Kindness in action - hear from Charlotte Newman, CEO of Carefree on what it takes to be a 21st Century Digital Charity.
“Carefree is kindness in action. It’s about recognising acts of care that we give to each other, and wanting to make sure that those people who put all of their time and energy into taking care of us, get to be taken care of too”.
As the co-founder of Curo — a business which supports people who are caring (unpaid) for loved ones, the issue of caring is close to my heart. I was excited therefore, to be able to speak with Charlotte Newman the CEO of Carefree, about their innovative approach to supporting this amazing and overlooked group of people.
To start, I asked Charlotte how she would explain Carefree to a 5 year old. “If I was explaining Carefree to a 5 year old I would probably say things like your mum gets tired and needs a break sometimes, and anyone who’s putting all of their time, effort and energy into looking after somebody else really needs to be able to step away sometimes to nourish themselves”.
Carefree create the spaces for that to happen.
Gratefully (but belatedly, and, given the circumstances — unfortunately) Covid19 has brought to light the important and largely hidden role that unpaid/informal carers play in society. As of 2019 there were 8.8million (adult & unpaid) carers in the UK. Shockingly, Covid19 has forced another 4.5 million people into the role of caring (unpaid) for loved ones.
As Charlotte explained to me, unpaid carers have saved the public purse £135 billion since the start of the pandemic and usually make up half of the UK’s resource requirement for Health and Social Care, contributing £132bn a year in savings (equivalent to the entire NHS budget) in any normal year. If they were to unable to continue caring because of the toll it takes on their physical and mental health, the NHS would be crippled from the extra strain.
With this in mind, it might make sense for us to do more than just ‘clap for our carers’…
And that’s exactly what Charlotte and the Carefree team do.
According to Carefree’s website, “Carefree transforms vacant accommodation into vital breaks for unpaid carers.”.
As they explain: “caring for someone is an act of devotion but it takes its toll. The majority of unpaid carers develop health problems of their own. Many struggle to make ends meet. To make matters worse, most of them rarely take a break. Private sector solutions are unaffordable for most unpaid carers and while the government has made access to breaks a priority, there is no indication of how this will be achieved”.
“The answer, therefore, lies in the so-called ‘sharing economy’, a system in which people share assets or services, typically via the internet”.
Carefree explain that excess capacity is a fact of life for every hotel and holiday cottage owner. Some of it is seasonal but much of it is year-round. Offering some of this surplus to caregivers for a short break has the potential to dramatically improve their wellbeing.
An exciting, seemingly simple, but extremely innovative and inspiring approach to supporting carers.
When I ask Charlotte how this problem-solution fit came about, she explains that there are “lots of lovely layers” to this. Firstly, one of the Founders had their own holiday cottages at the time and they frequently had 50% vacancies. Both brothers also had shared family experience of caring and understood the toll that it can take on people, as well as the need for a break. They saw the market opportunity and the challenge and understood the nature of what the solution was going to be.
Simple… sometimes understanding a problem firsthand can make you best-placed to see the solution.
But it hasn’t always been so simple…
As an organisation, the biggest risk was that they might be able to get lots and lots of supply because Carefree were doing everything right on the tech front — making it easy and seamless for accommodation providers to gift their vacant inventory, but that they wouldn’t have enough carers using the service.
When piloting the service, Carefree started to see that there were deeper problems that they needed to address. A key one being how unpaid carers are identified and verified. Sadly, less than 10% of carers are registered with any support services in the UK.
As a result, Carefree have spent the last 12 months developing a self-verification tool to allow carers to digitally identify themselves.
Of course, like all of us — Carefree is having to navigate the dreaded Covid19. As mentioned, as a result of the virus there has been a 4.5million increase in the number of unpaid carers in the UK. Because of the complexities of caring and the need for people to shield — Covid19 has taken it’s physical and emotional toll on carers more than anybody.
The immediate impact in relation to Carefree is two-sided — on the one hand vacancies in hotels have provided a greater opportunity to mobilise larger volumes of gifted supply, but on the other, it is more difficult than ever for carers that are isolating with the vulnerable people they care for to get away.
Charlotte explains with a resilient chuckle that Carefree have been forced to pivot. “We changed our gifting model to enable hotels to work more flexibly with us: whilst they are going through such fluxes within their own market landscape they need to be able to prioritise any opportunities for revenue. We also developed new systems so that we could be more responsive to regional lockdowns and self-isolation requirements that may force booking cancellations by carers on short-notice. We’ve also provided increased customer support for rebookings. All in all, our goal is to get as much supply in place as possible so that when carers are able to safely take a break again there is a genuine opportunity for them to get time away to support their recovery from what has been a tremendously difficult year”.
Interestingly, Charlotte isn’t one of the Founders of Carefree. As she explains, “I used to co-run an accelerator for small charities with big potential, who were looking to use technology to amplify their service and impact. Carefree applied and I could see from the beginning that Carefree set out to do things differently”.
