Founder of Time to Spare
Did you know that the UK government allots 16 billion pounds every year to charities? That’s seven billion pounds more than private donations made to these same charities. With that, Time to Spare founder Tom Neill shares what it’s like providing data that helps charities manage their projects and volunteers as well as collect information that, in the end, not only keeps charities transparent and organized but also allows the government to decide on local projects and organizations that would benefit most from being funded.
After quitting his job at Oliver Wyman and taking a sabbatical in China, Tom realized there was a problem that needed to be solved, which was the lack of data on what charities were doing and the impact they were having on people’s lives. And so, Time to Spare was created. With their software that records all the information on charities and their projects, they help charities provide support to the people that really need it.
Having to pivot during the pandemic was one of their main challenges, among others, and along with that, Tom also shares the story behind their business model, how they figured out how to make it sustainable, other challenges they faced and overcame, their competition, what it is like working with the government, and more.
Maiko Schaffrath 00:02
You are listening to Impact Hustlers, and I am your host, Maiko Schaffrath. I have made it my mission to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to solve some of the world's biggest social and environmental problems. And for this reason, I am speaking to some of the best entrepreneurs out there who are solving problems such as food waste, climate change, poverty, and homelessness. My goal is that Impact Hustlers will inspire you, either by starting an impact business yourself, by joining the team of one, or by taking a small step, whatever that may be, towards being part of the solution to the world's biggest problems. Alright, let's get started. I'm really excited to have you on Impact Hustlers, Tom. Thanks very much for joining me today.
Tom Neill 00:57
Alright, thanks. Good to be here.
Maiko Schaffrath 00:59
Thank you. So, I want to start by focusing a little bit on yourself and your entrepreneurial journey. We'll get into the details of time to spare in a minute. But you actually started your career as a consultant for Oliver Wyman. I think you actually studied Economics at Cambridge and had that background and then went into the consultancy world. What brought you from that world into entrepreneurship and actually starting your own company?
Tom Neill 01:32
Well, I think when I was at Oliver Wyman, I tended to lean towards the more technical quantitative stuff that the organization did. I was doing seq analysis on big payments datasets. I was doing credit risk analysis of big loan books and things like that. It wasn't traditional making PowerPoint slides look pretty. Yeah, there's some pretty big data sets that I was looking through with that. That was my introduction into the more technical side of work and just learning some of those quantitative coding skills. I think I enjoyed that, but I wanted just a bit more ability to take some of those further and to take a project and keep going with it rather than having to finish when the assignment finished essentially. I wanted to have a business. I've always did young enterprises as a kid at school. I always thought the idea was quite fun. And so yeah, I just decided that when I left Oliver Wyman, I left without a plan, really, and I just decided that I was going to start my own thing afterwards as a bit of a gap and mostly to make sure that my parents didn't completely freak out. When I quit, I moved to China, to Beijing for six months as a little bit of a sabbatical in the middle and basically just spent that time learning Chinese at university out there, but also trying to teach myself how to code in the afternoons and evenings, which was vaguely successful. I definitely came back not very good but able to set up my website and go from there, basically.
Maiko Schaffrath 03:21
Alright. Do you think learning to code was instrumental to you launching the business or was that not too relevant for that? Was it just a challenge for yourself?
Tom Neill 03:30
Yeah, I mean, for sure. So, what we do at Time to Spare is we work with charities and governments who are notoriously slow to pick up new things, and I think if I had contracted out all of the coding and the development from the very start, I would have run out of whatever money I had left very, very quickly just in waiting for people to get back to me and sign up. So, I think, yeah, it was definitely really, really important in terms of being able to try things quickly and cheaply, because it's just my rent, really, that was the main cost of this stuff.
Maiko Schaffrath 04:04
Yeah, absolutely. So, let's talk about it. You left Oliver Wyman without a real plan. You did learn Chinese. I think you actually spent some time in China for doing that. Then, how did the idea come about? How did you actually start to focus on, there's a problem to be solved between charities and government? And we'll talk about the problem in a second. But let's just focus, how did you first discover it?
