Spark Inside: Believing In The Potential Of Young People Leaving Prison

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Baillie Aaron, founder & CEO of the innovative charity Spark Inside talks about constant pivoting, tips for running an effective charity, and what led her to work in prison.

Describe Spark Inside in 50 or less words.

With a 70% reoffending rate for youth leaving prison, it’s time for a change. Spark Inside is an innovative charity using professional life coaching to facilitate a more rehabilitative prison culture for young people leaving prison and prison officers.

Why did you decide to pursue your own dreams rather than someone else’s?

Because I saw a serious problem – untapped, latent potential of young people in prison, which is a broken system with a static reoffending rate – and I had a solution, based on behavioural sciences, that no-one else was trying.

Therefore, I felt I had to act. I knew I could help make a big difference. As the saying goes, if not me, then who? Also – I love starting new organizations!

In 7 years from now: How did your startup change the world?

Spark Inside is already transforming prison culture and supporting young people leaving prison to have more fulfilling, productive futures – which has a strong ripple effect. In 7 years, we’ll have shared our coaching model with other people effecting change in prisons and beyond (e.g., ex-military/care) all over the world, so that they can apply the same best practice to create even more of an impact. We’ll continue innovating, coming up with solutions to problems, testing and refining new models, and then sharing.

In what ways do you measure your success and how do you make sure you don’t lose track?

It is critical for us to know that what we’re doing is effective, because we’re impacting the lives of vulnerable people – and if what we’re doing isn’t working, we could actually cause harm. So we invest a lot in our impact measurement. First, we independently evaluate all of our programs using quantitative and qualitative data, in accordance with our Theory of Change. At the end of the day, our success is our clients’ success. Second, we have a comprehensive monitoring framework by which we measure our internal indicators of success. Third, we regularly check in with clients, coaches and other staff to hear their thoughts and ideas on how we can improve our service provision.

Describe your typical working day from coming to the office to leaving it.

There’s no typical working day – why I love my job. However, my weeks tend to consist of: strategy/visioning; supporting my team; meeting potential partners, funders or other stakeholders; reviewing policy news; networking; writing my book (manualising our programs to opensource them); public speaking; mentoring; and coaching/training. And – of course – admin. Plus the occasional prison visit.

Already pivoted? Did customers use the life coaching service like you imagined it in the beginning?

Has our model changed? Of course! We’re constantly pivoting, experimenting, testing, adapting, and learning. I don’t know anyone whose original business plan matched the finished version. We’ve built on our original life coaching program for young people leaving prison – which was more popular than we’d conservatively expected – and now have a new systems coaching program working with Prison Officers and prisoners together. We’re always observing the unmet needs and how we might be able to help address them, either in our existing programs or through new interventions.

Bootstrapped or financed: What fuels your startup now and what will in the future?

As a charity, we are always driven to be efficient in our use of public funding (and it’s not like it’s easy to obtain!). We’re currently financed through earned revenue from the government/prisons/prison-based companies (e.g., commissioned contracts), grants and philanthropy. We are investigating social impact bonds as a potential future funding source.

With ferocious competition and a booming trend to build new companies: How do you make sure you don’t get lost in the shuffle?

Competition in the charity sector is different from the corporate sector. Ideally, charities should want to put themselves out of business, because there isn’t a need for their services. We seek to partner with similar agencies; at the end of the day, there are more clients (young people in prison, in our case) than we can collectively support.

To stand out from the crowd, I would suggest you need to know your USP; deliver a clear and consistent message; be seen (attend networking events); rigorously test your model; and deliver an excellent service.

What do you look for in team members?

What I’ve learned the hard way is that skills can be learned, but values don’t change. We look for people that share our organizational culture and values first; and second, we look for skills – or people that have the capacity to learn the right skills.

I LOVE these questions (a cheat-sheet to our interview questions for anyone resourceful enough to find this article before their interview with us!).

Why would a talent join your team?

Aside from values-alignment and a passion for our cause (both key ingredients), people would join our team for our supportive culture that enables career progression and personal growth (e.g., each staff member has his or her own coach), exciting and meaningful work (we are actively impacting the lives of people leaving prison and the culture within prisons), continual learning (we do monthly lunch n’ learns and regular training on leadership, communication, etc), and an awesome team and CEO (:P). We also have team socials and an annual retreat.

We aim to apply our mission statement for our clients to our staff team as well: to provide a meaningful, fulfilling and productive work environment.

How can people get involved?

The best way is to join our newsletter from our homepage to hear about our latest vacancies (including paid roles and voluntary opportunities) and events.

What help do you need right now?

We’re looking for a patron to champion our work – and our heart is set on Hackney-born Idris Elba. If you can help us pitch to him, I’d be eternally grateful!

What was your most memorable moment so far?

Without a doubt, attending one of our Hero’s Journey workshops inside a prison. This is a coaching workshop about the journey of change, from the ‘known’ world to that which is ‘unknown.’ I participated with our clients, all young men under 25 years old. I realized that while our destinations were all different, our journeys were quite similar; we had similar fears, challenges, and doubts. All of us shared that one critical step we needed to make was to focus less on others’ needs and wishes, and more on ourselves – perhaps not what one would expect to hear from people in prison. Change is a human journey. This was equally memorable as the moment where I was able to witness the delivery of a workshop that just one year prior had been an idea – and to see it work so powerfully!

What advice would you give fellow founders for their startup?

  1. Make sure you’re truly passionate about what you’re doing. Does your vision align with your values, or are you being guided by others’ advice?
  2. Ensure your role fits your strengths and skillsets. If you have a co-founder, make sure you have different strengths.
  3. Set expectations clearly for all team members from the beginning. Expectations are subjective.
  4. At the beginning, find people that are entrepreneurial and will make things happen, regardless, and that are comfortable operating with no structures in place. Then find people who can implement the structures.
  5. Hang out socially with other people in a similar position. We all have the same challenges. It’s helpful to talk to aka commiserate with people going through the same issues.
  6. Find mentors who’ve been there. It’s useful to learn from their failures so you can avoid those – and make your own mistakes 😛
  7. Force yourself to have work-life balance, otherwise you’ll burn out, set a bad example for your team, and … not have a life outside work. And there’s so much else out there. Sometimes it seems that if you don’t finish your to-do list, the world will end. But actually, a couple weeks’ or even months’ delay doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme.
  8. Find AWESOME PEOPLE. Keep them. And remove anyone who doesn’t fit your culture, values, or the role ASAP – they will be liabilities.
  9. Know when it’s time to move on. When your business idea isn’t working – or when you’re not working anymore. Entrepreneurs aren’t always good managers.
  10. Have fun and enjoy the ride! 🙂



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