many people come back in time and time again while I was inside, and I became motivated to do something about it. As a ‘listener’ trained by the Samaritans, I had provided a listening ear to many offenders.

I really liked the concept of using prisoners as a resource, but I found there was a huge missing link of practical support — ie the day-to-day issues people would face on release.

Talent scouted

At the time I never saw myself as a social entrepreneur, I just wanted to put something back into the community. But the thing with Ashoka is you don’t find them, they find you. So when I was nominated to become an Ashoka fellow, St Giles and I spent hours putting together a business plan — at that point SOS was just a process, not a structure.

I always got nervous about having to disclose my offence in interviews, but they didn’t ask me about that. My mentor at Ashoka, Catriona, introduced me to John Grumbar, who came to visit me at St Giles. Being accepted into Ashoka put me into a whole different world of which I had no understanding. I knew some pretty bad people growing up and I never really knew someone like John.

Kensington and Chelsea wasn’t even on our radar as it’s known as one of London’s most affluent areas, but when John brought it up I looked at the deprivation index and was really enlightened.

Upscaling vs quality control

In terms of the challenges within the project, the biggest one for me was scaling up while maintaining quality. When SOS was just a handful of us, there was no reoffending at all. But now we’re the largest gangs project in London, covering thirteen boroughs.

How do you go from four workers to 24 and still maintain the highest level of service? Quality assurance was also a particular challenge because I wanted to give the team a certain level of autonomy, since I realised, due to their background, that a traditional downward hierarchy management style wouldn’t work.

Another challenge was the stigma around whether ex-offenders can be trusted. But that’s changed now — I get invited to help advise magistrates about gang recruitment and am even consulted about sentencing.

Visionary leadership

To say that my connection with John was solely financial would not do it justice at all. One of the most valuable skills John has brought to SOS is visionary leadership. It’s vital to have somebody there who sees the bigger picture and who you can bounce ideas off or discuss issues with.

Our target for the end of this year will be rehabilitating 400 offenders, but if you count all the cases so far the actual total is over 1,000.

I’d like to see SOS go entirely London-wide, then nationwide and finally worldwide. I think it would be an ideal fit in America too, but the challenge would be localising it. So ultimately it’s expansion, escalation and cultivation of offenders that we need to make a difference. But that will require funding and support.

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