Interview: Arvinda Gohil

The chief executive of Emmaus UK banks on a social enterprise model for developing the homelessness charity

Arvinda Gohil
Arvinda Gohil

Arvinda Gohil, chief executive of Emmaus UK, has a clear vision for the 36 homelessness charities that form the Emmaus movement in this country: it involves leaving the traditional charitable funding model behind and moving towards the brave new world of social enterprise.

"We want to move away from a reliance on major donations and large grants," she says. "It takes a long time to raise the money and you never get as much as you need. Too many people are chasing too little money.

"If you have a model that says 'in a few years we will be able to start paying back the money', you're more attractive. You can access the money much more quickly. And now there are people providing the sort of finance we need to do that."

Gohil plans to create a new subsidiary of Emmaus UK that will attract a mixture of grant and loan finance, and use that money for start-up funds to create new members of the movement. She thinks the new model will make the movement completely self-sustaining.

Registered charities

Despite the dissatisfaction with the traditional charitable model of funding, the new organisations will be registered charities, allowing them to attract tax advantages along with the requirement to demonstrate a public benefit.

The Emmaus movement was established by a priest in France in 1949 and is named after the ancient town near Jerusalem where, in the Bible, two followers of Jesus saw him resurrected and regained hope.

Each existing member of the UK umbrella body is a separate charity responsible for a 'community' of workers. A fully established member organisation has an income of about £500,000 a year and houses 25 or so 'companions', who either have been homeless or were at risk of becoming homeless.

Companions live in community housing and work full time recycling furniture and selling it to people on low incomes.

Gohil says: "The movement gives companions experience and empowerment. It gives them value in their lives and re-engages them in a meaningful way with work."

At present, 22 member charities are self-sustaining or produce a surplus, and another 14 are working towards that. The ambition is for the movement to grow from 500 companions to 750 and to increase its annual turnover from £10m to about £15m.

Umbrella body

For the first time, Gohil says, all Emmaus charities in the UK are now members of the umbrella body, and all have signed up to the same strategy. Her aim, she says, is to have "an Emmaus in every single major conurbation where there is a demand, and where no one else is already providing a similar service".

The plans for a new subsidiary to lend money to fund new members are far from finalised, but it is likely to work on a 'patient capital' model, whereby organisations commit to repaying any money they borrow in full, but only once they are well established and making surpluses. Emmaus hopes to attract investors who will bear much of the risk of the loans themselves.

"For the moment, we don't expect we'll want to move away from grant funding completely," Gohil says. "But more money will come from social investors. We're looking at whether we qualify as a social investment intermediary and can take funding from Big Society Capital."

Already, some major charitable foundations have shown interest in funding this model, she says. "Many of the major trusts have social finance arms," Gohil says. "Major trusts don't want to give money to people year after year. If you can find a way to recycle money through a movement like ours, that makes sense."

Gohil says that having to repay money will also focus each organisation more keenly on whether it is as efficient as it can be. "The idea that you might have to pay the money back makes you think harder about what you're trying to achieve, and what options that gives you. If there's a constant reliance on grants, sometimes you don't think too hard about what the best way is."

But she says the movement is keen to ensure any growth is based on solid principles. "We will also need to build capacity and make sure we have strong staff to support companions coming into communities," she says. "We can't grow faster than we can train people. We want our expansion to be continuous and incremental. We want steady, solid, sustainable growth."

- See Editorial


2011: Chief executive, Emmaus UK
2007: Founder, Gohil Consulting
2003: Director of membership and regions, National Housing Federation
2000: Assistant director, Housing Corporation

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