The journey to establishing thirdbridge began in 2006. Rick Benfield was becoming increasingly disillusioned working in the corporate world as a management consultant, and started getting involved in various volunteering activities. In 2007 he met a couple with a big idea, to set up an NGO in Uganda to bring education and employment opportunities to rural communities. He quit his job in 2008 to help launch the organization in Uganda, before moving to Malawi in 2010 to set up a social enterprise.
“Whilst volunteering in the UK, I had a nagging feeling that I wanted to do more. My time in Uganda, and subsequent time in Malawi, confirmed my desire to work with the third sector.”
On his return to the UK, Rick did just that. Utilising the skills he gained in the private sector, he continued to work as a consultant, but exclusively with charities. His focus was on strengthening their operational effectiveness, but he quickly realized the many challenges they faced were exacerbated by the resource constraints they were under, resources that many companies had in abundance.
“I realized that by working with private sector companies, the social and environmental issues that charitable organizations were trying to tackle could be solved much quicker.”
In October 2015, two and a half years after its inception, thirdbridge launched. The organization offers a range of services that aim to make it easy for companies to not just “do good” but also report on it.
Primarily, thirdbridge looks to create more cross-sector connections (a responsible dating service, if you will) by offering a free online platform where companies and charities can connect, with the assistance of an expert team to help find suitable matches.
The platform has additional features to make it easy for companies to involve and engage their employees in their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, and report on the social and environmental impact they are having. Companies pay to use these features, which generates the revenue to sustain the free matching service. In addition, by making it easy to manage, implement and prove the value of CSR, the platform helps to embed the values of CSR into an organization.
“In essence, if we can help companies prove the business value of CSR, then we can move the conversation from one that focuses on it being a cost, to one that focuses on it being an investment,- moving it from a “nice to do” activity to a strategic priority for all companies.”
Funding will always be one of the major challenges that businesses face, especially during the zero to launch zone – and it is no different for thirdbridge. Cash flow is at the forefront of every social entrepreneur’s mind.
“Raising investment is one of the options to deal with cash-flow in the short term, but that’s a full-time job in itself. Working out what the priorities are is a constant challenge.”
Focusing a great deal of time on funding also comes with risk, as nothing is guaranteed. This ties in with what Rick considers to be the biggest challenge – prioritization. There is a continuous and necessary juggling of spending time on free services, including consultancy offered to charities, alongside the requirement to focus on services that drive revenue. He emphasizes this by distinguishing between “doing good” on one hand and “doing good sustainably”.
“On a small scale, doing good is actually the easy bit. It’s how to make the ‘doing good’ part sustainable whilst you scale – that is where the difficulty lies. In other words, generating the revenue to enable you to ‘keep doing good’ is much more difficult than just ‘doing good’ per se.”
Rick recognized early on when establishing thirdbridge, the importance of surrounding yourself with people that have the skills and expertise that you lack.
“I think being a leader is about inspiring others to get behind your vision, to enable it to be achieved…”
He also reflects on the huge commitment he made to the organization in terms of time and energy, and admits that this has been unhealthy at times; to the extent that he was once admitted to hospital due to the long, stressful shifts he was putting in.
“You can’t do everything instantly, and nothing works out exactly as you envisage at the beginning. It’s important to realize those things and not put too much pressure on yourself.”
Rick intends for thirdbridge to expand its reach globally, where its online platform is ultimately geared to serve all markets, regardless of language and location. With the UN stating that sustainable development goals cannot be achieved without private sector intervention, he anticipates that demand will increase globally for their services.
“Ultimately, thirdbridge exists because we believe that businesses are key to solving today’s social and environmental issues.”
3 LESSONS FROM RICK
- ITS A GAME OF PERSISTENCE: Be passionate about what you’re doing, as that is the one ingredient above everything else that will determine whether you will carry on despite setbacks, rejections and difficult periods.
- TEST YOUR IDEAS FIRST: On a small scale to validate there the market exists for what you are offering. It’s easy to operate in a bubble when you have an idea. Belief is important but it must be validated with research.
- NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK: Knowing the right people to turn to for advice, investment, introductions, building awareness, and for marketing (yourself and your organization) is crucial. Rick believes that a hesitation to reach out and expand his network until the launch of thirdbridge set him back some twelve to eighteen months! Building an effective network takes time, which you have less of when you launch. Spend one evening a week dedicated to networking for a solid twelve months before you quit your day job – attend events, get introduced over email, meet over a coffee, get on Skype or Google Hangouts with people – network, network, network!
Find out more about thirdbridge.