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Hand in hand

Written by Josh Russell on Monday, 02 December 2013. Posted in Scaling up, Interviews

Fresh from netting two awards at the Smarta 100, Give as you Live is proof that commercial success and a social conscience are anything but incompatible

Hand in hand

It’s evident attitudes towards businesses with social goals are changing. A decade ago, it may have seemed unlikely that a business whose primary aim was to raise money for charities would be scooping up awards left, right and centre. But innovative business Give as you Live, the service that enables consumers shopping online to raise money for charity at no additional cost to themselves, is netting no end of accolades, proving that success doesn’t have to be paid for in cynicism.

Founder Polly Gowers feels that that making an impact in the business world and improving the lot of others go hand in hand. “To get on in life, you have to help others,” she says. “Something that Bob Geldof said at the National Business Awards was ‘it’s all very well everyone being sat here because they’re running good businesses but what are you doing for society?’” she recalls. “It’s true: business has to be responsible.”

Gowers has always felt a responsibility to help other people. During her late adolescence, she was even offered a place at medical school, something she eventually chose to turn down. Despite the dismay that met her decision, she has no doubts that it was the right choice to make. “I’d have made a lousy doctor,” Gowers admits. However, she’s not unaware of the irony that both her potential and her actual career are built around providing aid for those who need it. She says: “Maybe, in a funny way, I just found a different way to help people.”

Instead Gowers decided to focus on a different area of her life: racing and jumping horses at a competitive level. However, despite competing at national and international level, netting her fair share of golds and running a training business producing horses that galloped their way onto the Olympics, she found something was missing. “I’d been very privileged to ride some lovely horses and won some great prizes but I didn’t want to have to do that for a living anymore,” she comments.

A change in profession is hard enough at the best of times but, when you’ve skipped the standard career ladder, it becomes truly daunting. However, Gowers wasn’t lacking strings to her bow, being very computer literate, as well as having experience of selling and running her own enterprise. She breezed her way into a role at a web design business that had been looking for sales people. “I spent 18 months selling websites,” she says. “After that I really thought ‘I want to do this myself’ and started my own small consultancy from the shed in my garden.”

And, whilst she didn’t know it then, this would lead her to a fundamental realisation. “I never built websites myself; I always used external contractors,” Gowers explains. “But I was the consultant that helped people work out what they needed to do on the web.” Working with high profile clients like Mars gave her key insight into the industry – increasingly affiliate and search marketing were coming into play and ultimately this meant one thing. “We were increasingly seeing commission beginning to dominate the internet,” she recalls.

Almost in direct parallel, charitable organisations have seen their ability to access funding become rapidly restricted. “To be perfectly honest, the way we give is a long way behind the way we live at the moment,” she says. Whilst many of these charities may be feeling that they just aren’t attracting the younger generation, Gowers believes it’s not down to a lack of passion amongst young people. There is simply a disconnect between the way later generations are living their lives and the traditional channels charity relies upon. “I’ve got three daughters and the way they consume media is totally different from the way I consume it,” she comments. “They’re living a very different life from us.”

Often it seems some of the best ideas arrive in serendipitous ways and perhaps Gowers would never have realised the potential if she hadn’t been discussing this glut of funding in the tech space with colleague Julia Felton, who also happened to be a volunteer fundraiser. “I jokingly said something like ‘why can’t we use this commission to raise money for charity?’” she says. Irony rapidly gave way to inspiration and the pair realised they’d hit upon a very meaningful opportunity.

“We wrote a business plan down and the more you looked at it the more you thought ‘why not?’” Gowers explains. Quickly they found other people who were willing to throw their all behind the idea. “We were fortunate enough to have some very brave and maybe foolish friends and family that got us that starting bit and from there it snowballed,” she says.

They set a line in the sand they needed to reach and, by the time they had reached half of their target, such was Gowers’ faith in the project that she put her house on the line. “The bank were very brave and secured the overdraft against my house,” she says. With this funding in hand, the partners were able to hire some talented coders to start building the solution and have never looked back.

Since then, the rapid growth that Give as you Live has managed to secure has been down to how it has reinterpreted an existing mechanism – affiliate marketing, in which retailers pay a small commission for referred customers – to rapidly form relationships with some of the UK’s biggest retailers. The enterprise gets a small payment for delivering a whole host of new customers, on the proviso that the online retailers donate a part of the subsequent profit to charity. “The retailers are all working with us because we deliver them a customer,” explains Gowers.

But perhaps more important than its relationship with retailers is the unique impact the enterprise has had on the causes it serves, truly democratising the relationship between commerce and charity. Not only can a customer raise money for charity when shopping but they can raise money for the cause that they care about most. “We are totally agnostic,” Gowers says. “What is really exciting is we can give a local school a relationship with Waitrose, Tesco or Amazon – brands they’d never get to work with otherwise.”

Since its inception, Give as you Live has succeeded in raising an astonishing amount for these causes, generating more than £4m for its portfolio of 200,000 UK charities. Unsurprisingly, this has attracted a significant degree of recognition for both the enterprise and Gowers personally – just last year she was awarded an OBE for her work. “I’m very humbled by that,” she says. “But at the end of the day what we’ve achieved is only as the result of having a great team.”

And the industry is now falling over itself to reward that team for its work. Give as you Live received nominations this year for both the National Business Awards and the Smarta 100; a rather awkward situation as both ceremonies were scheduled for the same night. Gowers was already booked up for a table at the National Business Awards when her contact at Smarta hinted that there might be a good reason to come along to the ceremony. “She said, ‘you’ve got to be there: I’m booking a car’,” relates Gowers. The entrepreneur was bundled into the waiting vehicle to travel across town, where she and the team were awarded with both the Grand Prize and Biggest Social Impact. “It was a good week,” she smiles.

In light of the fact it has enjoyed no small amount of success already, it’s hard to see how Give as you Live can improve on its offering but Gowers has much bigger plans in the offing. “The big switch that I want to see is that we work with brands because they see the worth of contributing social value for customers, in and of itself,” she says.

This is how Gowers views the role of Give as you Live and others like it: they are holding the door open for those that follow. She predicts the future will see a significant interest in contributing social value in business and compares it to the recent boom in sustainability. “Whether you’re BT, whether you’re British Gas, whether you’re a little tiny company, your social credentials should become just as important as sustainability to your bottom line,” she says.

If we ever needed convincing that business can be good for society, it’s fair to say that companies like Give as you Live should act as our proof of concept. Gowers agrees that change is imminent and maintains enterprises like Give as you Live are part of the vanguard of a whole new way of conducting business.

Addressing the issue with characteristic conviction, she concludes: “Help me tell the world: it works.” 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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