School of Hard Knocks

School of Hard Knocks: From starting out to becoming £1 million charity

Ken Cowen, CEO School of Hard KnocksAre you knocking on the door of starting and growing a successful charity? CEO, Ken Cowen from the School of Hard Knocks shared how they found opportunities to mature and thrive, so they can help individuals on the edge find meaning in life through rugby.

We joined Ken at FSI’s ‘In Conversation’ breakfast. He shared that he didn’t intend to start a charity and just wanted to get these guys to play rugby. But six years’ on, the School of Hard Knocks is now a £1 million charity. They got there by making tonnes of mistakes, but they made some decent wins as well. He said:

The difference between success and failure is often paper-thin. It’s important you become mature in every aspect of the charity. We’ve consciously worked hard at maturing and developing.”

He continued, “We kind of cookie cut – we know that we can replicate what we’re doing in any part of the country. We all know where the hot spots are, and that’s where we want to be.”

Ken shares with us how he cookie-cuts his success.

1. Keep the main thing, the main thing

Ken’s the first person to admit that he gets distracted by shiny things, but says it’s important to make sure you’re focused on what your charity is trying to achieve. He explained, “It’s like throwing a stone and the ripples go out. It anchors us: what’s the stone in the middle, and what flows out from that?”

For them, their stone is providing individuals the opportunity to find meaning and purpose in life: using rugby, challenging activities and behavioural psychology. Remembering their vision keeps the School of Hard Knocks focused.

2. Tell a good story

“Telling stories is the best way to fundraise for us” Ken explained, “so we try to tell ours well”. He admits he had to learn the hard way. When the charity first started out, Ken pitched to wealthy donors to take responsibility for helping underprivileged individuals on the verge of exclusion. But “trying to guilt trip people into giving their money doesn’t work”, he said.

Over time, he discovered that telling stories was the best way to get people behind their cause. He said, “It’s that human point of connection, it’s remarkable.”

3. Learn to love the ‘in kind’ support offered by businesses

Ken explained they often had businesses read about them and offer their help. So they would agree, but they didn’t feel particularly helped. He said,

The mistake that we learned was that we weren’t specific in our ask.”

They offered their help, when really we needed their money instead. By being targeted, it’s transformed the way the School of Hard Knocks operate and it’s beginning to have a financial impact.

For example, they’ve had the University of Glasgow research the psychological efficacy of the School of Hard Knocks, which has transformed how they’re able to tell potential sponsors about what they do and why it works. They’ve also had Millharbour Marketing report on their corporate partnerships – how they’re doing, if they did well and if they met their partner’s expectations? Plus they had a team of creatives from Penguin Random House create a playbook for their future fundraising plans.

It’s been game-changing for them. They just had to ask for what they really wanted.

4. Be brave when you speak to corporates

Ken shared how he’s completely changed the way he speaks to corporates. In the early days, his default mentality was to approach corporates with something of a ‘cap in hand’ mindset, but soon learned to speak more courageously as it became clear that supporting charities has a clear business benefit, with, in many cases, a tangible cash return. They’re still humble, but they’re now asserting themselves as a good proposition to them. They’re not asking for a favour, but a partnership.

For example, they discovered that 37% of their database comes from the top two economic groups, compared to 7% of the national average, so they have a very wealthy database. They also try to focus in areas where rugby is a major sport. And through that, they partnered with Heineken who sponsored the European Rugby Cup, which meant that they had a year’s worth of courses paid for so they could set up in Edinburgh. They also co-created some social media content, which just in a few days created 230 million impressions. That’s gold for these organisations.
In Ken’s words, “Just be that little bit braver.” You’re not just asking for something, you’re giving something back.

5. Start your revolution

Ken explained how it’s important for them to be sustainable, so they’re already investing in their future. They’re going to stop trying to find that super fundraising director that can do everything, and instead they’re creating a whole new approach and getting a team together. They’re letting leaders emerge.

They’re also interviewing for their first ever campaign coordinator. They don’t have that regular donation income, and they’ve spotted an opportunity. 2 million people follow rugby, and they just want 5000 of them to give £3 a month, which is £18,000 in Gift Aid alone – which means they can then invest in more fundraising positions.

Ken said, “We’re going to find the people who love us and get us, and that’s the rugby people. We’re currently looking for 100 club ambassadors who are going to be our evangelists and fundraise for us.”

So think about what opportunities there are for your charity. Find the people who love you and get you, and together you’ll change the world.

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