Artwork for podcast Be & Think in the House of Trust
The Value of Slowing Down to Scale Up Impact with Helen Chambers
Episode 232nd June 2023 • Be & Think in the House of Trust • Servane Mouazan
00:00:00 00:25:52

Share Episode


In this episode of Be and Think in the House of Trust, I am listening to Helen Chambers, a serial social entrepreneur with over 30 years of experience founding a number of organisations from the award-winning Equality Network to Inspiring Scotland, pioneering venture philanthropy and capacity building organisations. She has overseen the investment of over £250m into responses to alleviate Scotland’s ‘wicked’ issues.

Helen talks to us about investing more time,  and calmness to re-introduce common sense and a moral compass into interventions, keeping our visionary goal in mind, making scaling a reality, and preventing harming institutional and systems memory loss.

Helen reminded us about the importance of creating thinking spaces, considering the long-term impact of social interventions, and emphasizing capacity building for organizations.

With her expertise and mindful approach, Helen showed us that slowing down and giving thought to the way we approach social change and investment is essential for creating meaningful, lasting impact.

Highlights of this episode

[5:00] Some evidence-based models for change made us lose our moral compass

[9:50] People at the margins are tired of being at the end of social


[11:15] “I wish they’d stop giving us money”

[13:35] Don't compare your insides to other people's outsides.

[18:43] We absolutely compound importance and "busy-ness".

[24:37] How to undertake another type of thinking

Useful Links

Chambers Consulting

Inspiring Scotland

Helen on Linkedin

Connect with Servane:



Subscribe to Conscious Innovation updates:


Servane Mouazan 0:00

How do you show up when your life plan is to invest in and amplify a positive social impact? Hi, my name is Servane Mouazan, founder and chief programme officer at Conscious Innovation and only inviting you to drop your code and take a comfy seat in our virtual lounge to Be and Think in the hands of trust a podcast made for and with people who love to invest in social and environmental change. And today I welcome Ellen chambers who is passionate about equity, social justice. And many other things at standard experience in impact investment, and she has been the co-founder and former deputy chief executive of Inspiring Scotland one of the world's largest venture philanthropy organisations and an invested over 250 million pounds focusing on challenges that some of the Scotland's most vulnerable individuals and communities face on a daily basis. And I love Ellen's magic she combines compassion, a strong analytical skill and a fierce desire to demonstrate how we should question some models for change. As they have passed their sell-by date.

Hi, Ellen, hello.

Helen Chambers 1:29

Good morning. It's nice to be here with you.

Servane Mouazan 1:31

Let's dive in. Through Inspiring Scotland. You've applied venture capital principles such as you know long-term investment and tailor development support to the voluntary sector. What have you most learned from your tenure? As a founder and CEO of Inspiring Scotland, in this venture philanthropy journey?

Helen Chambers 1:52

That's a big question and quite hard to distil. But I think one of the things, when you're making social impact, is always to keep the big goal in mind. I think we're working in an environment these days where everything is so rapid tweets, everything is now now now. We're very much in our kind of system, one brain, our reaction brain. And I think that actually, when we're making social change, very rarely is it fast, it can be quite fast. on an individual basis. But on a scale basis, it's not fast. So you need to constantly pull yourself to the big picture, and constantly adjust and trim and without zigzagging yourself all over the place and deflecting yourself, but actually keep that focus on the higher issue. Because there will always be things out there that will try and deflect you in another direction.

Servane Mouazan 2:47

And in practical terms, how are you able to explain that to your ecosystem? Was there any resistance? Not intentionally.

Helen Chambers 2:58

I think that it is actually quite hard to think long-term. We don't have very much practice in it. We do have practice of writing strategic plans that I think longest are three to five years. But actually, if you're looking at social impact, you're probably looking at Horizon that's longer than that. I mean, I think the sweet spot probably realistically, there's about seven years beyond that. Everything is changing so much you're into your magical thinking cap categories, but you do need to realise that you may want to do generational change. So you're talking about 10 to 20 years. So I think it's actually giving people the space and supporting them to do that longer-term thinking. Because a lot of the time in a social environment or social impact environment. We're driven by other people's time cycles. So a lot of the time that will be funding cycles that might be from grantmakers or government but other investors now you're hoping that if you've got if you're in sort of social finance space that you've got investors that understand longer-term horizons, but quite often you may be working with people that don't. So it's a really different part of your brain from a 12-month cycle, which is far more operational to seven-year strategic horizon. And actually, what I think the big contribution is, is about creating the spaces in which people can actually be prompted to have those horizons and to think about that and sort of supported thinking environments. But I think what's very important to me, is how we think and how we create spaces in which we can actually do good thinking,

Servane Mouazan 4:38

Oh, I love this, you know that is music to my ears. So creating space where people can have good thinking and are able to grasp these different terms, you know, 12 months, seven years or two years. What about the past and how it keeps knocking on your door? You said that some evidence-based models for change that we keep using, they made us lose not just our common sense, but our moral compass. You remember that?

