How can social organisations thrive without affordable space? Meet the organisation squaring the Circle

Dundee is one of the local areas where UnLtd will be offering funding and support over the next three years.

In addition, we are working with the Local Trust in 19 further areas that span a wide range of communities, including rural areas, new towns, market towns, suburbs and cities.

"If The Circle didn’t exist we’d have organisations who were just surviving and getting by," says Kirsty Thomson.

"We don’t want them to just get by - we want them to develop. We want them to take their enterprise on to the next level."

The founder and Chief Executive of The Circle in Dundee is in no doubt that despite being in its infancy, her organisation is making a real difference in the community.

“People are using the space because it's accessible and affordable and there's a real sense of community developing here,” she adds.

The Circle is home to 18 tenants - a vibrant mix of businesses, charities and social enterprises of all sizes. It also holds events for the community, including health and wellness fairs, business development sessions, mother and baby classes and a GP surgery.

But it took no little vision on Kirsty’s part to get The Circle to where it is today. Having worked in the third sector for over two decades, she’s experienced countless organisations struggling with overheads and expensive, unsuitable workspace. In 2015 she visited the former skills centre in the north of Dundee with a client looking to open a new premises. Her client didn’t take to the uninspiring 1970s office block, but Kirsty saw potential and after two years of negotiations, she signed over the lease for the property in April 2017.

Now, it offers affordable, flexible business space for organisations big and small; everything from national charities to new one-person start-ups.

“We really see ourselves as a hub in the community of Dundee and we're used for a range of reasons by a range of different people,” she says.  

“I set up a consultancy some years ago and time and time again my clients would have the same issues. They’d be looking for affordable accommodation and places to meet, or sometimes they had taken on more than they actually needed - they perhaps had a board room or meeting room which was only getting used once or twice a year. It was costing them more to have premises and they didn't need the space they were in.”

Social venture The Circle, based in Dundee hosts an event for other social entrepreneurs

The Circle is a facility where people can rent office space and only pay for board rooms and meeting space when they need it. What’s more, the building brings together like-minded people and organisations who can share resources - everything to from expertise, ideas and strategies, to tangible things like volunteers and equipment. There are regular social events to strengthen relationships between the organisations and help drive the future sustainability of The Circle.

The approach is already showing encouraging results. Some 300 people a week are accessing The Circle’s various services and there is a waiting list for office space. The finances also look healthy - 95% of their income comes from trading and just is 5% from grants.

The businesses which call The Circle home are seeing positive results too. One man who was working from home and relocated to The Circle has now won a year-long contract with an organisation in Australia.

“He put that down to fact he has a dedicated office,” says Kirsty. “It's allowed him to make more professional contacts and he's able to make much more of an impact.”

Supporting groups of social entrepreneurs working in their local areas to build a movement of people doing social good is one of the driving aims of our work in communities.

Another tenant at the Circle - a social enterprise working working across 20 community centres in Dundee delivering activities for adults with learning difficulties - has seen similarly positive results. Staff can now deliver some events from their own base at The Circle, allowing more time for planning. The organisation has since secured several thousand pounds worth of work, taken on staff and is able to pay rent for a year.

UnLtd social entrepreneur, the Circle, hosting a social investment Scotland event

Kirsty says she hopes the organisations currently using The Circle soon outgrow the facility.

“We don't expect people to be with us forever, we want to give them a foot up,” she says.

“I think that's important, to take that first step and invest in someone that has an idea but maybe needs some support around the business side of things.”

When people from different backgrounds come together to make something then inspiring things happen, according to Pam Hardisty, UnLtd’s head of community entrepreneurship. She explained: “There’s a real power in bringing together people under one roof. Places like The Circle are at the heart of what we’re doing with our resilient communities work, supporting people with big ideas to solve social problems. But more than that, by creating eco-systmes of creativity and innovation we can start to build bigger ideas and develop proper communities of people dedicated to social change. It’s really exciting work, and a great way to foster innovation in places.”

There are plenty of plans for the future, too. The team behind The Circle want to buy the property, creating a genuine community asset. In the short term, there’s plenty to do to modernise the building to make it cheaper and cleaner to run and more visually attractive to businesses and the wider community.

But Kirsty’s dream is for every city in the UK to have its own Circle.  “For me, about doing things differently, because these spaces do exist,” she says.

“It’s a case of identifying the needs of the community, looking for the assets and making good use of them. This building was lying derelict and the difference we're already starting to have both on the physical space and the community within two years is brilliant.”

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