Tom Neill 04:31
So, before I was doing this, I was working on a project called Who's In?, and the idea was essentially to make it easier for people to volunteer to support projects or charities in their area, just to lower that barrier, really. I was working on that for a few months. There wasn't a huge amount of interest in it from charities. There's a little bit of interest in people who wanted to volunteer, but it wasn't taking off massively. And so, I sat down with a few of the charities that we had been working with and asked them, "Clearly, this isn't exactly what works for you, but I'd be intrigued to know, is there anything that I could do that would be more useful, that would support something more crucial and core to the work that you do every day?" And it surprised me that a lot of them came back with very similar feedback. A lot of them were saying that recruiting new volunteers is sometimes difficult, but it's far harder to manage existing projects, manage existing volunteers, collecting information about what's going on, and just this standard kind of thing that you might see in a CRM in a business. Just those are the real challenges that charities faced. So, I found that really interesting, and I started to get slightly interested in the idea that there wasn't much information or data available on what charities were doing, who they were working with, and what activities they were organizing. You can go into the Charity Commission Database and there's information about every registered charity, but it's pretty limited. There’re some short bits of information about their accounts, but not really much about what they actually do. And so, I was like, "This is kind of interesting. I can't, for the life of me, work out how a business would be sustainable off the back of this idea," until I met someone who was the CEO of a CVS. I don't know if you know what they are, but essentially, a CVS is a Council for Voluntary Services. And so, a lot of different areas have these organizations, and they sit as these umbrella bodies for the local charities in an area. She basically talked to me for two hours on this lovely little terrace in North London and just going through all of the different parts of government that would find all of that information really valuable if it was actually possible to collect it. This is just me frantically writing notes, because I thought it was just really interesting, and that conversation has actually been the business for two years after that.
Maiko Schaffrath 07:10
Let's move to actually explaining everybody that's listening to us what the business actually does. But summarizing, you really want from a journey of leaving your job behind, looking at your passion of getting more people to volunteer, and then almost stumbling across a problem that the charities had, and then finding, "Okay, local governments also find this valuable," so you suddenly have these two actors, local governments and charities, that have some shared problem that you're like, "Okay, I could set up a company around this in helping them sort this out." So, what is it actually that Time to Spare does now and how do you solve their problems on both sides of the coin, governments and charities?
Tom Neill 07:57
Yeah, so what we do is, for charities, we have a piece of software that we call a Community Activity Management System, which means they use it to record information about all the work they're doing, and all the people they're working with. And then, what we offer to governments is the ability to see summary information about what those charities are doing and who they're working with, so that they can make better decisions around organizations to fund and interventions or projects that they can run in their local area.
Maiko Schaffrath 08:30
And give us a bit of an idea on government's funding charities. I think for most people, it seems like charities are funded by our donations, and that seems to be the biggest factor. But when you first emailed me, you told me, actually, governments are putting, in the UK at least, much more funding into charities than the private individuals. So, give us some context on that. How much is, actually, government putting into these charities and why are they doing it? Is it just because they're donating some money? How are they actually collaborating with these charities?
Tom Neill 09:09
Yeah, I mean, I think you're right. It's definitely a lot larger sum than most people are aware of. So, each year, the UK Government gives 16 billion pounds to charities across the country. I think individual donations are something like nine and a bit billion pounds each year. So, actually, the government is the largest single source of income to the charity sector depending on how you split things up, which is pretty interesting, because it's not hugely transparent and there's not much focus on where that money is coming from or going to. The reason why they do that is split in a couple of parts. Some of that money is given as grants. That might just be the local government wants to support the charities in their area, because they're good for the local community to have a strong community center or a strong youth sports team. Others might be contracts. You people might have heard of the Social Care Crisis and things like that where it's very expensive for local authorities to provide social care to old adults and often, the way that they might choose to do that is they'll contract a charity, either a big national charity or a charity local to that area, and instead of doing that in-house, they'll outsource that to the charity to do that for them.
Maiko Schaffrath 10:31
Okay, got it. And then, how are those governments and charities collaborating in a world where Time to Spare doesn't exist? And then, maybe compare that with the charities and governments you're working with and how they've been able to bring that to another level.