Helen Chambers 5:11

I think it's a nuanced balance about looking back. I think there are there are many models that don't serve us well. But also we do like the bright and shiny. So you do you can have sort of institutional memory loss, or kind of even system memory loss and then you're you're cursed to just repeat your past and that's just a waste of time. I think we're probably not very honest about what doesn't work. I know we talk a lot about learning, but in an environment these days, which is all about promoting ourselves and promoting our organisations and promoting our work. There is very little honest space to actually share what didn't work and then ironically, even when I've been into these spaces are supposed to be about being very honest. They just turn into a different kind of performative behaviour. So I think it does behoves us to look back at a 10 and 20-year policy cycle and actually think or an intervention cycle and think about what has been done and why it didn't work. But quite often, it's not the intervention that is at fault. It's the structure around it and the system that didn't work. So I think that you have to be very carefully thoughtful about not something didn't work, but actually, was it because there's something was wrong, or the environment ambushed it.

Servane Mouazan 6:41

A combination of many, many, many factors. Do you have a story?

Helen Chambers 6:45

I don't know if it's quite the story you're looking for. But in Scotland, we've done quite a lot of place based work. So not around an income like an outcome like employability, or a particular health outcome, but actually investing within communities. And a number of players have been involved in that within Scotland, and they've done some very successful work. And that then a lot of capacity has been put into sharing that work. But I think that rather than building on what has been successful, we always want to sort of slice and dice and fit what other people have done, and then do another new shiny thing that may or may not take some of that learning and I think that I've really struggled.

I mean, we sort of mentioned morality earlier about the morality of where we always are in a innovative stroke pilot space, and we never actually get to scale. You know, when are we actually going to take some of the stuff that we've learned and implement them at scale and make really significant change. Because if we're never going to do that, and we're actually just playing a game of being busy and looking like we're trying to make change, then for individuals that it's actually relatively cruel because we're kind of marching people up to the top of the hill. But we never marched them over the top.

There's some very, very good strong stuff out there. But we either don't implement it or we don't scale it. We're always drawn as human beings to the new. We're curious and we're stimulated, very stimulated by the now and actually we don't have a lot of reward systems, either sort of in our own bodies or within the broader environment, of being thoughtful and digesting and having critical thinking and extracting what we've learned and then building on that and implementing it forward. We have a lot of repetitive hamster wheel activities within cycles from time to static, very, very fast but actually going nowhere.

I mean, it's not for the ones of trying, if you have across Scotland across UK, across the globe, how much money and how much effort and how much time and how much stress. You know, I don't think anyone is particularly a bad actor in these environments. But we're not getting the bang for the buck. We're not getting the outcomes. And that's because actually I think we have a lot of poor practice without implementation things that do work at the same time so as you say, it's cruel because some people who are on the margins or underestimated or conditions of poverty are not being lifted out of that not being served and they've often very tired of being at the end of social interventions.


10:45 11:44.

There's a lot of rhetoric about doing with people and not to people. Now, perhaps over the last two decades, it's a positive move forward that we even have the concept of with rather than to, but actual practice and even with the rhetoric a lot of the times is we do to individuals and communities, and they've seen it all before, you know in the last two decades. They would have had endless interventions with new people and bright ideas, and a new logo and a brand and a launch and a theory of change and an implementation strategy and an evaluation. And then it all winds up after 12 months or three years and then everyone goes away again and not much has changed. And then everyone comes back in again with a different stream of funding with a different label over it and doing it all again. And I think that we make communities very tired and cynical through that and I can completely understand why I want some was listening on the radio, and there's a school in Edinburgh, which is in a more disadvantaged area. And there was a very articulate school girl. And we have some philanthropists within Scotland who do some very great work. And she said that I'm grateful on one level to these people for giving money to the school that I won't name it because it just propagates exactly what I'm going to say. And she said but I wish they'd stop. And the interviewer said that, you know, that's exactly not what I thought you'd say I thought you'd say give us more money. And she said, because every time they give us money, we're on the front page of the local newspapers or national newspapers as failing or someone that needs help, so that the only message you ever hear about this area is a negative message. With other people being saviours and actually that really struck home to me. You know, when I've done some some of the more placed based stuff. We've always done it we've completely removed the central brand. And it was only the communications that the local people wanted to do about their project for the reasons that they wanted to do it. That we removed all sort of organisational showing up, because I thought it was a really profound thing that that schoolgirl had said about how help actual inverted commas actually locks in some of the difficulty and some of the prejudice

Servane Mouazan:

Right, So it's not about getting the glory for writing a charitable check.

