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Depaul UK: a moving social enterprise

Martin Houghton-Brown explains how Depaul UK’s innovative new ‘cardboard box’ business initiative is helping to support young homeless people in Britain


The income of homelessness charities has been hugely challenged recently. The damage to the UK economy has forced local authorities to slash their youth provision and to retract from previous Supporting People commitments. This, along with the changing behaviours in public donations to charity, means that all but the most vulnerable are left with little or no help at all.

Many homelessness charities may, therefore, be looking to cut costs and deliver more for less. Depaul UK, however, believes that the wellbeing of homeless young people shouldn’t be compromised through, say, employing unqualified or inexperienced staff for minimal wages.

Instead of cutting costs, charities should be looking to find new and innovative means of income generation. If the way people spend money is changing, the way we encourage people to contribute money to charity must change too.


The conceptual connection

It was in recognition of this need for a new approach that Depaul consulted with advertising giant and long-term supporter Publicis, who are artistic experts at acquiring income for their clients. Together with its public relations sister company, MSL London, Publicis helped the charity formulate a clear idea: that housing (or the lack thereof) was at the heart of the homelessness issue – and that this gave rise to a remarkably lucrative, and previously untapped, opportunity in the UK’s house-moving market.

In April, Depaul launchedits innovative new ‘cardboard box’ business initiative. The business, which operates as a social enterprise, sells cardboard boxes to house-movers at competitive market rates, but with a little bit of magic that no other box can provide: these boxes not only move your fragile goods, but also help to move young people out of unsafe environments and into a place they can call home.

Young people in England aged 16 to 24 make up the majority of home-movers – yet the number of young people of that same age group who are homeless is tremendous. Our cardboard box business draws a connection between young home-owners and the young homeless, allowing these house-movers to help those of a similar age who are facing terrible challenges.

In terms of marketing, this is a unique and desirable product: we have branded the boxes with clever Depaul artwork, and each box bears the logo of the Depaul Box Company, as well as a short case study of a young homeless person whom the charity has helped in the past – an example of the good that the customer could be doing by purchasing these boxes.

Furthermore, there are short messages written on the box which play on words such as ‘fragile’, ‘keep dry’ and ‘this way up’ – words traditionally associated with cardboard boxes, but which can be applied to the life of a homeless person: vulnerability, the need to keep sheltered from bad weather, and the possibilities of upward social mobility. All this helps to fortify the emotional connection that the purchaser of these boxes should have with the work that Depaul does.


A profitable venture

The profits that can be made from a business that targets this segment of society are significant: according to The English Housing Survey, a total of 3.5m households in the country have either moved house in the last year or will move house in the year ahead. The average house move requires 12 cardboard boxes. The cardboard box market for house-movers is therefore worth millions. Moreover, we’re now seeing predictions of a potential lift in the housing markets in 2013, which should further increase the cardboard box turnover.

Up-for-grabs profits like these should, now more than ever, be capitalised on by charities in order to do something good for society. Charities need to be more eager to identify ways of generating profit, for the sake of income for public benefit; in this case, Depaul UK aims to profit from the lucrative house-moving market in order to give a young person the safe, secure home that he or she deserves.All profits from the business feed back into the charity’s services – safe accommodation, crisis help and long-term support to enrol on studies and find work. Thus, the unfortunate association of cardboard boxes with homeless people is given a whole new meaning. And by meeting a constant and significant demand in the market, the Depaul Box Company promises great things.


Sustainable business

What’s more, the business isn’t just designed to generate income – it also aims to encourage young homeless people to develop their skills and careers. We’re ambitious about the amount of jobs that the Depaul Box Company can generate in the future, in things like logistics and distribution – jobs which can be taken on by the charity’s young service users, 60 per cent of whom are NEET (not in education or training). People who have been helped by the charity to get back on their feet can then in turn lend their services to the business, thus making a valuable contribution to the labour market. The initiative therefore not only generates funds to help the charity get young homeless people off the streets, but also provides long-term opportunities for these people to develop fulfilling and productive careers. With a view ahead, a business like this is self-renewing.

We believe that this box company represents the future of charity trading – allowing people’s everyday actions to generate profits for good causes. The principle of business for charity has, in a way, always been there – whether it be in the form of charity shops, or simply selling badges, Christmas cards or cookies to raise extra funds. We also believe that aside from creating income for social value, there is another important pillar in the future of charity trading – creating employment and long-term rehabilitation opportunities for those who have been denied these so far. Almost every young person we come across in this line of work wants the same things – a home, a family and a job. It is therefore our role to develop innovative initiatives that not only provide help in the form of a ‘hand-out’, but also allow us to take the steps towards making these kinds of aspirations a reality in the long term.


Depaul UK: A brief history

Depaul UK is a nationwide youth homelessness charity that provides and supports over 125,000 bed-nights a year to homeless and vulnerable young people. The charity specialises in working in communities where poverty and long-term unemployment have resulted in generations of social exclusion and high rates of homelessness, and has helped over 50,000 people since it was founded in 1989. Over the years, the charity has gone from strength to strength, with Depaul International formed in 2004 following the expansion and success of Depaul UK.



Martin Houghton-Brown is CEO of youth homelessness charity Depaul UK


This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 29, May 2013

The secret to generating charity income from social enterprise

  • Charities should be looking to find new and innovative means of income generation. Up-for-grabs profits, such as that of the cardboard boxes detailed here, should be capitalised on by charities in order to do something good for society.
  • Any product or service you deliver via your social enterprise should serve to build a strong emotional and practical connection between the people you want to help (your beneficiaries) and the everyday lives of people out there (your customers). People need to see that they could be changing someone’s life at no extra cost to themselves.
  • Make use of all your business connections and partnerships, build on these relationships and consult with them in order to decipher where your product can fit into the market and meet demands. Look to secure support from as many directions as possible.
  • Branding and marketing is key, so think about how you can brand/market your service/product in a way that draws a connection between your customers and your beneficiaries – for example, Depaul’s clever use of wording on its boxes.
  • It’s important to get your message out there through the media. An innovative product, original concept and carefully timed launch date can help you get media attention, ideally across a range of different interest areas, whether it’s social affairs, charity or business (or, in Depaul’s case, property).
  • Aside from the printing press, think of other ways that you can publicise your project and get people talking about it – through social media, by investing in some merchandise materials or engaging with possible stakeholders/commentators/spokespersons.
  • Think big. Consider how your product or service can be sustained in the long term, and how the social enterprise can be mainstreamed, crossing boundaries and eventually becoming a big player in its field.


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