Tom Neill 10:49
Yeah, I think the best example of that is during the pandemic and with the supporting people who are self-isolating. So, when the pandemic hit and a lot of people who are older people or people with compromised immune systems were told that they had to self-isolate or shield for a number of weeks, they were isolated at home, so they weren't able to go shopping or doing prescription pickups from the GP. They were told not to leave their house. And so, what happened was a lot of local governments across the country were basically given the responsibility to support those groups of people. They might have been given a huge list of people who are self-isolating and then, what often they did in the first wave of the pandemic was basically just deliver a food parcel to everyone on that list with the address that they got, and that was pretty much it. I mean, that was a pretty big logistical arrangement to do that, but what happened was a lot of people didn't need the support, because they've managed to book a supermarket delivery, or they didn't need support because their younger relatives had dropped food around. And then, there are some people who got the support, but really, they needed a lot more. They needed some sort of mental health support, or they might have lost their job because they had to self-isolate, which then meant they actually now needed some support getting benefits they're entitled to, and that process of mass delivering to everyone didn't really account for that individual variation in what people needed. And so, what we did in Camden, which is where we worked really closely with the local government there and charities in the area, was I basically set up a system where people could get referred from. They could call up the council and say, "I need help, because I'm self-isolating," and they can be sent to a local charity or a local food bank or a local community center that was offering food, who would then either ask them to collect food if they could send a relative or deliver it to their house. But then, the benefit of that way around was that person could also then talk to that chapter that's supporting them and get extra support from the Citizens Advice Bureau nearby or from all the other programs that these community centers run. And the local government got data at each stage of the process, so they could see this person was being sent for referral. Where did they go to? Was that referral accepted? Could that organization support or not support that person? And what extra needs did that person have? They could see all of that in one place, which meant that they could plan a bit better how to deal with the situation. There's a really interesting bit in Camden, where the congestion charge played havoc with volunteer drivers, because they couldn't easily claim back expenses for delivering food to an area within the congestion charge zone. And because of Camden using Time to Spare, they could see that that area of Camden had a clear gap in delivery coverage. And so, they brought in five different reasons that have caused that risk, because that got around the congestion charge problem. I don't know how easy it would have been otherwise.
Maiko Schaffrath 14:07
So, you're solving a data transparency problem as well and connecting different interfaces of information as well where the government has certain information but also lacks insights on certain things. For example, its citizens that need certain help, but that information doesn't get actually connected to the government, and then you connect that information back to the charities and what are they actually doing and how are they actually delivering. That seems quite a complex problem to solve in terms of collecting that data and making it visible and also connecting the different actors to each other. It almost seems like the charities would all need to be using your platform, the government needs to use it, maybe the individual citizens need to use it, which seems quite a big challenge. So, how does it work in practice to bring this, deliver this value?
Tom Neill 15:03
Yeah, I mean, it is definitely a big challenge. I think, in practice, what happens is charities can use parts of the platform or all of the platform. It's up to them. Some of the charities we have use it for almost everything that they do within the organization, everything from managing a youth club to accepting referrals to a food bank. Other charities might just use it for one or two things, so they might use it just for, yeah, accepting referrals for people who need food who are self-isolating, or they might just use it for requesting volunteers from a central pool of volunteers which is a much lower touch way of using it. So, yeah, I think it does vary. And then, on the government side, because our main focus is on getting it useful and used by the charities, the government tends to be slightly more of like a consumer of the information rather than needing to completely overhaul their internal systems, so it's slightly less effort for those people, I suppose.
Maiko Schaffrath 16:10
Alright. That's very interesting. And then, outside of the pandemic, what are other potential use cases where this can be used at scale if, let's say day-to-day, local government councils have tasks that they need to complete that you're helping them with?
Tom Neill 16:29
Yeah, I think it's basically anything which the local government wants to outsource into the community. I think people tend to really not talk to the council unless there's something seriously wrong. So, you go to the council when you're in crisis. You don't go to the council when you want to join the local board games evening. That doesn't really match up. But actually, those things are really beneficial to people in terms of preventing them from ending up in that crisis position. So, if there's local community centers that you can go to and meet people, then people aren't as lonely and they're more connected and they're the first response to any of their developing issues. Gradually, I think it can be pretty broad in terms of the way it applies, because it could be anything that supports a community activity by any charity in the area. And so, a lot of the work we've done up in the past couple of years has been just making it as flexible as possible, so that it can cover all of those different potential use cases, basically.