Helen Chamber:

But yeah, I mean, I'm not I mean, you know, knowing these ranchers in Scotland, they wouldn't be doing that with a ship particularly show off purpose in mind. But the fact that there is a news release and there is on the pages, you know, in the schools, you know, and you can see why it happens. It's like the schools to say, Hey, we got this great money to do this great project. You can absolutely see that, but what they're locking into the heads of the wider population is that this is a school and kids in difficulty, that need extra help

Servane Mouazan:

another stigma,

Helen Chambers:

yes, another stigma.

Servane Mouazan:

So, Ellen, you've left your position are Inspiring Scotland and you put your talent and your listening skills at the service of businesses that are ready to immerse themselves in a good thinking space. As you said earlier, to achieve sound and liberating strategies, fostering innovation and healthy collaborationm that you know as again that thinking space thinking environments that that I love to hear that, so how are you a thinking of environment for the businesses that come to you?

Helen Chambers:

I think it's very much about recognising where people are right now. And I think that's under a lot of pressure. You know, I used to use a metaphor last year, you know, we came through COVID and we just did what we had to do, and people did amazing things and held it all together. But coming out of COVID I used to say that people had two nostrils above the waterline and then working with people this year. I said, Well, maybe it's only one. And I was speaking to people read that person recently. And they said I'm not sure it's one I think a lot of people are bobbing.

And I think that for me a lot of my work is reflecting on where people really are moving away from any kind of requirements for a performative space and there's a there's a phrase, you know, which you've probably heard is don't compare your insides to other people's outsides.

You know, and I think in social media where everyone posts everything on Instagram, you know that they'd go surfing and do some meditation at five o'clock in the morning. And then, you know, work in a homeless centre before breakfast and all the rest of it. We have these very, very false ideas what everyone else around us is doing. But I think when I work with groups, it's about getting good at recognising that people may have a lot going on for themselves on on for themselves, you know, it's like recognise that people have insights and that affects how we work, balancing creating spaces in which people I was gonna use the word relax, but I'm not quite sure that that really sits well with doing really good thinking about strategy and implementation and what you need for your organisation. But I think maybe the better word is, is doing it calmly. You know, I mentioned about these two parts of our brains and sort of system one, which is the very reactive brain that we operate in probably 90 plus percent of the time and the system to brain which is a lot slower and more reflective. And I think it's about bringing in some tools that enable people to move from that absolute demand led, anxiety driven, potentially right now crisis driven environment. That is really hard to do good thinking good, long, deep, important, hard thinking. It's the operational space, you probably will always come up with the operational answers. But if you don't give yourself space to do the strategic thinking, that can always be tomorrow. Let's move this that meeting. I'm busy and this has just come up. There's an emergency, it will be next week. It'll be the week after that. And three months down the line, you realise that you're not actually doing any of this thinking. So when I come in, it's about helping people with the investment of time that they've made to really value that investment. Because quite often we don't we slide sideways into something called a planning session or strategic session, or facilitated session or whatever fancy label it's got. We slide in sideways, we're probably still on our phones, messaging as we come in. We probably pretend that they're on silent and look at them under the desk while the facilitator is outlining the apple thing. It pings halfway through a couple of people leave to deal with things we will pretend at the end. It's all great. And we thank the facilitator and then we go away, and that part of our brain turns off and you have also only remember 10% of the meeting. Yes, and you have some bullet points, and you tighten them up and you send them around and it's your new meet now, you might possibly if you're a bit like me a bit of a dinosaur you print them off and you put them somewhere that may possibly actually look at them once, but you're very unlikely to look at them more than once.

And I think what I'm trying to do is create the opposite of that and actually use some techniques so that people can slow their systems down. Do some really solid thinking and then know what they're going to do with it next, because we sometimes do invest in that time. Sometimes we do do some very good thinking come up with some quite hard decisions and critical thinking. But we don't then work out how we're going to learn them. Three months later. We're back. We haven't moved anything forward.

Servane Mouazan:

So there's two things here, for anyone involved in strategy or thinking or investment in a wider sense. Whatever you're going to start something you need to make some time to arrive.

And then land, land your learning and be prepared for the take off

Helen Chambers:

It is extremely hard to do because all our pressures are on, you know all the things that pinging us all the time whether that's technology or whether that's people and we're not there's no status these days, I think in being thoughtful.

