Beam was set up in 2017 to create long-term opportunities for individuals who find themselves without a permanent address. The idea is simple: crowdfund to pay for training for individuals looking to enter skill-based employment, or, as the Beam slogan has it: be amazing. The organisation already has a clutch of awards to its name and the coming year is looking bigger and brighter than its first as the tried-and-tested model is set to scale. Peter Hay spoke to Founder and CEO, Alex Stephany, to learn more.
Can you give me an outline of how your journey started out with Beam?
I got to know a homeless man at my local train station; I would talk to him, I would buy him coffees, when it was cold I’d buy him socks. At one point he disappeared for a few weeks and then when he reappeared he looked really different; his beard had gone, he looked older and he told me that he’d had a heart attack. I was really watching this man’s condition deteriorate before my eyes and so I asked myself: ‘What would it take to make a lasting difference to this individual’s life?’ For me, that was giving him the skills and the training so that he could sustainably support himself. That would cost a lot more than coffees and socks but it occurred to me: ‘What if everyone chipped in?’ At my last business I went through a funding round which was quite large so I thought maybe we could fund training for homeless people. And that was the kernel of the idea.
We went out and developed the model very carefully with some fantastic charities and we launched last November, we’ve been going just a year, and really we’ve seen that this is a very very powerful model to help people who are long-term unemployed get into skilled work. And it’s a good model for two reasons: first, crowdfunding is brilliant at flexibly removing financial barriers, so we’re able to fund training and any other financial barriers that an individual might face like childcare, or tools, or transport. And the other reason is crowdfunding is brilliant at building people new support networks, from the funders who are supporting them, from the people who fund their campaign, and today more than 200 people fund each person’s campaign, which is really powerful. One of our members said it best to me the other day when she said her supporters feel like her family and that’s fantastic for boosting people’s self-confidence, self-belief – all things that are quite major barriers to getting into stable employment.
Where do you think technology fits interms of answering some of the other issues for homelessness and the wider charity sector?
I think we’ve just scratched the surface of how technology can be used for good – sometimes it’s called ‘tech for good’. It can solve many social problems, I think technology has a role to play in solving every problem because technology, in some capacity, can always make things cheaper, more efficient, safer, but it needs to be applied in the right way. So, I would say technology will always have a part to play but it isn’t the only solution and it doesn’t mean that technology will never have negative effects. Technology really is a tool and like any tool it can be used for great things and it can be used for negative things. I think it’s our job as people who work in technology; tech entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs, to make sure we are using technology for as much good as possible.
How do you think technology hinders organisations and how can it hinder individuals such as those who find themselves homeless?
I think it always comes down to the application of technology. Technology is no silver bullet and it needs to be applied properly and every organisation’s needs for technology will differ. A larger organisation needs to understand how it can use technology to deliver better products and services, and, so, reduce costs and time to do more with less.
On an individual basis technology can be tremendously empowering. We live now, at least in the UK, in a country where a significant proportion of the most disadvantaged people have access to smart phones and it’s critical that we are building technology for that group and empowering them. Of course, it’s not without its challenges, particular with individuals who don’t have access to those technologies or individuals who are not tech-savvy are struggling to migrate to a digital world. But, for the most part, I would say that technology is massively overused, given that almost everyone in the UK is carrying a smart phone around with them at the moment. We need allocate more financial capital and more human resource into building products for these individuals because, actually, far too much time, money and resources are being spent building products for privileged people, making sure they can get sushi to their desk in 15 minutes. And these aren’t actually the biggest challenges that we face as a society.
What would your response be to the recent UN report that suggested the UK government’s austerity measures have, in part, created extreme cases of poverty in the UK?
Well, I think it’s more complex than that and I think it’s easy to look to any single stakeholder and say: ‘This is their fault’, and this would all be solved if they would only do X, Y and Z. Of course, the government has a role to play; we need more investment in housing, the critical services for the homeless and other vulnerable groups. But I also believe that social problems also have, fundamentally, social solutions and we all have a part to play in making progress on these issues. We believe at Beam that the homelessness crisis is everyone’s responsibility to own and regardless of what the government does it’s not enough to say: ‘Well, I pay my taxes, therefore, I have no civic responsibility.’ What we’re doing at Beam is building a platform that is incredibly safe and very easy for anyone to help a homeless person for the long-term. And we believe an issue like homelessness will be solved when, and only when, everyone comes together and plays their part and plays to their strengths. That means government but it also means charities, tech start-ups and, crucially, it means the public as well.
What we’ve done is build a platform that allows people to make positive and smart investments in people’s futures. All of the campaign budgets are transparently laid out on the campaign page, to the nearest pound, and we also manage the money on behalf of the supporters. So, we never hand out cash, we purchase all of the budget items on behalf of the individual.
How are individuals selected to be part of the programme?
The people we work with are typically in temporary accommodation. The vast majority of homeless people are in temporary accommodation, like hostels, according to the latest figures – 295,000 out of 320,000. So, it’s a misconception that every homeless person is sleeping on the streets, far from it, the reality of homelessness in the UK is that its’s much more likely to be a single mum living with her children in some kind of unpleasant and run-down bedsit. That’s the numerical reality of homelessness in the UK. So, we work with that group, predominantly, those who have some fundamental stability on their lives. They have a roof over their heads, a shower, the ability to charge their phone but they have very poor progression, in general, and very poor employment outcomes. So, our job is really to empower them to be amazing, which is our slogan, by making sure we’re giving them the right personalised support through the crowdfunding and also building this network of supporters around them at the same time.
So, what comes next for you and the organisation?
2018 has really been about proving the model and we’ve proven this an incredibly effective, perhaps the most effective model, to help very disadvantaged people get into work after long periods of time. And next year is really about scaling the model, helping many more members, and scaling the community of supporters. Today, 2,000 people are part of the Beam community and our job is to grow that many, many, many times over, so I would encourage all of the readers of this to become part of the community, even if that just means putting in your email address or giving a few pounds. If you care about this issue you should absolutely be part of Beam.org.
You can now buy Christmas gifts on Beam, to give the gift of training and a more promising future. The recipient of the gift can allocate the funding to an individual of their choosing, on the Beam site, or split it between everyone.