The Black Cab Interviews: Mark Norbury | Golden Space Press

As UnLtd CEO Mark Norbury wanders into the courtyard of St Mary’s of Eton in Hackney Wick, east London, the familiar joy of nostalgia passes over his face.

There have been changes since he was last here 25 years ago. There is housing where there was once a creche, a sign in Vietnamese is present in the cloisters and, perhaps most tellingly about a change in the times, an enormous graffiti mural decorates the side of the Turkish restaurant the churchyard shares a border with.

Norbury’s career in social justice started here, although not because of some religious calling. Note the name of the church; it was following completion of his ‘A’ levels at Eton College that Norbury followed up an invitation from Father Duncan Ross, the vicar of the church at the time, to come and help out. There is a collaborative relationship between the church and the college.

Ross had spoken to the pupils at Eton, telling them they knew nothing about the real world and to come and see it for themselves. Norbury took up the offer to volunteer and found a stark contrast to the privileged corridors of Eton.

What I found here was that financial dependence and penury wasn’t good

He worked as a teaching assistant in the nursery used primarily by mums who had experienced domestic violence; he also visited older people suffering with isolation. Norbury says that, as a lanky 18 year old with no real world experience, it taught him how to build trust with people very different to himself.

The women clubbed together to get him a leaving present on his departure and Norbury knew it was probably money they could ill afford. “It reminded me of the generosity of people everywhere. It was that peer to peer model of really strong community action and compassion. It really set me right in terms of thinking: how can I make a difference?”

Though not familiar with the term at that stage in his life, the idea of social enterprise took root. “What I also found here was that financial dependence and penury wasn’t good. There was no real lasting benefit to sacrifice so if you could combine that community action and sense of social justice where you were also earning money and making money for the cause, that seemed a much more powerful and enduring way to make change happen.”


Leadership… and social impact bonds 

We find our driver Spencer waiting patiently in the car park and commiserate with him about the weekend’s football results, which has seen his beloved Tottenham Hotspur lose out to Chelsea in the FA Cup. Not wanting to upset him, Norbury will later confide to me that he has been a Chelsea fan since the age of 15.

As we leave Hackney, we take the opportunity to fill in some gaps in Norbury’s CV. Post university he worked for several charities, including the Red Cross: “but I felt that those organisations weren’t going after change and impact as strongly as they might be. I wanted to work in an environment where the pursuit of excellence was also part of what you were trying to do – but trying to do that with a benevolent aim.”

He switched tack; he went to INSEAD business school in order to understand how business could engage with purpose. “In order to change the world it was pretty clear that you needed to work with markets and business, which had so much more power,” he says.

Norbury didn’t go there with any thoughts of being a social entrepreneur himself however. “I knew I wasn’t a founder, that wasn’t for me. But I thought I might be an organisation builder and I knew that I needed more focus on what I needed to become a really effective general manager: competence, strategy, finance, marketing, operations and so forth.”

Immediately before he joined UnLtd, Norbury was chief executive of CW+, the charity for Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. The charity raises money for research and health innovations that don’t attract government funding.

When he arrived, Norbury found the charity hadn’t been doing a lot of fundraising and wasn’t very focused on impact. As a trustee for the Bridges Impact Foundation (the charitable arm of impact investor Bridges Fund Management) Norbury was familiar with social impact bonds (SIBs) and thought it might be a useful vehicle for tackling smoking related issues.

people who are behind social impact bonds are moving away from them

The three-year social impact bond aimed to reduce the health risks of those most at risk from smoking – pregnant women, older people, those with existing respiratory issues. Target outcomes not only included them stopping smoking but stopping for an extended period of time.

CW+ made the investment, with the idea being that the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG – the NHS body responsible for the commissioning of health care services for their local area) would reimburse them if agreed successful outcomes took place. If the hospital exceeded the outcomes, the CCG would pay more.

The SIB was comparatively modest. CW+ initially invested £150,000 and has received bonus payments in the first two years of the bond due to positive results (payments are based on performance). CW+ hopes to have saved the CCG £300,000 at the end of three years. “The hospital could deliver the service, the patients had much better care and the CCG saves money,” is Norbury’s take on it.

Although that bond worked out and he notes the merits of payment by results contracts, Norbury is also quick to sound a note of caution: “Social impact bonds are expensive, they haven’t found an efficient way for intermediation to happen. And people who are behind social impact bonds are moving away from them. I don’t think you will find a lot of social entrepreneurs, a lot of social investors or a lot of social entrepreneurship intermediaries pushing for them.”

