The Origins of Aspire Oxfordshire

The earliest roots of Aspire can be traced back to the late 1990s, when two Oxford University graduates, Paul Harrod and Mark Richardson, established a door-to-door and catalogue sales business in their hometown of Bristol in 1998, with a social justice goal of offering paid employment to people experiencing homelessness. Many organisations offered information, advice and guidance: Aspire went further and offered jobs. In late 2000, they started work on an ambitious franchise strategy ‘to create 30 outlets by the end of 2003’, forming a new company – the Aspire Group – to lead the operation. With its new administrative headquarters in London, by September 2001 the Aspire Group had opened nine franchises across England, including an Aspire outlet in Oxford, incorporated in August 2001. The leading figure in Oxford at this time was Mark Nightall of the English Churches Housing Group, who was effectively the founder of Aspire in Oxford. These regional outlets distributed catalogues (for gifts and trinkets), delivered orders, and supervised and trained employees who were experiencing homelessness. 

Politicians, funders, and the press were overflowing with praise. The new Rough Sleepers Unit headed by Louise Casey took an interest, the (then) Prime Minister Tony Blair called Aspire’s employees an “inspiration,” and (then) Prince Charles told its founders, “Your track record to date is most impressive.” 

After a while however, it became clear that there were serious problems with Harrod and Richardson’s business model. By summer 2003, the Aspire Group faced a cash flow crisis and by the end of the year it was effectively bankrupt. The collapse of the Aspire Group shocked the social enterprise movement in the UK and inflicted a blow to social enterprise’s credibility as a way to address social issues.

The closure of the national Aspire Group did not however spell the end of its regional outlets. To generate additional income and employment, the franchisees across England had started to establish secondary businesses, including a bicycle repair shop, a window cleaning service, and a furniture manufacturing business. In Oxford, Aspire had already taken a decision to move away from the national Aspire brand and diversified its business activity, first by securing a contract with Oxford City Council to erect the market stalls at Gloucester Green, before investing in establishing a gardening service. It became a registered charity in January 2007, and at around this time Aspire established a partnership with Burford Garden Centre, which was transformational for the organisation. Burford donated some ground to Aspire for use as a training garden, also providing its expertise and support.

Moving to Oxford, Adapting & Expanding

Fast forward to 2011, and Aspire Oxford had moved into the old St Thomas’s School in Osney Lane, which was offered free of charge by Christ Church College. It was a small team composed of only nine or so employees, slowly growing its grounds care services. Nationally, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government had initiated its austerity programme in 2010 to realise huge public spending reductions, resulting in rising unemployment and cuts to local funding across England. This was keenly felt in Oxford over the coming decade as anywhere else across England. In turn, Oxford City Council pulled a significant unrestricted annual grant to Aspire which amounted to approximately 50% of its total annual income, at a time where demand for employment support was increasing. While this funding cut was tapered over a three year period (2012-15) to reduce to zero, it presented an existential threat to Aspire. The message was clear; Aspire needed to adapt to survive or risk closure.

CEO Paul Roberts was appointed to the senior leadership role at Aspire Oxford in 2013-14 following a period as a volunteer fundraiser and then business development manager. Over the coming decade, Roberts - with the support and guidance of the Aspire trustees and senior management team - led a strategic expansion of Aspire Oxfordshire’s activities and income generation. By March 2022 Aspire’s income had increased to £2.87m, employing 73 people and greatly expanding its social impact, to support over 1,800 people a year across Oxfordshire and the wider Thames Valley through its charitable programmes. This went hand in hand with broadening Aspire’s delivery capability into new commissioned service areas, such as in public health, prison leaver rehabilitation, supporting young people and refugee integration. This ran alongside an enterprising and opportunistic approach to social enterprise trading and business development, that saw Aspire undertake everything from community transport to grounds care to inclusive recruitment services, and enabled Aspire to develop its supported housing offer.

Aspire also deliberately stepped up its influencing role in several ways, by: 

  • Investing in developing new prevention services including to support young people;
  • Piloting and expanding evidence based policy interventions such as Housing First;
  • Supporting and incubating new social and community enterprises to grow the community of services helping people in Oxfordshire;
  • Helping to form new partnerships and alliances, such as the Oxfordshire Homeless Movement;
  • Championing the voice of lived experience to inform and improve policy design, including to help establish the Lived Experience Advisory Forum for Oxfordshire

Stepping Up

The pandemic of 2020-22 posed major challenges for Aspire as for all other organisations - and particularly for a charity based on intensive face-to-face support. The Board immediately set up an emergency governance mechanism. After the initial shock, Aspire adapted swiftly to the new conditions by moving its services largely online alongside championing digital inclusion, and also responded to initiatives coming from central Government, such as “Everybody In”, by providing services to support rough sleepers. If anything, Aspire came out of the pandemic stronger than before, providing more services to support people in more ways.

More recently, Aspire Oxfordshire has been sharing its evidence generated by its local charitable programmes with national partners such as the Centre for Homeless Impact and Homeless Link, to encourage ‘system change’ at both a national and local level on how to respond to entrenched, complex challenges such as tackling health and housing inequalities. 

It has been exciting to see some of the initiatives Aspire helped to enable, have matured and cascaded yet further social impact, with the likes of Makespace Oxford, Greater Change, Flo’s: The Place in the Park, Oxfordshire Homeless Movement, the Oxfordshire Inclusive Economy Partnership and the Oxfordshire Social Enterprise Partnership all establishing themselves and enabling a sustained expansion of third sector collaboration and social impact.

A golden thread that has stayed true in Aspire Oxfordshire over all these years, regardless of the activities delivered, has been to pursue a mission to empower people to rebuild their lives and futures, and realise their potential. This mission is underpinned by Aspire’s values, of being ‘Ambitious, Supportive, Person-centred, Inspiring, Reliable and Enterprising’, manifesting itself in how Aspire practises an empowering “hand up, not a hand out” approach, promoting self-confidence, resilience, personal responsibility and positive lifestyles, challenging prejudice and inequality in the process.

Aspire Today

Aspire Oxfordshire has now matured into an enabling organisation with a big heart and an ambitious agenda; in 2023-24, it launched a programme of hopeful, prevention-focused activity to confront broken systems with new and empowering models, to respond to the desperate circumstances and challenges many people in our communities are experiencing as a result of a cost of living crisis, increasing inequality and runaway climate change. 

In these most challenging times, Aspire’s work as an enterprising charity embedded in the Oxfordshire community has never felt more vital. Aspire will continue to champion community-led, innovative and collaborative solutions that can make a real, sustained difference for people in need in Oxfordshire today - and continue to take urgent action to inspire hope for Oxfordshire’s communities. And it will do so by remaining committed to the principles which underpinned its foundation more than two decades ago: to provide support for the most vulnerable to rebuild their lives and reintegrate into the community – as a hand up, not a hand out.