Servane Mouazan:

Hey, that's an idea.

Helen Chambers:

We love busy people, you know, what's the first thing say? How are you? Oh, busy. Yes, I'm deep. We absolutely compound importance and busyness.

Servane Mouazan:

It sounds to me when people say that I'm busy and busy. It feels like they say I'm not listening to you. And I haven't got space, but that means I haven't got space for myself for thinking either.

Helen Chambers:


Servane Mouazan:

It gives us a sort of sense of how you show up for your work. There's bring that sense of calm and pause and landing and arriving. And and I want to take you to the future now. And there was probably a connection. You know, last year we talked and we were at this conference together in Cambridge, lovely social entrepreneurs festival led by Karen Leigh Anderson who was earlier in this podcast actually.

Helen Chambers:

Ah yes, good

Servane Mouazan:

I asked you that question and the panels that was facilitating them and I don't want to ask you again just to carry us to see where it went. So imagine it's the year 2035 and we ask ourselves "What does social investment needs to have looked like and acted like in the past decade if it is in a position to tell people and the planet: you matter?"

And I wonder what are your freshest thoughts about that question?

Helen Chambers:

I think thinking about that now it's about being bold enough to make some real radical movements of where we place money. I think that we are seeing the impact of climate change across the world.

literally on a daily if not hour by hour. Minute. And although we're starting to move on that it's not with enough impetus certainly within Scottish UK and European environments and probably wider but I'm not so aware of that is that we are seeing the consequence of our economic system.

At its most intense, you know, the volumes of people that are struggling right now are enormous and that's kind of not okay. We've developed an economic system that doesn't work for a lot of people. And I think we're coming to the end, I hope of stopping to pretend that that's not the case.

I don't quite think that the blinkers are formed from everyone's eyes. I'd be naive to think that but I think that we need to really put some weight behind some big areas at the moment. And I think it's how the economy works is one of them. And obviously that absolutely connects with carbon and who is included in our economy, and how and how much does it cost them as individuals to participate in that economy? You know, we've got a lot of people that are kind of working three jobs and barely making it these days. And that that's just not no, let's stop pretending that that's the kind of okay thing.

And I think for particularly in impact investing, it's understanding that there are some pretty big sums of money floating around these days, but they need support of landing in the right place that you've got to go to the capacity building and growing organisations so that they can use these funds. The last decade, plus I think the missing space has not been in startup, nor in big volumes of money that are arriving, but in connecting the two and actually getting to scale and realising that takes time and takes support. And until now, all the times I've questioned who's going to give that support. It's always been "somebody else, not me"

The financial models for return on investment don't don't work with capacity building. But if we're actually going to make that that impact change, we're going to have to help organisations scale.

And for me, there's sort of very big question mark about who's going to get around that, then do we, you know, when it comes back to venture philanthropy, but it's not the only answer, but who is going to do that capacity building? And do we need a model where, which is a return on investment? Model match with a philanthropic model, that actually that one one helps grow and the other helps invest? Or can the investment models be structured in a way that that capacity building is is placed inside the investment and within the costs of it?

Servane Mouazan:

What I take away from that is bringing as well the individuals and groups of individuals who are at the receiving end ultimately and then need to be taken into account.

Helen Chambers:

And I think a lot of this can be almost overload for organisations. There's almost too much out there. I mean, I'm never gonna say there's too much out there should always be more but I think that we try and shovel things into organisations at a pace that they almost can't cope with sometimes.

Servane Mouazan:

Exactly. Hey, oh, thank you so much, Helen, for your freshest thoughts. I'm taking away as well that you need to slow down and pause to find our common sense and a moral compass back and, and being mindful of the risk of our general memory loss, forgetting that.

Helen Chambers:

and I think we're slowing down. I don't mean that at all times. Everyone wants to go to the ponderous pace of a tortoise. I think just that sometimes you need to protect some time to do different type of thinking. Right? And I think it's about just creating the right amount of time. At the right time to undertake other types of thinking.

Servane Mouazan:

The right amount of time at the right time for Great thinking. That's it for today. Thank you so much, Helen, thank you so much, everyone. Join me in the next episode of Be and Think In the House of Trust for more explorations and provocations on how we can show up when we want to move money for good and ignite social change. The show is available to listen to wherever you find your favourite podcasts, of course, and for more insight, events and resources and even jobs for people who love to invest in social change. You can head to my website and subscribe to our regular updates.

So keep asking questions. keep pausing for better thinking. Goodbye for now.



More from YouTube