Social entrepreneur: Benita Refson

Not-for-profit enterprises have no excuse to be less efficient than conventional businesses, argues Benita Refson, chief executive of school-based learning organisation The Place2Be. 

 Social entrepreneur: Benita Refson


Not-for-profit enterprises have no excuse to be less efficient than conventional businesses, argues Benita Refson, chief executive of school-based learning organisation The Place2Be. 

Not-for-profit enterprises have no excuse to be less efficient than conventional businesses, argues Benita Refson, chief executive of school-based learning organisation The Place2Be.



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Transcript

What do Place 2Be do?
We are a mental health service based in schools that works alongside the teachers. And we provide support to the children in a whole range of different ways but importantly we also engage with their families. So we are a mental health service based in schools that is there and is accessible to children, families and the wider community. But alongside all of that we train people in the community to become Place2Be counsellors and we have additional training for midday supervisors, for teaching assistants and for other school-based staff. So we have a range of programmes, which once delivered, supports the emotional health and well-being of children but also the school environment. So we impact on the entire school and the way it engages with mental health and well being.

Does being very specialised help?
I actually think it’s because we are very niche that it’s less difficult to survive. I think what we’ve done, and I call it the amoeba theory, it’s very seductive when you’re in a sort of social enterprise or a charity to actually chase the money, and we decided all the way through, part of our entrepreneurial vision as it were is to really make a difference in an area where we can become an expert. So we’ve always remained very clear on where we do it and how we do it. So we are now, I believe, experts in our field, which is delivering a mental health service to children in schools. So it is because… it is… and it’s all evidence-based. So it’s because we are within schools and that our expertise has grown up from out of that with the evidence to support our work. I don’t believe that we are at risk as some others might be because they have lost sight of what their original vision was.

Do you enjoy running a social enterprise?
It’s never dull. It’s very exciting. I feel very privileged because as it’s grown over the last 15 years I have met the most extraordinary people and the Place2Be is not just about one person and some charities can be very focused on The Leader or a few people. But we have over 550 volunteer counsellors across the country, we have over 190 school-based staff and my core teams that are involved in research and evaluation and training, which is a very important aspect of what we do. It’s an exciting organisation to be involved with because of the amount of dedicational professionalism. And so I feel very privileged to be there. Of course growing the business has its problems and there isn’t a day when you are not, you are not sometimes exercised by some of the challenges that growth and people management and quality involves. But at the end of day when we hear that the results are good and that children are accessing the service, and that parents are coming to us and that the teachers say we couldn’t exist without you. That in itself just reminds me that when we do have complex situations to manage that we are doing it for a good reason.

Should social enterprises be run like normal businesses?
Oh well sometimes it’s reality… but I suppose it’s the same in business as it is in the charitable world and that is, not all organisations are efficient and not all organisations are diligent about the way they use their resources. So I don’t think charities or businesses should be tarnished… they are sometimes rightly… perceived to not be efficient. I don’t think charities have any reason to be less efficient than business. I think you need to be as diligent and as professional and have all those structures in place including the way you manage your budget and quality of people and quality of training. Is there a perception that charities are slightly woolly? Yes. Do I think that that is correct? No, I think there are some extremely well run not-for-profit organisations but like all businesses and all organisations some are not so well managed and I’m hopeful that as the need to evidence your work develops and there is a call today to make sure you can evidence, that your investment has the right return, that I hope is going to lead to increasingly more professional standards.

Does running a social enterprise keep you up at night?
It doesn’t matter what you are doing, if you are running an organisation and you are determined that it is effective and well run and that people within the organisation are feeling supported, you’re not going to sleep well at night, you are going to be troubled, because you are going to think about all the things different things that have happened so just because it’s a charity doesn’t mean you get to sleep at night without the worries that anyone in business is going to… you are going to be concerned and you are going to have to… and you do think what needs to be done and it’s always different. Last night I didn’t sleep for different reasons to the reasons I didn’t sleep the night before.

Will the current downturn affect you?
We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. But I think what we have is a very good reputation with the people who have invested in us already. And because we have mountains of evidence that we’re making a difference and because we have… we can show we have been very careful with the way we have used our money, I believe we are a good investment. So if somebody comes to us and says to us how are you preparing yourself we can only, as I’ve said, prepare for the worse and hope for the best but also when people invest in us they can see the return, they can see that we are making a difference to the emotional well being of children and families. I think in today’s world I think that is tremendous as an investor to that actually your money is making that sort of social difference.

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