Given his former experience working for charities and his current prominent role within social enterprise, which of the two forms of social venture does Norbury think is more effective? “There are some things that won’t ever be susceptible to an earned income model. You won’t be able to have a market based mechanism for certain rights based activity and campaigning activity and that is an important role for charity.

“Other than that, I think social entrepreneurship is so much more powerful, both because of the market discipline and sustainability it provides and I think it’s a way of bridging between different sectors. The social entrepreneurs I have seen doing fantastic work, they’re weaving together the best of charity, the best of public sector, the best of business and it’s really powerful to have these hybrid organisations. But it makes it more complex for the entrepreneur and that’s why you need support like UnLtd.”


The impact of gentrification 

We arrive at the Hoxton Hotel. Inside, against a backdrop of exposed brick and wooden floors, a young crowd slouches on distressed leather armchairs and sofas. Aside from the glow of Apple laptop logos, the lighting is low.

When the hotel opened in 2006, this area of London was already very hip. Artists such as Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst had arrived in the run down area in the 90s when both space to create and live in was cheap. The White Cube gallery, the first to represent many of the avant-garde young British artists, arrived in 2000.

As with so many things popping up in the area at the time, the Hoxton was a new take on a tired format. Not only were room prices very reasonable, free wifi was available (this was 2006 remember) and mini bar tariffs didn’t cause you to flinch.

Pictured above: the lobby at the Hoxton hotel.

More importantly, when the hotel opened it had a social impact. Shoreditch and Hackney were, at the time, among the top 3% most deprived wards in England. Jobs were needed and the hotel provided 40 of them, with 73% of the wages going to those living in lowincome neighbourhoods.

This was why noted impact investor Bridges Fund Management invested in the hotel – it was a way to use entrepreneurship to regenerate an area. The Hoxton was subsequently sold to private investors and Bridges made seven times its initial investment of £2.1m.

It raises the question of how to lock in a requirement from new owners that the organisation continues to have some social impact. One less recognised service UnLtd provide is research into such topics and Norbury says UnLtd personnel have been brainstorming this: “What we’re trying to focus on is for those businesses where it’s not right for their business model to be asset locked, how do they lock in mission in their governance, in their operations, to make it legally binding?”


Unlimited support

The last stop on our journey is, of course UnLtd. The smell of onions greets us as we arrive – the many vendors that offer the lucky UnLtd staff a plethora of lunch options are getting started in Whitecross Street Market.

UnLtd offers a bewildering amount of different support services for social entrepreneurs. As well as the research work mentioned above there is primarily a mix of funding and business support – notably the Try It awards (up to £500) for those at ideas stage, the Do It awards (up to £5000) for ideas that need developing and Build It awards (up to £15000) for those looking to scale.

The organisation makes about 600 awards a year, with some of the money coming from its endowment and some from partners such as Big Lottery Fund, Comic Relief, UBS and JP Morgan.

Norbury sees the awards as central to UnLtd’s work: “The awards are the heartbeat of the organisation, they’re what we were set up to do and they’re the foundation from which everything else works.”

UnLtd was set up in 2002 through the Millennium Awards with £100m. That endowment is now worth about £114m and investments from that yield £5m a year. In the last available accounts (2015), UnLtd gave grants of £6m alongside £7m worth of business support.

At the moment the trust deed has been very clear that with the whole of our endowment, we need to maximise return

At Golden Pioneers we increasingly hear how endowment money can usefully be used for impact investing. UnLtd don’t do this at present, so why not? Norbury’s answer is matter of fact, with a hint of hope for the future.

“At the moment the trust deed has been very clear that with the whole of our endowment, we need to maximise return. Now, there have been changes relatively recently about how you can interpret that and how we can invest is something we are going to look at – if we can use that endowment as a social investment tool. I would love that but we have to respect the trust deed and the expertise of our investment committee.”

Going forward, UnLtd are looking to make impact in three significant areas of society: access to employment, solutions for an aging society and building resilient local communities. Norbury says UnLtd has a theory of change for the difference it wants to make beyond the awards and programmes and is looking to influence both policy and systems change.

“What we know is that social entrepreneurship is the most powerful force for social change in this country. If we’re addressing big hairy audacious goals like addressing long term unemployment for those distant from the labour market and we have some meaningful solutions that the government, business and social ventures can buy into then that is far more impact than we could have by ourselves.”

And with that, it’s time for the chief executive to do some work. We wander back out into Whitecross street to be tantalised by the street chefs conjuring hunger inducing smells, before heading back to our home turf of Hackney. 

Photo credit: Fiona Stuart-Clark