Maiko Schaffrath 17:38
Got it. Basically, you have a referral product as well where local governments then can actually help the citizens as they come to them to the right charities and then you keep track of the progress. Is that right?
Tom Neill 17:55
Yeah. So, it can be really difficult to find out information about what local charities are doing, just because there's no good central source of that. You can Google around for things, but you have to dive into the 10th or 11th page to find all the information. And even for people within the charity sector or within local government, they don't know, so it's kind of hard for a local resident to know these things. So, yeah, what we do is try and pull all of that information together and get people accepting referrals through the same platform, the same format, and get pieces of information. That could be things like, it could be food, like I said earlier, or it could be for legal advice cases. So, if someone needs support with accessing benefits, or someone has a dispute with their landlord that they need help with, but just don't know where to go, there's always the Local Systems Advice Bureau, but they might not always be the best location for that sort of request for support. So, we just basically have a little matching algorithm that matches a referral to the best suited local organization.
Maiko Schaffrath 19:07
Got it. One thing I'd like to focus on in the next few minutes is some of the lessons you've learned throughout your journey. Obviously, you're still on your journey, but you've already come a long way since you started Time to Spare. I think one pattern I've seen when I've interviewed intrapreneurs, even impact entrepreneurs, let alone just startup founders in general, they try to stay away from governments and charities in the early days of starting their companies, because it means usually long sales cycles, long decision-making cycles, sometimes actually quite limited budgets, and it's all the things that scares a founder. Obviously, you've embraced both these segments. What have you cracked that others weren't able to crack? What has been difficult about it maybe as well? Let's start with that. How did you approach all that of going into two very difficult sectors, at least based on what most entrepreneurs would say?
Tom Neill 20:17
No, I don't think I'd disagree that they're more difficult. I think the main one by far is just the amount of time it takes to make the initial decision. The thing that we have been surprised over and over again by is, we might email a charity, saying, "We've got this tool. It works like this. This other charity that we know you know that is using it and they recommended that we speak to you," and then we won't get a reply. And then, four or five months later, without a follow-up, we'll just get an email out the blue saying, "This sounds brilliant. We'd love to try it. When can we get signed up? " I don't think that happens in other industries where it's just because you've got that three- or four-month waiting period while people are going through their inboxes. Yeah, there's a lot of people at charities who work part-time. They don't work five days a week. There's a lot of charities who don't make big decisions without running it past their Board of Trustees, because that's how the governance of charities works, and that might only meet every three months. So, if you get involved at the wrong part of that cycle, you're not going to hear a yes or no for three months' time, which is kind of frustrating if you're trying to move as quickly as possible. I think our government is exactly the same. There's a tender process for some things. There's just- from first meeting, organizations and government, the process of getting budget, taking it to Cabinet with little writing proposals to take to Cabinet, so the local equivalent of the National Cabinet. It all takes time. It all takes multiple months for every new sale, I suppose. I think what we have found, which is pretty interesting and probably what a lot of people would expect, is that with government, there's a very long process to get trusted the first time around, but there is definitely the case that usually once you are in the door and you've crossed that threshold in terms of all the regulatory requirements but also just evidence that you know how to work with public sector, it's a lot quicker from then on. We've had situations where the first time took six months, and then the add-on piece of work took a week or less, which is pretty good.
Maiko Schaffrath 22:55
There's mostly also more loyalty then once they're actually working with you. They tend to stick around a bit longer than maybe a private company that will constantly shop around or change. I think there may be a bit more loyalty as well, isn't it?
Tom Neill 23:11
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I guess we'll have to find out. The cool thing about what we're doing is we can start working with the charities in an area first while the local government is still making up their mind. We can get going. We don't have to wait for the green light within the council to get going working with the local charities, which speeds up things.
