Starting a successful social enterprise during a financial crisis
Michelle Wright is the founder and CEO of Cause4 , originally a social enterprise (now a BCorp) that supports charities and philanthropists to develop and raise vital funds. Cause4 is known for its disruptive philanthropy and has so far raised over £50 million for their clients.
Michelle talks about the 2008 financial crisis providing a catalyst to start her own business;
‘I look back now and think my goodness, who in their right mind would start a fundraising organization at the start of the big recession, but actually, that was one of my biggest motivators. I was working in a charity in the City of London and I remember when Lehman Brothers collapsed and seeing literally hundreds of their staff sort of walking out to the station with boxes of their possessions in their hands. It was at that moment I was thinking the world is changing and the world of charities and arts culture and heritage organizations is going to need to change and adapt. I thought there was a role for a small organization that could work quite entrepreneurially in the charity space. I also had in the back of my mind that it would be a great thing to run a business and start a business’
Cause 4 was up and running and quickly became the darling of the Third Sector winning awards and attracting attention, what was your vision from the start?
‘Did I go into it thinking that I'd still be here 12 years on?! In the early days there were lots of things that if I look back now and I think I would do differently. We were very busy in those early days and excited to be busy, but that meant we probably grew too fast and the quality of some of the work suffered. I found that just made me kind of miserable, really. What we were doing started to get defined by other people's measures of success which is crazy and we were winning awards and our profile far exceeded what we were able to deliver. We completely recalibrated it actually with a move to a smaller staff team and we really started to think about values and what we were trying to achieve and judge our work on its impact rather than its profile’
How did you end up in the charity and for purpose sector?
‘My first charity job was supposed to be in marketing but on my first day I was told that we needed to raise a million pounds, otherwise, we're going to go under. As you can imagine this was not my best sort of moment in my career. So I fell into fundraising by accident which a lot of people do. One of the things I'm working on at the moment is a proper career path for fundraisers, from an apprenticeship right through to senior levels, because there isn't anything that readily exists in the way that we have for marketing.’
Do you think fundraisers are born fundraisers?
‘There's a kind of age old debate on whether fundraising is art or, or science! A lot of fundraisers are hired for their passion rather than for their technical ability. I think you bring the two together! Hire people with passion and then give them the training they need and help them to gain the appropriate skills and experience.’
What are your ambitions for Cause4?
‘I am very ambitious for Cause4, for us to be a profitable business that can do the work that we want to do. I'm not ambitious for growth for its own sake or a big infrastructure or for a huge team that needs need a lot of servicing. So I think a lot of our ambition and growth actually comes through the program design that we focus on and making a real difference to the organisations we help and the causes we impact’
Michelle trained at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and played the violin professionally. A chartered marketer, manager and fundraiser, Michelle founded Cause4 after leaving the London Symphony Orchestra, where her achievements in private sector fundraising led to her being judged the Best Upcoming Fundraiser at the National Fundraising Awards in 2008.