Innovation Story: Combining ideas

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

The story of Angels Housekeeping and their innovative approach combining cleaning services with support for older people

This was an opportunity to develop a new social enterprise based on existing networks in the community. Sarah Thompson explains: “Julie and I worked in a self-employed partnership. We got customers by word-of-mouth…then we had a customer that was one of Gill’s clients and Gill said ‘why don’t we just try and do it as a business.’”

The First Hurdle Unfortunately, after expressing initial enthusiasm, Gill’s employers didn’t back the idea. Gill explains: “Initially we were going to run the business as a trading arm of Methodist Homes for the Aged and then the surplus income would have gone to them to provide more services for older people. Methodist Homes agreed, but at the last minute, said ‘you can’t do it’, ‘it’s not within our remit’, so we decided just to do it ourselves.”

The Business Model Angels Housekeeping set up as (a Community Interest Company) in 2005. Gill recognised that with decreasing funding from local councils to support independent living, and a market for domestic cleaning services dominated by private providers providing a minimum service – there was a gap in the market for a business that combined the two functions.

Getting started was a big risk. Although the team received a small grant to fund start-up costs, they had start generating income immediately. As Gill explains: “Unlike most social enterprises, it had to work because it was the only income we had.”

The Angels Housekeeping model is to provide high quality domestic cleaning services for older people while also providing independent living support and advocacy – enabling customers (and their families) to get the information and help they needed to access services and have a better quality of life.

This involves an initial assessment so that they have a clear idea about the customers’ needs before assigning them a housekeeper to do the cleaning. Gill explains: “At the assessment we’re looking at: ‘do you need referring to Social Services?’, ‘are you claiming your benefits?’ fire safety checks, falls prevention, ‘how are you getting your food?’ All of those additional services, which we then follow up back at the office”. The housekeepers are trained to pick up on things such as if someone’s deteriorated particularly badly.

Angels Housekeeping don’t get paid more for providing cleaning services but by providing additional support  they have developed a strong reputation with older people and their families. Their socially enterprising approach is unusual in a sector which is characterised by delivering a basic service at a very low cost: “A lot of people working for commercial organisations have poor pay and conditions with no incentive whatsoever for them to do anything extra than the 15 minutes that they’re contracted to do – which usually probably turns into about eight minutes and they’re out the door.”

Ultimately, Gill says: “You’re either in it for the money, which most people are or you’re in it because you care about the people and that between all the four of us it’s always been about that.  We’ve got to earn a living, we’re not daft and this is a business, but we care about the people.”


Flora’s Story Flora’s nearest living relative is her late nephew’s wife who lives in Berkshire. She lives in sheltered housing. It was her ninetieth birthday so Angel’s Housekeeping put invitations out to all her friends who live in sheltered housing and made a party for her with her housekeeper. Local kids came in to sing and Flora just had a great time and so that’s it.  Gill says “That’s why we’re different, because we’re bothered about Flora”.

Commentary from Laura Smith and Katherine William-PowlettIt may seem like Methodist Homes missed an opportunity to generate new income, but it’s a reminder of how important it is to think about how a trading idea fits with your mission and your current activity. Methodist Homes may have decided that setting up a trading arm would have negative impacts on their current activities. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with charities having clear ideas about what they do and don’t do, in this case a failure to recognise the potential of combining the social purpose of caring for older people with a commercial cleaning service ultimately meant missing on both a potential source of income and a role in delivering innovative social change.

It can be difficult for organisations to accept new ideas if there is an embedded culture and a way that things are done. An organisation that wants to be more innovative needs to start by examining if how they can change things to be truly open to ideas, give them time and support to develop. Cultural change is hard and needs commitment from leaders and trustees. For support and advice on this visit For an Innovation Story showing how this is done well see Innovation Story: Being Open to Ideas [LINK]
Innovation does not always involve doing something entirely new. Combining two existing ideas in a new way can produce great results- just think of the camera phone! An example closer to home might be the Rylstone District W.I. Calendar. They decided to combine their usual calendar idea with the Pirelli calendar to famed success. It is worth thinking about your services and your user needs and considering if you can combine tow services to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the two parts.

Duration: Started trading in 2005

Business model: Selling service direct to service users

Funding: Turnover around £300,000

Staff: 30 (mostly part-time)

Set-up costs: £4,000 grant funded start-up costs

Thank you to David Floyd of Social Spider for researching and writing this story and to everyone at Angels Housekeeping

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