Baillie Aaron is the Founder of Spark Inside, a London-based organisation taking coaching into prisons to encourage rehabilitation, reduce violence and lower reoffending to ultimately prevent crime and future victims.
Prison isn’t effective at reducing crime, or keeping us – the public – safe. Nearly half of all people leaving prison will commit another crime within one year of being released from prison, and 99% of people who are currently in prison will be released in the future. So, what would we prefer? A system where violence, assaults and self-harm are at record highs, where people are stuck in their cells for 23 hours a day, or a system where people can have the resources they need to turn their lives around? Tackling reoffending benefits everyone: it means there is less crime and fewer victims. It means we all live in a safer society.
What are your key activities towards solving this problem?
Our two coaching programmes use tools and techniques that help transform lives, relationships and environments. Coaching enables individuals and systems to find their own solutions to their own problems. The Conversation is our systems coaching programme that brings together large groups of prison staff and prisoners to enhance their relationships, improve empathy, and support sustained, positive cultural change on prison wings. Hero’s Journey is our structured life coaching programme for young people under 25 in prisons and through-the-gates. It builds young people’s motivation to change their lives and create a crime-free future for themselves and lowers their likelihood of reoffending after release. We are one of the first organisations to bring life coaching to young adults in prison, and to use systems coaching to work with prison officers and prisoners in UK prisons.<
Would you recommend starting a company with a cofounder?
It depends. I’d recommend this option only if you have complementary skillsets (for example, one of you is gifted at sales and business strategy, while the other is an expert at building your product or service). I’d also strongly suggest writing a ‘working together agreement’ in advance of committing to a cofounder relationship, in which you detail your expectations from each other (e.g. time and financial investment, role descriptions, communication) as well as how you will hold each other accountable, and what will happen if either one of you does not fulfil these obligations.
How did you onboard your first 5 customers?
In our case, we have customers (often, prisons) and participants (people living and working in prison). I think the latter is more interesting. Our first five participants were young people, under 18, in young offender institutions. We met with them individually in prison, if possible alongside a member of our Youth Advisory Board (a group of young people who had been directly or indirectly affected by the criminal justice system). We explained to them what coaching was, and how it could benefit them; and then offered them the opportunity to try it out! Since then, Spark Inside has dedicated staff members who go into the prisons where our workshops are running, to engage prospective participants with coaching and our programme. They will take our marketing materials – that were developed with the young people themselves – along with them.
Do you have any numbers on your impact?
Since Spark Inside was founded in 2012, we have worked with over 1,000 prison officers and prisoners, in ten prisons and young offender institutions across London and the South East. We take measuring our impact seriously, so both of our programmes are externally evaluated by specialists in social impact, and are proven to have a positive impact in prison. Our Hero’s Journey programme has been proven to reduce reoffending by one-third (relative to a matched group), and reduce violent adjudications in prison. Our latest evaluation shows we significantly improved young men’s wellbeing; their empathy and emotional intelligence; and their decision-making and problem-solving skills; as well as their confidence and resilience: 72% believed they could overcome whatever challenges they may face in the future. Our evaluation of The Conversation shows an 81% increase in positive prisoner behaviour. Our programme was statistically proven to improve prisoner and prison officer relationships, as well as understanding and empathy. All of our evaluation reports are available to read and download on our website.
How did you find partners that believe in the same ethical standards as you?
I don’t think I’ve cracked this one yet. We try to figure this out in the recruitment process, by asking interview questions that are values-based and following up on any concerns in the references check, which we take verbally. Some of my colleagues are much better at picking up on intolerance or values-misalignment than I am, so I am trying to involve them more closely in the interviews as well. But we don’t always get it right.
What is your proudest moment?
Seeing and hearing about the impact of Spark Inside’s programmes on people who live and work in prison, observing the growth and development of the amazing team that I’m lucky to work with, fills me with joy and pride.
Tell us a bit about your future plans and projects.
We currently have 5 strategic priorities that are shaping our work at Spark Inside. Firstly, innovation: we will be creating and piloting new programmes to meet people in prison’s specific needs and experiences. Secondly, reach: we will be working to reach more people with our coaching programmes, changing lives and continuing to achieve proof of impact. Third is replicability: through developing our social licensing strategy, we want to expand beyond our own delivery by inspiring and enabling other organisations to deliver programmes using our proven coaching model. Fourthly, influence: we want to influence others – parliamentarians, key decision-makers, journalists and the general public, to recognise and value coaching approaches in prisons. Lastly, sustainability: we’re working hard to remain a strong, motivated and sustainable organisation.
What’s the best advice you ever took?
The line that sticks with me is when a mentor told me: “Baillie, the reason you keep succeeding is that you don’t know that what you’re doing is impossible.” Just because some people think that your vision is too bold, too audacious to be feasible – doesn’t mean they are right. The second piece of advice, which I wish I’d listened to much earlier, is if you make the mistake of hiring someone who’s not a value fit – let them go, and do it quickly. When you’re severely understaffed and growing quickly, it may seem that hiring anybody immediately is better than delaying a hire for longer when you’re not sure. But that’s not true.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs when facing adversity?
When times get tough, I draw upon Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model, which Spark Inside uses in our life coaching programme. It offers a framework for change that shows that in order for transformation to happen – and for the ‘hero’ to claim the reward or gift at the end of the journey – things have to get bad, and then worse, before they can become better. In other words, when life throws me a curveball, I know that it’s going to get even more difficult and prepare myself, and what gives me strength and resilience is the knowledge that after this is over, a beautiful transformation will have occurred either within me or in my organisation. I also keep a written record of the compliments and affirmations that have been given to me so that when I’m feeling low, I am reminded of my strengths. And of course – I rely on friends and family!
Who inspires you?
I don’t have a single role model, but there are a few people I look up to. Anand Giridharadas, Bryan Stevenson and Bertrand Piccard are three people I find deeply inspiring as systems changers who are challenging the status quo and making the world a better place. I’m lucky to be inspired by my close friends and family as well, and in particular by my mom.
What’s a book you always recommend and why?
Anything by Patrick Lencioni, a business management author. I love how he weaves his lessons into fictional stories, and then suggests practical, implementable exercises at the end so the reader can embed the skills learned.
What are your top three tips for aspiring social entrepreneurs?
1. Do your market research. Just because you think it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean it is… if you want to have the highest likelihood of succeeding, spend a lot of time with your potential customers, and ask them to refine your idea and then be a part of co-designing it. 2. Invest in your team and building the right culture. If people are underperforming, make sure that you’re giving them clear feedback, directly, and that they’ve understood it; then co-agree a period of time for them to change their behaviour or performance. If they don’t change it, it’s better to end the employment. It’s not kind to anyone to lower your expectations for them, and it certainly doesn’t help the organisation. And a company that sticks with its people when they’re facing times of adversity, and gives them the opportunity to prove themselves, will have loyal staff. 3. Be aware of the unintended consequences of your work. Just because you’re trying to have a positive social impact, doesn’t mean you will – and there may be tertiary effects that you weren’t anticipating. Evaluate your work so that you know if it’s having the intended impact (and not the unintended impact), from the very beginning.
If you’ve used crowdfunding to raise capital, please describe your experience and what others can learn from your journey.
We found this to be a poor investment of our time because our network was limited. It made more sense to make individual asks of our potential donors for large contributions, than smaller asks of more people. Crowdfunding is not right for everyone.