Create a social space for social change
Adam O’Boyle was a second year at Oxford University, when he first started planning how to help students be better at making a difference. At the time, he was finding social action more rewarding than his studies. It was a tough year for him: Academic life was not going how he wanted and a time-consuming attempt to set up a student volunteer project for street children had been a “dismal failure”. Adam wanted something to really put his energy into, and with a few friends he started thinking about how to improve the student charity work they were involved in.
He wrote down some of their proposals on two pieces of A4 paper and started to arrange meetings with people who might be able to assist. Adam felt that more collaboration between charitable organisations would help and that contributing to the community should be more embedded in the university experience. In the back of Adam’s mind, was the idea that this might be his ticket to a year off his academic work.
Adam says he’s embarrassed now thinking back on the “lofty” people he tried to engage with his ideas, but over lunch one day with a visiting masters student, he had a conversation that would stay with him for the rest of his life. This slightly older, slightly wiser acquaintance simply asked if Adam and his friends had thought of writing a business plan. They had not, and so when he went home, Adam googled “How do I write a business plan?”; that was 2007 and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’m listening to this story in what I consider to be one of Oxford’s most hip restaurants, the Turl Street Kitchen (TSK). It has great food, a relaxed atmosphere and lively buzz. The hugely successful Kitchen is the profit-generating arm of the Oxford Hub: The impressive organisation which has grown out of Adam and his friends’ initial proposals. The TSK sits in a four storey Georgian town house beneath the Hub’s offices and meeting spaces.
The Oxford Hub aims to support and inspire students to get involved in social action while at university and beyond. This Hub is one of a growing network of eight Student Hubs around the country. The TSK opened in September 2011, to help the Hub achieve financial sustainability, after they won a competitive bidding process to rent the building from Oxford City Council. “We created a bidding document of about 100 pages with letters of support from all the colleges, the mayor and the careers service. We’ll never have to do anything like that again because now we can show them what we’ve done here.”
Clearly, a lot of talent and hard work has gone into getting from a first-attempt business plan to a thriving social enterprise. After securing a small amount of funding back in 2007, Adam’s tutors agreed to let him have his longed for year-off to work up his proposals. He worked with a team of student volunteers to start exploring what could be done. The work quickly mushroomed, but a year later as another tranche of funding was found, he returned to complete his studies while fellow student, Adam Grodecki, took over the helm.
O’Boyle came back to the Hub once he had graduated and even now says he’s surprised when people ask him “When are you going to move on?”. “I don’t have any particular need or desire to move on,” he tells me. “The organization is still growing.” His role as Executive Director is both intellectually and practically challenging. When I ask about the potential pitfalls of a volunteering programme, I can see that there has been no shortage of debate. “Soul searching is definitely the hard part. We have had some long brainstorming meetings, which are not to everyone’s taste, but there has to be a constant process of going back to first principles and making sure the organisation is aligned with them.” This is no ivory tower though. The Hub coordinates and inspires armies of volunteers around the city, as well as fundraising activities for local and international causes. At the same time, Adam and his team value the accumulation and retention of knowledge. “Wherever possible, we try to spot good ideas and take what’s useful to us from them.”
Adam tells me about some of their future plans: “We’ll be opening a guest house soon, and hope to start a deli nearby as well”. With financial sustainability, Adam wants to grow the charity: “Hub Ventures aims to create social spaces for social change, with a focus on students at university and afterwards. I hope that vision will expand nicely to operate in a broader context.”
I agree that there is a great appetite in the broader population to make a positive difference. If thoughtful and creative people like Adam and his team are able to channel a wider audience towards worthwhile volunteering projects, we will all be better off. As Adam puts it: “People largely do what’s put in front of them. The Hub tries to create easy opportunities for students to give back to the community. Things that you can do with your friends, that aren’t too scary, but nevertheless, make a difference.” I know plenty of non-students who would willingly take some of that as well.