The ideas merchant
The Charity Awards judges selected Michael Norton to receive the Outstanding Achievement Award in 2014. Tania Mason met the man whose fingerprints are all over civil society.
If you’ve spent any time at all in the voluntary sector over the last 40-odd years, chances are you’ve come across Michael Norton – or at least his work. Even those that don’t know Michael, or are not familiar with his name, are likely to have trodden a path that he has helped to carve. His fingerprints are everywhere; in fundraising training, in youth empowerment, in women’s rights, in social franchising, in crowdfunding, in social enterprise – the list goes on. The deeper you delve into his expansive career, the more you realise just how ubiquitous and influential Norton has been.
Many will know him as the founder and first director of the Directory of Social Change; others as the driving force behind UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs that won a £100m endowment from the Millennium Commission. Others still will align him with Changemakers, or YouthBank; many more will have read one of his numerous books on fundraising or social change – 365 Ways to Change the World or The Complete Fundraising Handbook, perhaps.
It’s a journey that started after university, Norton recalls, when his father asked him if he was going to volunteer. “I almost didn’t even know what he was talking about, so illiterate was I about social action and social change,” he confesses. “But for an easy life I said ‘why not’.”
This took him to the local Jewish youth centre where he set up an old people’s visiting programme. One evening, he says, two 14-year-old girls came to the centre full of smiles because they had taken an old lady out for a walk – the first time she had left her flat in three years. “They said ‘we borrowed a wheelbarrow, put some cushions in it, carried her down the stairs and took her for a walk to the shops’. I was really impressed by that, by the fact you could just do something to make such a difference to people’s lives. All these health and social care workers couldn’t think to do that, yet these two young girls just had the idea and did it.” That firmly planted the seed in his mind that it was entirely possible just to do your own thing and put ideas into action.
A couple of years later, in 1966, this seed germinated and flourished into his first venture. He’d been thinking a lot about doing something around immigration and tackling racism, and then someone said to him ‘you can’t just go around doing good, you have to have a skill to do good with’. So he decided to use his English language skills to set up the UK’s first language-teaching programme for immigrant children and their families.
“In those days there was no child or data protection, so I would go to schools and ask for a list of families who have just arrived and don’t speak English. And then I would go to groups of young adults, mostly in their 20s, and say ‘would you like to volunteer, I’ve got something really interesting to do’ and I would send them along to give an English lesson. They didn’t know anything about teaching or education, they just did it. It was entirely voluntary – we had no name, no organisational structure, no bank account, no money – just a card index.
“It worked really well. In two years I had 250 volunteers, from accomplished actresses to out-of-work students.
“And actually, like a lot of projects, what you do is not always what you think you are doing – looking back what we were really doing was providing a bridge of friendship rather than English, because they would have absorbed English anyway.”
This experience gave Norton the confidence and the certainty that he was destined for a career in social action, and before long he had quit his merchant banking job and ploughed full steam ahead into the voluntary sector. At the start he found himself helping lots of organisations to fundraise, and counts the establishment of Women’s Aid among his most cherished successes. “Erin Pizzey and I had a lot of fun, I learned a lot from her about user involvement and the like. She set it up, I helped her get the money for it and find her base in Chiswick, and I helped her with legal issues. I edited a book called Battered Women and The Law which advised women how to get an injunction to protect themselves from their violent husbands.”
But he was itching to set up his own organisation and an idea was bubbling away in his mind.
“It was a time when social change was becoming really interesting. In the 1970s there was a Home Office Urban Programme which put money into all sorts of new interesting things, so suddenly the voluntary sector was full of people doing stuff around rape crisis, work with single parents, all sorts of things that had not been done before. I wanted to create a database of issues, organisations, information, case studies, and what you could do if you wanted to do something about it. I called that the Directory of Social Change.”
But none of his funding applications to trusts and foundations bore fruit, so in the end he went down the publishing route and secured a generous book contract. He envisaged a series of ten directories, on subjects like housing, women’s issues, community, health, science and so on – but the publisher went broke after the first four, potentially stymieing the venture.
Just then, Norton met his wife, Hilary Blume (now Dame), who had just written “the first nice book on fundraising” – Fund-raising: A Comprehensive Handbook. Together they decided to organise a series of conferences at which to launch the book, and the proceeds from these events provided sufficient revenue to set up the DSC.
The organisation grew to become one of the sector’s biggest training providers, as well as publisher of hundreds of books including guides to company giving and major trusts.
After 20 years at DSC Norton fancied a new challenge and was approached by some people who had won £25,000 from the Sainsbury’s Trust to set up a youth action programme based on the idea that young people themselves should be deciding what they want to do. “So I joined this group, we called it Changemakers, and it was the first organisation to put young people at the centre so that we weren’t doing things for them, they were doing things for themselves.”
From Changemakers emerged YouthBank, from YouthBank grew the Street Children’s Bank in India, and then MyBnk in the UK. “All these ventures were the progression of one idea of young people doing things,” says Norton. “That idea didn’t come from the youth sector. Youth workers would talk about it in general terms but they never did it. They still remained dominant in what happened – they would say ‘let’s have a football club’, not ‘what do you want to do after school?’ So we influenced the whole sector on how they engaged with young people.
