Five minutes with Michelle Wright
A former professional violinist, Michelle Wright is now dedicated to disrupting philanthropy and finding new ways to scale up charities and social enterprises.
Founded in 2009, Cause4 has since raised over £46 million for its clients through fundraising, strategy and enterprise development. Michelle here shares her belief that charities must take lessons learned in the private sector and apply them to the benefit of not-for-profit organisations.
“There are some other really unhelpful stereotypes about charities”
If you think about charity, what comes to mind? For me, it’s a fundraiser on the street. That’s not what every charity does or how they want to be seen. There are many big businesses in the charity sector that are making a huge impact. There are also some small charities that are punching massively above their weight and able to fit into the gaps where the private sector or government can’t provide.
“I just loved the vibrancy of the charity sector”
I was enjoying what I was doing [prior to Cause4] but I was already feeling a little bit limited and bored – and I’m dangerous when bored. I think I stumbled my way into the charity sector by accident. My first role was with a music charity called Youth Music that had just been set up and I loved it… the potential and the community that’s within it in particular. It’s a sector that’s really important to me.
“One of our fundamental operating principles is to take the best of the private sector principles into the charity sector.”
If we are advising clients to change their business models and to develop their thinking and their budgeting, we can’t run a terrible business ourselves. I think there are ways of operating that make sense and in terms of private sector principles, relationship-building and networking are just two of the things that are really important to translate into the charity sector.
“We can’t be seen as fluffy and inefficient”
We’ve got to be quite hard-nosed around income, how we’re using money and spending money, and all those sort of things. They are really fundamental in terms of professionalising the charity sector and making sure the organisation can be sustainable – these are the key challenges we face with most of our clients.
“I think there’s nothing like seeing people who’ve been there and done it”
What I found was most important for me was being able to talk to people who’d been there and done it, and were maybe 5-10 years ahead of me. It gives huge confidence if you’re able to talk to somebody who’s actually done it and who knows.
“Becoming a B-corporation allows us the possibility to grow”
We can grow as a really big business and be profitable, yet our values are very clear on social, environmental and sustainable lines in the way that we treat people and our employees, and in training and all those things are really important to us. It’s a complete win-win. We feel, as a whole, much more comfortable in that space between business and charity.
“If you could be Prime Minister for a day, what would you change?"
That’s one of the questions we ask in interviews. We’re looking for those people who are not only societally aware but have an appetite to change things. How they answer that question tells us quite a lot about their motivations and what they’re interested in. We want them to come in with a fundamental passion. We do have very high standards, and expect people to deliver and work really hard. I suppose in that respect we’re taking some of those more commercially minded principles into what we expect in terms of the working environment.
“The UK clearly has strong foundations for a vibrant economy”
I’m frustrated myself because I think there’s a lot of fragmentation of different initiatives and I don’t see a lot of joined-up thinking or collaboration, particularly from the private sector. There’s very little joined-up activity and I think the corporate responsibility agenda has got really lost from what it could be doing. There is some good practice but I think it’s lost its way a little bit from what it could achieve. My utopia would be a lot of big organisations working together and thinking ‘what is our contribution to that particular issue’. At the moment, I tend to see work happening in microcosms or in isolation, not joined up in a way that can have that longer-term effect.
“There’s a big deficit in female entrepreneurship”
There’s a lot of research about a lack of confidence, the way a female would open a small business and the need for collegiate support, for example. If you’re a successful businesswoman wanting to do some mentoring, it’s quite hard to do: to know where to turn or how set up in a way that’s going to work for you as well. There are some good programmes but it can be quite hard to find them.