Innovation Story: Being open to 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 Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.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 Community Campus 87, Middlesbrough and how one thing led to another

Community Campus 87 started with a problem. As the name suggests, it was set up in 1987 when current CEO, Carl Ditchburn, was one of group of people working in the Housing Aid Centre in Middlesbrough. He saw that young homeless people were getting a bad deal from the housing system: “They were just lined up in bed and breakfasts paying whatever the going rate was to get out of the DSS, and they were getting ripped off left, right and centre.  They were awful properties…

Since then, the organisation has used a number of different innovative approaches to tackle housing need combining a flexible, practical philosophy about how things are done, with a rigid focus on why things are being done.

Ian Cockerill, another member of the founding group, explains the initial decision to set up the organisation: “You talk about things after work, which would be in the pub, and it would just be common sense type things like ‘if a private Landlord is making money out of a housing framework that exists and he’s providing a really crap service, there must be a way to do it where you could provide a better service within that framework.”

The group thought that they could provide a better service by taking on empty properties in the area, renovating them and renting them out to homeless young people. Initially working on voluntary basis, they set up Community Campus and began to put the plan into action.

The first Community Campus house was leased from the local council, the organisation’s job was to find young people to live in the house and manage the tenancy. After that, they adopted a more innovative approach.

While at that time it was unusual for a small social enterprise with limited reserves to buy its own property, low property prices it the area meant it was a viable option, Ditchburn explains: “We borrowed some money – it was quite innovative. Now organisations look at borrowing money through all these investment intermediaries. We went to a bank to borrow £7,000 to buy a house.”

The next challenge was to renovate the house so that it was fit for habitation. This led to an innovative adaptation of the organisation’s approach: “We got a grant from the council to renovate it and bring the builder in. Two of the lads who’d been living in our first house were ready to move into the new house but the builders took forever”. In the end the lads went and got a load of paint, paint brushes and went right round and painted the house so they could move in.  After that Community Campus set up a course on self-help renovation.

The young people Community Campus worked with wanted to take action to improve their housing situation, and the organisation was flexible enough to listen and respond to that need. The model that evolved was to buy houses and work with the potential tenants of those houses to renovate them.

As Ditchburn explains: “Campus is very much about empowering the people that it provides services for.  That’s why that listening ethos is really, really to the fore. If your focus is on meeting the needs of the people you’re working for then you’re better able to negotiate that landscape so it works for you not against you”. They are opportunistic but not in a way that means losing sight of why they are doing it.

Working with young people to renovate house ultimately led to the creation of the organisation’s Key Skills project – which provided accredited training with a clear practical purpose that young people could understand. Ditchburn explains: “In some training centres you have 50 young kids running about, whereas in a little terraced house, we had four or five youngsters with a purpose because they knew they were going to move into the house.  It worked.  It gelled really quickly.”

Through incremental innovation and adapting to changing circumstances, the Community Campus model had evolved from providing better housing for young people to involving young people in the renovation of that housing – and enabling them to develop skills in the process.

The next major development was the formation of a trading company, Community Campus Trading Ltd, that enable young people trained through the Key Skills project to be employed delivering construction services.

Ditchburn explains: “The trading company turnover last year was nearly £200,000. Around 80% of the staff of the trading company are ex-service users.”

25 years after it was founded, Community Campus now owns and provided supporting housing in 47 properties – the majority of which have been renovated by young people working on its Key Skills project – and runs a range of projects to support young unemployed people in Middlesbrough, Stockton and the surrounding area.

Commentary from Katherine William-Powlett

This is a  great example of how being open to ideas and giving people freedom to implement in the way they think best can lead to successful solutions to the problems we face as a society. Many charities get stuck in their ways and become unable to be as flexible and adaptable as Community Campus has been. If you want to innovate as an organisation it is essential that staff are given freedom to try out new things within defined boundaries, with a clear direction, in an environment accepting of risk. For more information and support on this visit

Top tips:

  1. Listen to the people who use your service
  2. Focus on meeting needs
  3. Be opportunistic but don’t lose sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing

Duration: Founded in 1987

Business model: 25% grant funding with rest from rent, contracts and trading

Funding: Turnover around £1 million

Staff: 43

Set-up costs: £1,000 grant to set-up, £17,000 to fund first worker

Thank you to David Floyd of Social Spider for researching and writing this story and to Community Campus

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