My Startup Story, by Jo Manuel, Director of the Special Yoga Centre.
Through your own experience, what are 5 tips for building a Charity/social enterprise?
1. Let go and let others do their job well
A new venture is like having a baby, you nurture it, you feed it and it is totally dependent on you. Then as the organisation grows you need to start to let go and allow others to be a part of its life and advise and guide it. What I have learned as the leader is that controlling everything does not empower your staff and advisors to be able to do what they are good at doing. Good managers make their staff feel empowered and when people feel empowered they are able to reach their potential and do their best. They may not do things the same way that you might but it doesnt mean that what they are doing or how they are doing it is wrong.
2. Accept you can’t be good at everything and employ people whose strengths are your weaknesses.
I know my strengths and the trick is to find others with the additional skills we need to get to the next step and put them on our board, as advisors and not be afraid to ask for help. My skillset for example is not in financial management and I really don't enjoy spread sheets! I am also not good at creating systems. When I started the charity there was an expectation from my board that I would be able to facilitate systems and financials. What I needed to do and have now done is ask for help. I have taken on a centre manager whose strengths are my weaknesses. I am growing a board of trustees and advisors whose skillset supports me and the organisation.
3. Trust yourself and others and believe in your mission everyday
It is that clarity of mind and purpose that allows people to unite around that. There have been many times in the life of our small charity when we have been struggling financially and this has understandably made the board of trustees very anxious. It was at these times that I had to work very hard not to get caught up in the fear of others that the organisation may not be able to sustain itself, but to be able to remember why I set it up in the first place and all the amazing benefits that the children and their families are getting from our services. It is the passion of the mission that drives me and allows me to galvanise the support of others.
I am extremely grateful towards people who have supported the work over the years and I’m so grateful to work with such wonderful children. I am grateful to all the children that come to the centre to get yoga, as it gives us the opportunity to serve them. When we are in a place of gratitude it absolutely takes you way from all negativity or fear. Doing something you love to do and seeing the difference you make in someone's life makes me feel grateful. In the early days of the centre's existence when we were really struggling financially, some friends got together one evening to brainstorm how best to keep the centre going. By the end of the evening we were holding an auction, by the following lunchtime it was an art auction. Five months later i sat at the first auction that I have ever been to weeping in the corner with gratitude and amazement that so many people had come out to help. We made £65,000 that night and it has become an annual event (the next one is May 15th!). Without all the amazing people that support our work we would not be able to do what we do.
5. Love. Love what you do.
That’s the best thing you can do. It is so easy to get drawn into the administrative processes and forget why you are doing it. I love yoga and I love children. When i have had a week of working 13+ hours a day, am under the pressure to pay the bills, and I come into the centre and meet a parent who tells me how grateful they are that their child has, for the first time in 10 years, slept more than his or her regular 3 hours a night because of the yoga, I am humbled and grateful to be able to make such a difference to these families' lives. It is the passion and love of what i do that drives me, the knowledge that I am making a difference and supporting others to make a difference.
What's your start-up story?
"Ever since I started a yoga practice back in my twenties, having a Yoga Therapy Centre became one of my goals in life. My yoga practice slowly grew into my profession and after training in the US with Sonja Sonar, who specialises in yoga therapy for children with special needs, I had an incredibly strong feeling that this was what I had to do.
Back then there was no Yoga Therapy Centre in the UK offering yoga therapy for children with learning difficulties and special needs and Sonja encouraged me to set up a Centre in London to teach her yoga programme, ‘yoga for the special child’.
It took me a while to pluck up the courage to do it. I had noticed that families couldn’t afford to pay much for yoga therapy so I knew I had to set it up as a charity. (I didn't know anything about social enterprise then).
I also knew I had to do it as I had adopted my second child and it was no longer viable for me to see these special children at home as I had been doing.
I figured that the first thing I needed to do was to find a venue. So I looked around the neighbourhood. It was important to me that I worked near home so I was near my kids and it was important for them to know they were in walking distance from me.
Having found some empty buildings, I identified the owners and wrote to them explaining my mission - I was offered a large empty space for a year. This was a very nerve-wracking stage - I hired lawyers to assist with getting charitable status, and during this time the landlord reneged on his agreement. After losing this space, I had to find two temporary venues to teach from for the first year.
I trudged the streets and spoke to everyone I knew and everyone I didn’t know! Eventually a venue came up that I thought would be perfect. But it was a huge space and I had no business plan and no money. I talked to other yoga studio owners and got some advice but really I had no idea what I was doing. The only thing I did have was absolute faith in the power of yoga to really change the lives of the special children, and that there was a need for a community yoga centre that was able to make yoga available to people who would not otherwise have accessed it. I also had the intention (and still have) that yoga and meditation are very important to the wellbeing, confidence, and development of children and that all children should be able to have the opportunity to access it.
The landlord said to me that if I wanted the space I would have to put up 6 months rent deposit I wondered how this would be possible. Never to be put off however and my faith in meditation bringing clarity of mind, I sat in meditation the following morning and asked the question: ‘Is this place where we should be? Minutes later someone who had offered to help popped into my mind… a phone call and 48 hours later the money was in the bank.
This was an incredible gift and The Special Yoga Centre was born.
There have been many, many challenges along the road since 2005 when we moved into the premises. Financially we’ve never had enough money coming in, the organisation was growing faster than I could manage it, we never have enough staff or volunteers to support the work, although our yoga therapists and yoga teachers were extremely high quality, my ability to manage the growing number of staff we were needing was I believe inadequate, the administrative side of things I struggle with and I have realised I’m not comfortable with managing people or chairing board meetings.
Our biggest challenge this year is finding funding to renovate the new building in West Hampstead we have to move to in August. Our current landlord has decided to convert the Centre's space into flats and offices which is sad but the new place is on the ground floor with full wheel chair access to ultimately it will be a good move.
We have to find £200,000 in less than 6 months so worries like these can keep me up at night.
What kept me going through those times was reminding myself to why we were there. Seeing the difference in the children, hearing gratitude from a neighbour who had used to the yoga centre to heal from serious illness, seeing communities building, parents of special needs making friends and feeling supported… The list goes on.
Today we are treating over 750 children with special needs every weekend and that number keeps increasing. Our training programmes are expanding, and oversubscribed.
We have 27 special schools in Greater London, Gloucestershire, Surrey, Hertfordshire and other parts of the UK using our services. We are moving into larger premises in the summer. We have a business plan!"
For more information contact the team:
a: The Special Yoga Centre | 2a Wrentham Avenue | Kensal Rise | NW10 5QH
t: 020 8968 1900