We had the pleasure of interviewing inspiring social entrepreneur, Alex Swallow. With an impressive CV in the social sector, including being the founder of Young Charity Trustees and previously the chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, Alex is assistant editor for Good News Shared and a consultant on a range of topics including leadership, promoting board diversity and empowering young people.
Your experience, LinkedIn profile and website are quite intimidating! Tell us a bit about your background and where your passion for social good came from.
Hmmm I hope not too intimidating! With LinkedIn particularly I tend to throw a lot more onto my profile than most other people do. I find it serves as a record for myself about what I’ve been involved with.
I can’t pinpoint a particular ‘Eureka moment’ in my life when I realised I wanted to try to bring some social good into the world, but I’ve been interested in politics for a long time. It was the main focus of both my degrees and I was a political intern to a couple of MPs. I decided a political life wasn’t for me though, because of all the negativity involved.
I think one of the things that has always motivated me is just knowing how lucky I am. Even when I was at primary school for example, I saw that some of the other children didn’t come from environments that were as stable as mine was. This article explains a little bit about my journey.
As I know I’m lucky, I care about other people having the same opportunities that I did. So for example when I was at university as an undergraduate, I did quite a bit of voluntary work around trying to encourage other young people to apply and trying to get rid of tuition fees.
As someone whose life mission is to encourage social good, what has been your most rewarding experience?
Wow that’s a great question. Firstly though I’d have to challenge you on social good being my life mission. I think my life mission is to overall have a more positive impact on the world than a negative one. Social good is an important part of that, but it’s wider than that. To give one example, I’m not particularly an environmentalist but I know that my existence probably hasn’t helped the planet much (I eat meat, I travel in planes etc) so at some point I’d like to do something to even up the balance a bit.
My most rewarding experience is generally when I get to introduce good people to other good people. I love networking and being a connector. I see people that are more talented than me at certain things all the time. If I introduce them, I know they’ll create magic. All I have to do is make the initial connection and then get well out of the way.
You have founded and lead a number of social initiatives (the Small Charities Coalition, Social Good Six, Young Charity Trustees etc) would you ever call yourself a serial social entrepreneur? What is the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of being an entrepreneur?
That’s a very interesting question. In fact I haven’t until recently even called myself a social entrepreneur, let alone thought of myself as a ‘serial’ one. I thought at first it sounded a bit pretentious, but now I believe it is a good catch-all phrase for the sort of work I’m involved in.
I’d say the most challenging aspect of being an entrepreneur, particularly a social one, is financial. There are a lot of things that people believe in and care about but don’t necessarily want to pay for. I sometimes wish someone could give me a grant (nothing flashy, just enough to live on) and then I could go and get on with all the things I think will make a difference in the world.
The most rewarding aspect for me is probably when I hear from someone I have never met before who say that my ideas/speech/training resonated with them and gave them more confidence to head in the direction they want to travel.
You are currently active in a number of director, founder and owner roles. How do you find balance?
It can be hard sometimes, but I’m a person who doesn’t really believe in ‘balance’.
My ideal working life would be one where I did nothing but work for a week (as long as I was working on something that really appealed to me) and then nothing but chill out for a week after that.
However, to prevent burnout I think there are two crucial things.
The first is to decide what are the core things running through your work and your life which really matter to you. If you can spend a decent amount of time working on those things and you can see the links between them, I think it will really help. A few years ago I looked at my career and at first I couldn’t see what the links were. I’ve worked in several countries, in different sectors and in different areas. However when I really thought about it I could see some key themes emerge. Things like encouraging human potential, allowing people equal access to opportunities and equipping people with the best tools to be able to do something positive with their life.
The second thing, which I am bad at but learning to get better at, is learning to say ‘no’ to opportunities. This is easier once you have decided the core things that matter to you and you can evaluate new opportunities by seeing how they fit into those.
You cover a broad range of topics as part of your consultancy practice such as leadership, promoting board diversity and empowering young people, and you have a huge range of experience across the charity sector and social media. Is there one single driving force or purpose that you feel brings this all together?
I’d say human potential. Not of the ‘get up at 4am and drink a shot of wheatgrass and then you’ll be ready to face the day with power’ variety (though that has its place). More just that I believe that everyone deserves to be able to follow their own path and really find out what they are capable of. Our upbringing, our culture and our society can sometimes have such a narrow conception of the good that people either feel beaten down or corralled into a particular job or situation that may not be best for them.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I’d like to be remembered for making my own small contribution to the world. Being born is such a lucky accident that to me living an average life feels like a waste. An average life to me simply means one where people follow the herd because it is the easier or less painful thing to do. I’ve never been a herd follower.
What’s next for Alex Swallow?
I’m excited about finding some more inspirational people via #SocialGoodSix (please follow the hashtag to find out more) and I am about to experiment with being a bit of a digital nomad and doing some work from abroad. After that, who knows?