Maiko Schaffrath 23:42
Got it. And once you have those charities on board, the government can tap into that straightaway, pretty much. That's great. Yeah, amazing. What I'd love to know next on that topic is, what has been the biggest driver for you to go through this difficulty? I think whatever startup you're starting, it's going to be difficult. There's going to be something really tricky about it, because otherwise, plenty of other people would have done it and succeeded. You're in an area that seems to be perceived as even more difficult than a lot of other areas. Has it been just your focus on the mission to really, "I really want to see this work," and there's a real problem that has pushed you through this difficulty? Or has it been something different? How did you actually push through it? I'd be keen to know that.
Tom Neill 24:46
I think the main source of motivation really is a lot of the organizations, especially the charities that we work with, are really quite underserved by software tools in general. If you go and work in advertising tech, you will have 150 competing tech products. They're all vaguely similar. But in the charity sector, often we'll do something, and it's one. It's probably the only example of that particular product or that particular feature that charities can actually use, which is pretty cool. The result of that is that we go into charities and show them the system we've got, and we get extremely positive feedback from people very quickly, and the work they're doing is really cool. You go to a local community center and their activities they're putting on for people, the support they're providing to people who just have no other way of getting that support is really inspiring, and just being around that and being able to help out with that, in some way, is extremely motivating. Whenever it feels like a bit of a slog, we just go over to one of the community centers and chat to them, and it extremely turns around very quickly.
Maiko Schaffrath 26:18
Was it always clear to you that there's going to be a sustainable commercial model around this as well? Or is this something that you had to figure out over time? Or did you consider running it as a nonprofit model as well? I'd be keen to understand how you actually arrived at your current model.
Tom Neill 26:38
Yeah, I mean, I think the sustainable business model and the scalable business model is something that we're always slightly working on and iterating on. It's kind of been our belief that once this information about charities exists in an easily understandable way, there will be ways that we can convert that into a much more scalable business model, and we're finding small parts of that as we go. We considered setting up as a nonprofit. I wrote a big blog post about why we didn't. I think mostly, the fact that we don't quite know where we're going all the time is quite tricky for a nonprofit with that sort of three-month Board of Trustees governance structure and having to write your purposes to the Charity Commission. And also, knowing that everyone takes a long time to make decisions, we probably needed to raise some capital initially and throughout the journey, which you obviously can't do very easily as a nonprofit. So, those are the two main considerations. But yeah, I think, we've definitely shown that there is a sustainable business model in what we're doing, but finding things to build on top of that is always what we're working on.
Maiko Schaffrath 27:56
Is there other actors trying to push into that space and creating solutions? I've also seen a blog post you wrote on "Big tech won't solve governance problems." Is there any solutions coming from those or big tech won't solve the voluntary sector, I think you wrote? Is there other solutions being created? Is there a lot of competition? Or does it seem like a lot of companies as trying to stay away from it?
Tom Neill 28:25
Yeah, the "Big tech won't save the voluntary sector" was because one of the former, I think he was on the Monetary Policy Committee for the Bank of England, Andy Haldane was talking about how there's not enough tech infrastructure for the voluntary sector, especially around volunteering, which I think became really, really apparent with the volunteering over the pandemic. He was suggesting that maybe Google or Facebook or Amazon or something should step in to build a volunteer platform for the whole country, and they should do it as a CSR project, essentially. They haven't done that, and I don't think they will do that, and I don't think we really want them to. So, yeah, they haven't stepped in. There are other organizations and other companies, other charities even, working on similar things to what we're doing. I think, especially if you break up what we're doing into some of the constituent parts, there are people who are doing individual pieces of that fairly well. I think some of them are quite old. They've been around for 20 years, and it does kind of tell. But yeah, I don't think it's completely ignored, but it definitely doesn't have quite as much attention as it should get for what is quite a big part of government spending and the economy as a whole.
Maiko Schaffrath 29:49
Got it. And then, for founders that are in your position, let's imagine somebody that's currently at Oliver Wyman and is thinking about selling to government or they are seeing a solution that government may be benefiting from or they see a solution that charities could benefit from, what would your biggest advice be for the early days of making that happen and bringing a startup off the ground that sells to government or charities, or has to partner with them and depends on those sales cycles?
