Oxford Today meets Alex McCallion, a recent graduate with a super smart enterprise in the making, Greater Change
Alex McCallion (Jesus, 2014), pictured in the Weston Library in November 2017
With a freshly-minted Economics and Management degree and a sunny smile, Alex McCallion (Jesus College, 2014) exudes the relaxed demeanor of a born entrepreneur, noting that he sold doughnuts at school and once set up an eBay bookshop. The difference with his current venture is that it is Not for Profit, and poised to change the lives of homeless people in a way that feels like a breakthrough for a problem that never, ever seems to go away.
Inevitably there is an App at the heart of the idea, and the venture and the App are called ‘Greater Change’, a pun on McCallion’s quip that by signing up to it, people who are asked for loose change on the streets by the homeless can ‘give without carrying change, but know they’re making one.’
The idea partly reflects the rapid growth of the ‘cashless society’. In a recent survey, 55% of Oxford residents said they no longer walked around with cash at all, just cards. Even if loose coins were what the homeless most needed, they are getting far harder to come by these days.
But loose coins are not what is most needed. McCallion says that hundreds of thousands of pounds are given to beggars in Oxford every single year, some of them professional beggars and others homeless or desperate. The root issue of homelessness never goes away. At pains not to judge the purpose and meaning of any transaction –and having been extensively involved as an undergraduate in homeless outreach he knows who the homeless are as individuals- McCallion nonetheless concludes that this petty cash is not being deployed effectively.
Jumping onto the suspicion expressed by some newspapers, that some homeless people have made a ‘lifestyle choice’ or are somehow stuck in a pattern that has become sustainable to them, partly because of charitable activities in comparatively welcoming cities like Oxford, does McCallion think that the problem of homelessness actually is a problem, that its victims want release from?
‘It’s impossible to generalize. Every homeless person has a different story, but almost everybody who is homeless has experienced really tough times. In my experience it is very rare that there is a desire to be homeless. It is extremely difficult though: imagine not having recent experience of work, no address, no bank account, potentially no documentation – imagine trying to find a job in that situation. I think this system [Greater Change], being able to save for something you need, for example a skills course, work clothes or ID, combined with support from existing organisations around that will hopefully make things more achievable.’
With the Greater Change App that McCallion is currently building, users will be able to identify the homeless person much as currently they might be wearing ID as a registered seller of The Big Issue. Recipients will be registered to the scheme and perhaps be given a QR code on a lanyard, suggests Alex. ‘You could talk to them about their stated financial goal –saving towards a rental deposit or a driving license or a skills training course– and then donate through the app in such a way that the donation is directly tagged to that individual even though it sits in a central bank account.’
The app will also allow people to give quickly and easily to local charities while on the go, he explains, making it a mobile equivalent to something like virginmoneygiving.com.
The setting up of a financial goal will happen between the homeless person and a support worker, and the support worker will, down the line, release the money and supervise spending it.
The project is intensively situated in Oxford, at least for now. McCallion is working with a range of groups already embedded in the problem of homelessless in Oxford, such as Aspire, an award-winning charity and social enterprise focused on enabling homeless people and other disadvantaged groups to find long-term employment. He has a workspace within the Oxford University Innovation Incubator, situated in Botley, and is utilizing the University’s own crowdfunding platform, called Oxreach.
This level of support ensures that the enterprise has a chance, but McCallion is working for free within a tight window of opportunity (‘my overdraft can’t stretch forever’) and the crowdfunding needs to hit the minimum threshold of £22,000 (target: £48,000) by December 10th. The assumption he is working to going forwards, is that no one will be paid more than the Oxford living wage, currently £9.26 per hour.
The day we meet he is excited, because in the first two days of launching the funding he has already raised over £5,000, an auspicious start.
Looking back, he says that there was no specific ‘penny drop’ moment when the idea for the enterprise came together, rather that it was a combination of volunteering and talking to the homeless, and very centrally his undergraduate thesis, which he cites as the academic highlight of his Oxford degree. McCallion stumbled upon the fact that only a tiny proportion of tech startups listed on the AngelList, an index of startup enterprises, were tagged as being ‘charitable’. In today’s numbers, it lists almost 3.5 million different start-up companies, of which fewer than 2,000 are tagged as charitable, the majority of those still for-profit.
In other words Alex alighted on an uncomfortable truth, that the efficiencies and insights of technology just didn’t seem to be washing through the charitable sector in the way that they were sweeping the for-profit sector.
Illuminated by the shimmering halo of Oxfam, founded in Oxford in 1942, and empowered by new technologies scarcely imaginable then, the thorny task at hand is whether this represents a new chapter in tackling a seemingly interminable problem. Alex thinks it does and has already got plans to test the venture in other cities beyond Oxford.
Pictures by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse
Alex McCallion’s undergraduate BA degree in Economics and Management is a relatively recent innovation at Oxford, and the only BA degree taught within the Said Business School. It is not a business studies degree and has no relationship to the MBA programme. It instead studies how the economy and organisations function, and how resources are allocated and coordinated to achieve an organisation’s objectives.