“One of the things YouthBank did was a consultancy for the National Lottery on how to distribute money for young people. Today everybody making grants to young people will take advice from young people.” Last year the first YouthBank International conference in Berlin was attended by YouthBanks from 16 countries.
Another major achievement was assembling the consortium which became the successful bidder for the £100m Millennium Legacy to create an endowment for making awards to individuals. This led to the creation of UnLtd, which makes over 1,000 awards each year to people with ideas for changing their community, society or the world.
Pinpointing brilliant people
Nowadays Norton remains involved in a whole raft of initiatives but has changed the way he works.
“I now do things when I find brilliant people. I still have the brilliant ideas but these days I’m a bit lazier so I look for people and they always seem to appear.” One such idea was charity franchising, which he first cottoned onto as long ago as 1993, while at DSC. “I’d noticed that organisations which had adopted the right growth strategy were growing faster than those just wanting to grow. Crossroads Care and HomeStart were two examples of thriving, new organisations, whereas old organisations like Old People’s Welfare, were stagnating a bit.” But despite getting a grant for some feasibility studies, a manual and some events, it didn’t really go anywhere; Norton reckons it was ahead of its time. Then a couple of years ago he met Clore Social Fellow Dan Berelowitz, who was comparing McDonald’s and FoodBank for his research project. Within ten minutes of them talking, says Norton, Dan had decided to quit his job and pursue the idea. A year or so later the International Centre of Social Franchising was launched, offering consultancy to charities on how to grow, particularly internationally. It now has seven staff, is fully self-sustaining and operates in six countries. Norton remains a board member.
He also remains chairman of Buzzbnk, the crowdfunding website he launched in 2011.
A few years back Norton set up the Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action (Civa) as an umbrella for all his work: “Civa is my desk, my briefcase, my computer.” He has one associate who also uses the Civa brand umbrella and hopes to attract one or two more.
It’s patently clear that Norton has no intention of hanging up his boots any time soon. “I’ll go on as long as I go on,” he shrugs. “It’s fun. Sometimes an idea doesn’t work, sometimes it works really well, sometimes you think it’s not working but it is. Sometimes you make bad decisions – usually when you hand it over to a big organisation. I’m very happy being where I am, a centre from where ideas and energy radiate, rather than having a big organisation.”
Norton’s vast experience in the sector has convinced him that there is greater value to be had from investing in individuals rather than organisations, but he accepts that is an argument yet to be won.
“People find it harder to identify and support individuals. It’s riskier but the dividends are much greater. Big organisations get very complacent and bureaucratic – the vibrancy comes from small organisations and then big organisations follow.”
Pipeline of future ventures
And if by some freak chance you’ve not yet happened upon any of Michael Norton’s projects, there remains every chance that you will. He’s presently working on a host of new ideas. Make a Difference (Mad) TV is a magazine programme about communities, involving celebrities, poets, rappers and potentially the Eden Project: “not as serious as Secret Millionaire, more fun”. Best Foot Forward is a training programme where unemployed people shine shoes to raise money for charity – the House of Common and Goldman Sachs are already on board to host shoe-shine days. Carwash for Charity is a similar concept.
He’s also trying to generate support to set up a national centre for enlightened agriculture in the West Midlands, and his SmallWorks scheme creating workspaces on housing estates where early-stage social entrepreneurs can engage with the local community, continues to expand.
“In the last 20 years I’ve moved from this idea of working with big organisations to help them work more effectively by understanding the law, management, communication, fundraising, which was what DSC was about, to engaging with individuals and their ideas to make them happen.
“It’s extraordinary how many people have great ideas and are trying to do things. With a little support and business modelling we can create a sector which is vibrant, uses modern technology, and is much more self-sustaining than the traditional charity market. It’s not an either/or, charities have a role too. But you get something like social investment tax relief and the mainstream charity sector is dead against it because it doesn’t suit their paradigm, but this new emerging sector of social enterprise and social investment will give us a chance to generate more resources and develop more creative relationships with supporters.
“Part of change is what you do and part of it is changing the landscape so other people do things differently.”
The Norton years
1966: Established UK’s first immigrant language-teaching programme
1975 – 1995: Founder and director, Directory of Social Change
1994 – 2001: Founder and Executive Chair, Changemakers Foundation
1995 – now: Founder and honorary director, Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action
1998 – 2003: Founder, YouthBank UK
1998: Awarded an OBE for services to the voluntary sector
1998 – 2003: Worked with ChildLine India to franchise the a telephone helpline service for street children across India and launched Child Helpline International in 2003
2001 – 2010: Co-founder and Board Member, UnLtd
2001: Chair, International Year of the Volunteer Youth Programme
2003: In partnership with Butterflies, created a network of Children’s Development Banks in South Asia
2011 – now: Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town
2011 – now: Philanthropy Instructor, Beijing Normal University
2011 – now: Founder and chair, Buzzbnk
2012 – now: Founder and trustee, International Centre for Social Franchising