“The way in which the two brothers, Charlie and James Ricketts who had the original idea of Carefree were thinking, in terms of the scalable market opportunity and what would need to be in place to make it happen, turned their unfamiliarity with the charity sector into the organisation’s greatest strength. They didn’t know the rules of the game to be hemmed in by them and together we were able to break down a lot of the barriers to growth a lot of new charities face”.
“I also really identified very closely with the mission of supporting carers get a break. Like everyone in society, my family has close connections to people playing caring roles at different points in time”.
“We often think about sustainability in terms of environmental issues, but I sat with the feeling for a long time that sustainability should always be referenced in terms of our society. Social care and caring should be a fundamental concern for all of us as it’s part of the basic infrastructure of — like investing in a road. I wanted to build something that really cares for carers and I believed that with my professional experience I had I could help the organisation have a sustainable future with innovative technology and a great business model”.
From talking to Charlotte and even just from looking at Carefree’s website, there’s a very strong feeling that Carefree are mavericks and that something about them is special.
For all it’s elegance and style, it’s perhaps surprising to know that Carefree is not a hyper-growth focused ‘tech for good’ private venture but, rather, a hyper-growth (and hyper-impact) focused ‘tech for good’ charity.
Charlotte and Carefree are goal-orientated. The organisation’s strategic aims are split into annual and quarterly goals that mapped to a delivery roadmap. They use a range of measures to track progress such as Northstar metrics to keep them focused on what the business needs most (e.g. funding, recruitment, new policies/procedures), the user value their products are delivering and the core goal for that quarter (e.g. the number of new partners). The team work in two 6-week ‘project cycles’ per quarter. Within each cycle, they have 10–15 ‘big rocks’ which are effectively sub-projects that are in flight at any one time. With a team of only 5 people, this is the only way they can make sure they are covering all sides of the operation such as business development with hospitality and public sector partners, marcomms, tech, servicing carers, fundraising and charity governance. Two weeks before the end of the 6 week period they come together, horizon check how close they are to achieving their goals and reprioritise if they need to. Charlotte believes that this means that Carefree are able to develop and build faster than other organisations would be able to in that period because everything is tightly planned and there is a ‘stretch’ amount of pressure.
In terms of how this translates into what they get up to per week: on Monday they look at the cycle for the week, Tuesday and Thursdays are for ‘deep work’ where they all get their heads down and focused on our respective tasks, Wednesday mornings are for them to be a bit more relaxed as a team, before the afternoon is product focused. Friday’s are senior management meetings.
Perhaps wrongly, I always had the belief that charities were archaic things that were poorly run and unambitious. Charlotte and Carefree clearly break this mould, emulating Silicon Valley-esque energy and unshakeable focus on fulfilling their social & organisational mission(s).
As Charlotte explains in her recent panel event “the 21st Century Charity”, charities are facing an identity crisis of sorts. They’re no longer the only solution for doing good, and they’re not necessarily even seen as the best response to the challenges society faces. Although there are complex reasons behind this, the panel suggest that charities have obtained this bad rap unfairly. There isn’t a pipeline of talented digital charities, largely because the small grant sizes of £25k etc. barely dent the surface of the initial capital a digital startup needs to scale to impact tens of thousands of users. Moreover, unlike the ecosytem that exists for the tech sector (and more recently the ‘tech for good’ sector) whereby there might be 50 accelerators and 200 Venture Capitalists in just one city, charities (particularly digital charities) might only have 3. In turn, charities have historically been up against it from the start.
In order for digital startup charities to thrive, we need to cultivate a collaborative eco-system like the one that exists for ‘tech for good’ startups, increase the funding available to the sector (a good example being The National Lottery’s Digital Fund) and focus on open source, agile tech solutions such as NoCode.
NoCode refers to a collection of apps which allow you to develop digital services without having to write code. As Joey Ceunen, who runs IT operations at Carefree explains in ‘Perspectives on NoCode’, NoCode democratises digital charities’ ability to access technology and use it to make agile and innovative impact. As Carefree emulate the good practice of a 21st Century Charity, they are able to thrive and make inspiring (and scalable) social impact.
So what would Charlotte advise other people taking their steps into social innovation? “The challenge”, she explains, “is in really understanding the requirements that your organisation has. Be it the end-to-end process of all the different functions you need it to perform, the types of people you need to be a part of it, the types of partnerships, the types of advisors. Effectively, you need to align ‘Why’ you do what you do, ‘How’ you’re going to bring these changes about and ‘What’ activities you’ll take”. This needs to be an ongoing and deep process that takes constant investment. An organisation is never just it’s elevator pitch. There are so many complexities that sit behind that condensed snippet of ‘what’ an organisation does, and it is important to have a solid understanding of what your organisation needs holistically to fulfil it’s mission.
Moreover, don’t get so caught up in what everyone else is doing or following other peoples’ formulas. “You understand your organisation the best, so when it comes to making decisions about what to spend your time on and how to fuel your organisation — create your own formula”.