Tom Neill 30:23
Yeah, so I think if you are trying to sell to government and you don't have those pre-existing connections to people who work in government already, I think, really, the only way you can do it, or at least the way we managed to do it, was to do something on the cheap. So, we signed this extremely small but very flexible contract with a council in London where they gave us a small amount of money and told us just to go and do something that the local charity sector would find useful. And so, we, two of us, basically worked full-time for 12 months addressing that problem and came back with something which was useful by that point, and the counselors got it for not much money, so they're extremely happy with us which was really helpful, because I think, especially within government, there's this big desire to buy the proven-tested version of a system. So, if you try and sell something for quite a lot of money to people you don't know that no one else has tested or used, I don't think you'll have much success. But now, when we're talking to people, we can say, "We've got this system. We built it. We've tested it in this area, and it does work to solve some of these problems," so it's a much easier conversation to have, basically.
Maiko Schaffrath 31:49
Yeah. Do you feel like reference clients, obviously, it will always make sense for most startups to have a reference customer and trials and things like that, but do you feel it works well for local governments as well where you go from council to council and say, "Hey, your neighboring council is already using us. How about you"? Is that working really well for you?
Tom Neill 32:10
Yeah, I mean, we do exactly that. We have exactly that conversation with people. If I have a map on Figma of all of the London boroughs of where we do work and don't and try to color them in all green. So, we do have the conversations where we say, "The council just over the border that you are semi-competing with are using the system, and it's going well. Do you want to try it out?" That works informally, but if people don't know much about government procurement, there's a lot of different ways that governments can buy things, and one of them is on an open tender where they announce to the world that they're about to pay for something, and then those have explicit evaluation frameworks attached to them. So, a certain percentage of it will be judged based on price. A certain percentage of it will be based just on quality. And often, the quality score, at least some part of that, will just be, "Have you done these kinds of projects with other parts of government?" So, if you don't have something to put in that box, you'll get zero marks on that score. And sometimes, there's a hard limit, where if you don't have example of that, you're just simply not considered for that project. So, I think there's sometimes very formal reasons why it's extremely helpful in saying the government.
Maiko Schaffrath 33:38
Amazing. Throughout the time that you've run Time to Spare now, I think you've been running it for more than two years, almost three years now, what's been the hardest challenge you had to resolve or the hardest, most difficult part you had to learn?
Tom Neill 33:55
I think it was probably the experience at the start of the pandemic when, up to then, we'd been working with charities helping them record information about their events in person, and a lot of the events were for older people, so it was drop-in centers for old people which, for extremely obvious reasons, had to completely shut down during the pandemic and have really only opened up in the past two months or so. So, we had to basically completely change what we were doing as a business for that year and basically build two new products on top of what we had already within those six months to keep the business afloat, because there was just not anyone who was going to use or be interested in what we had up to that point, which was a big challenge, lots of long days and late nights, but pretty satisfying because we did actually manage to keep growing despite that which was pretty good, we thought so. That was cool.
Maiko Schaffrath 34:59
Yeah, and you already mentioned how you were able to help councils during the pandemic as well, but I think it's probably just one of the examples of businesses pivoting and changing their models faced with the pandemic, which is great to hear. My last question for you would be, if you imagine the world in 10 years, maybe the world of charities and council, corporation, or government in a broader sense, how does the world look like in 10 years if Time to Spare succeeds in your mission?
Tom Neill 35:30
So, I think the big change would be that the way that councils decide to spend money is more determined by the communities and people in their area and not just councils but also central government. At the moment, often, a council will make a decision and then they'll find out who to give that money to off the back of that. What would be really cool is if, instead, it is people saying, it's more easy to say, "These are the people that need support. These are the support that that is needed, and we therefore think that you should fund that in some way," and the impetus and the drive for some of that funding in that commissioning is coming more bottom-up rather than driven top-down from the central government, isn't it?
Maiko Schaffrath 36:21
Amazing. Tom, thanks very much for sharing your journey with us, explaining what you're already doing with councils and charities alike at the moment, and I really love your vision for the future. So, thanks so much for taking the time and all the best for the future.
Tom Neill 36:38