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School of Hard Knocks is a charity that uses sport to tackle the issues surrounding unemployment, crime and health. Founded in 2012, we work with individuals to help them take responsibility and make positive steps forward in their lives. We offer a number of different programmes, each tailored to its audience and principal aims. The constant factor is our methodology – controlled confrontation, challenging activities and a constant affirmation of self-worth and motivation.

We have run courses throughout England, Scotland and Wales, changing the lives of children and adults throughout the UK using rugby, boxing and strongman courses, supported by a curriculum of powerful life lessons. We work with unemployed adults to help them find and sustain work; and with school children at risk of exclusion to help them re-engage with education and improve their attendance, behaviour and attainment.

Most readers who have heard of us (if any of you have!) will know us from the annual documentary of our work on Sky Sports. Presented by Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell, the show follows one cohort of adult men through an SOHK Adult course.  The show had nearly 900 000 viewers last year and is broadcast annually in September.

SOHK received an RSA Catalyst Grant in September 2016 to run our first crowdfunding campaign. With our relatively high-profile, largely from the television exposure, we felt that crowdfunding was a good avenue to explore – but the costs of the campaign (around £10 000) would have been prohibitive for a charity of our size in an unproven area of fundraising.

We used the grant to produce a high quality, professionally shot and edited video, to hire social media experts to support the campaign, to cover transactional costs from the hosting site, and to fund staff time (of which more later!) in coordinating and executing the campaign.

In the event, we managed to raise over £20 000, which is a fantastic result for the charity and has directly funded work in two new London schools at no charge to the schools involved. This work has reached a further 40 children with weekly rugby coaching and mentoring, helping them to complete mainstream education.  We are extremely grateful to Tom Peyton FRSA who helped us secure our grant; the Fellows of the RSA for their support; and to everyone who donated during our campaign. 

As the programme is still in its relative infancy (these two new schools join only five existing programmes), this represents a significant increase in scale. It is our view that this can become a national programme and adding to the evidence base around its effectiveness will be crucial to our aims for expansion. The RSA Catalyst Grant has therefore been just that – the catalyst funding will (we hope) allow us to scale the programme considerably in the next five years.

When we look back at our campaign, there are a number of useful lessons that we picked up. The most significant one is about where donors come from.  The received wisdom is that 70% of your donors will come from your existing network, but we actually found that in our case over 90% of our supporters were already known to us as donors or supporters. In essence, therefore, you need to have a network that is wide enough and ready to give to make crowdfunding a success.  You also need to consider carefully whether crowdfunding is the best way to galvanise that network, or whether they would be happy to donate in a general appeal, which would usually allow you to add Gift Aid (if run via a typical charitable donation site).

The second lesson is about constant exposure. We used every person in our contact book who has any kind of profile (and indeed some who weren’t in our contact book!) to retweet, post on Facebook and generally shout about the campaign for an entire month.  Every high profile supporter was given suggested text and was emailed or texted every week to remind them when and what to say. 

This proved to be effective but also extremely time-consuming and we were lucky that an intern was able to execute the majority of this legwork. If we had a full-time member of staff leading on this, it would have increased the production costs by at least 20%. Anyone contemplating a campaign, therefore, needs to have the resources to assign at least one person, full-time, for the duration of the campaign to promoting it.

The second benefit of this exposure, apart from driving donations from individuals, was that it raised the profile of the campaign with other types of backer. We were lucky that around 50% of our final funds were contributed by corporate backers, most notably Santander’s Changemaker Fund. Without these contributions, we wouldn’t have met our target; but with it, we were able to leverage extra support as people liked the idea of ‘matched’ donations. The increase in profile is, therefore, a useful secondary benefit in running a campaign; and one which can bring an immediate financial return.

The final major lesson for us was in judging the right rewards to bring in donors. As well as the usual guidelines (aim for ‘money can’t buy’ experiences for the big prizes, for example), we realised early on that the decision to give on a crowdfunding campaign is essentially commercial, not philanthropic. Anyone viewing your site is judging the value of the reward alongside the social return and is looking for value for money when they combine these figures. So if £20 ‘buys’ a £5 t-shirt, they’ll need to feel that there’s £15 of social return on investment to bite.

This is a key consideration when trying to balance the level and cost of rewards with the need to generate a return for the charity.  Of course, if 90% of your donors come from your existing network, they may just donate anyway; but in that case, you’d be better off courting them with an appeal and not having to buy a reward (as well as claiming another 25% in Gift Aid). True crowdfunding campaigns are therefore a finely balanced calculation about reward and margin; and we would expect only to get this exactly right after a few attempts.

As well as this valuable learning, of course, the campaign actually raised significant funds for our programmes and we are now delivering new work and striving to ensure its sustainability. As part of this, and as the final part of our Catalyst project, we are inviting Fellows of the RSA to apply to become volunteer mentors for SOHK.

Our mentors offer non-judgemental, impartial support to adults coming to the end of our adult employability programmes. These adults will either be just starting work or seeking employment. Having another person to hold them accountable to their goals and bounce ideas against is really valuable. This does not involve giving direct advice.

Male and female participants are paired with male and female mentors respectively and all mentors are asked to attend a one-day mentor training event; and a one-hour initial pairing meeting during office hours. After this, the commitment we ask for is a minimum of four one-hour mentoring meetings, outside office hours and near the mentee’s location.

Mentoring for SOHK is a great way to give back, learn new skills and practise existing ones. We're looking people to become a SOHK mentor. To do so, please complete this form and return to Nathan Persaud, our Programmes Director.

Jack Lewars is COO of School of Hard Knocks. If you are interested in supporting the charity or would like to know more, please email him.

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