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HILS: innovating for social impact

Creativity is key at Hertfordshire Independent Living Service, joint winner of the If At First You Don’t Succeed Award.

By Kathy Brewis . 22 November 2016

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Hertfordshire Independent Living (HILS) is joint winner of the If At First You Don’t Succeed Award in this year’s Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship / Management Today Real Innovation Awards 2016.


If a crisis is an opportunity in disguise, the disguise was a pretty convincing one. The Letchworth-based meals-on-wheels service, set up in 2007 as Hertfordshire Community Meals, was already struggling with costs and inefficiency when its CEO died suddenly in 2009.


When a catastrophic £250,000 trading deficit was revealed shortly afterwards, it looked like the end. Then in June 2010 a new chief executive was appointed: Sarah Wren MBE. Rather than pull down the shutters, Wren and her team took the bold decision to redesign the meals operation and to develop a social enterprise focused on a more extensive suite of independent living services. By changing the organisation’s structure and gaining charitable status she eliminated the need to pay corporation tax and reduced its business rates.


‘The biggest issue has been how to meet growing need with reducing resources, but we’ve found that challenging ourselves has enabled us to become more cost-effective, whilst serving more people with more services and supporting more lives for the better.’


She also believes in transparency. ‘We’ve been completely honest about the way we do business, so when we’ve created a saving we’ve returned that back to the public purse’, says Wren. ‘We’ve gone back and said “This year, we can do it for this much less”. I think that is a very different way of working, so we’ve become a trusted partner. We’ve been extremely creative; we’re always thinking of new ways of doing things.”


The appetite for HILS has never been keener, it appears: HILS now delivers 500,000 meals a year to 4,000 people and has branched out into a range of additional services, from lunch clubs and nutrition and wellbeing checks to installing telecare emergency alarm systems (this latter at one-sixth of the previous local authority budget) supporting a further 7000 people. ‘It just makes sense – we do good, and we do it better and cheaper too’, she says.


HILS’ success bucks the national trend of diminishing community meals-on-wheels services and it is now a widely studied leader in its field. Wren advocates having a clear goal for what you want to accomplish, the determination to achieve it despite setbacks, and the willingness to work closely with other organisations and businesses who aspire to make a real social impact.


Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and Academic Director, Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, says HILS impressed the RIA judges with its refusal to give up in the face of difficulty and its rapidly evolving success.


“This is an organisation that was on the brink of failure, through a difficult set of circumstances. And yet it didn’t just haul its way back to viability, it even created a new and better business model along the way. The people behind this turnaround were highly tenacious and showed great personal resilience.”

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