Goodbye Nicola! A ‘few’ words on three years spent developing a start-up social enterprise

Our Business Development Officer, Nicola Donnelly, leaves us this week after three years at The Circle. She is moving on to a new role at Carolina House Trust as Marketing and Recruitment Officer. Before she left, we grabbed a ‘few’ words about her time at The Circle and what she has learned.

The first time Kirsty gave me a tour of the building that became The Circle, I was more than a little wary. It was huge, dark and very, very empty. What did compel me, was the potential. And Kirsty’s vision. To turn such a sad, sprawling centre of redundant employment training into a buoyant, bustling and productive hub for the community. The particulars changed as we tried and tested different services that would lead us to the goal but enabling people and organisations to thrive remained at the centre of our endeavors.

In August 2016 I was the only employee of The Circle. As Facilities and Services Development Manager, my first job was to secure and retain tenants of the buildings while a lengthy lease negotiation progressed. The phrases Licence to Occupy, due diligence and Fixed Electrical Testing became part of my everyday vocabulary. Making The Circle operate safely, within the law and with tenants who were happy and secure was my first concern.

As we got to grips with managing a building of considerable size, we were also building the profile of The Circle. Branding, a website, events, networking and typical business development and awareness-raising activities grew and soon we were offering the space for events bookings. The day-to-day efforts would include administration, social media scheduling, running events, providing tea and coffee for clients, rearranging rooms for bookings, liaising with tradesmen and facilitating the arrival of new tenants.

There was a lot to do, no limit to what was possible really and there were signs that it was working. New tenants were coming on board, bookings were coming in and Kirsty was attracting visitors to form key partnerships and income opportunities. Cornerstone, Food Train, Lumilo, The Story Edge, Ashton McGill and Prestige Training moved in. I worked alongside ACK, who welcomed me and supported me becoming friends and trusted colleagues.

Just as Togs, Uppertunity and Better:Gen were moving in, I went to London for a holiday. While I was there, I delivered my son, Leo, 14 weeks early. At that point, I made a stage exit from The Circle and started maternity leave shell-shocked. Without a handover or plan in place for my leave, Kirsty carried on and Paul Hastie joined as Manager. While I was away The Circle team co-opted ACK’s Jenny, Jennifer and Alice. After one year, I returned part-time as Business Development Officer and joined a larger team and The Circle had changed enormously.

Since coming back 15 months ago the building has mostly been at capacity for tenants, been steady with room bookings and seen seven new members of staff join the team with two coming over from ACK. We have absorbed a Consultancy Service from ACK and launched two more services, The Circle Café and The Circle Academy. I leave The Circle as a Living Wage Employer of 12 people, a landlord for 16 tenants and as always, intended, a hub of productivity. Together with our tenants we are addressing employability, poverty, inclusion, advocacy and opportunity. I know where the ambitions for The Circle lie and the organisation is well on its way to creating a national movement for taking a ‘More Than Profit’ approach to business that works for everyone in society.

My own personal circumstances have changed enormously since joining The Circle and the next stage of my career needs to reflect that. I am looking forward to a new role, but I am glad that I had the opportunity to be part of an ambitious start-up social enterprise and I look forward to being part of its community.

My highlight: The Courier Business Awards 2018 – The Circle won Social Impact Business of the Year. A great opportunity to celebrate recognition for a fantastic team.

My low point: Seeing the abandoned workshops left behind by the Claverhouse Group and some of the toolboxes that had been left behind by people who had such a sad end to their careers. A warning to be heeded about relying on a single funding source, resilience planning and overhead management.

My lessons:

  • Never make assumptions about a visitor’s purpose or value. Each enquiry is valid and each visitor is to be made welcome.
  • The capacity of volunteers to deliver above and beyond their roles out of commitment to and love of an organisation is truly humbling.
  • There are dedicated and talented people in our community who work all day long to help those that are often forgotten.
  • Teams are formed in moments of flooding, DIY, moving furniture and stopping every day for lunch at 12 o’clock. The Circle has an amazing team of people, who are often facing their own battles while delivering for the organisation. Each individual cares enormously.
  • Social enterprise can be a force for good in the community which values and rewards the people who support it, or a well-intended project limited by strict definitions, interference by public and support services and fear of failure. Empowered and bold leadership focused on trading, sustainability, accountability and social impact is key.

Some photographs from around the time I first visited.

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