Mike Niles is a social impact entrepreneur based in Doncaster. His charity b:Friend aims to tackle the problem of social isolation facing our older population through a combination of innovative 1:1 pairing and group befriending projects in the north of England. b:Friend is currently developing a new digital mapping technology to expand the boundaries of potential beneficiaries by automating much of the pairing and sign-up process. Mike hopes that this will enable his enterprise to effectively scale across the UK and beyond, making a real difference to those most lonely and isolated in our communities.
Tessa Packard [TP]: What is the inspiration behind b:Friend? Why are you so passionate about tackling the problem of loneliness?
Mike Niles [MN]: I guess it started with my Grandma, really. She was widowed in her late 80s and our family made sure she always had one of us popping in after work for a cuppa, or at the weekend. It’s a really long week when you’re unable to get out-and-about – she explained to us that she struggled with the loneliness between visitors. I used to always think, “what about those people that have no one visiting?”
When I lived in London I felt a clear disconnect between myself – a young professional wannabe hipster living in Hackney – and people who are born-and-bred in the community I now called home. I was always busy with work and friends and socialising, but I had this sense that there were two groups of people walking the same streets who’s worlds were destined never to intertwine. Through a local charity I volunteered to visit an older lady that lived near me that was isolated and, as the weeks and years past, we became best of friends, despite the 50 year age gap. She’s hilarious and the benefit she brought to my life, as well as me to hers, made me passionate about the difference small social change can bring about.
I believe that later life should be fun, full of friendships and colour and opportunity. I want to have a bit of excitement when I get to old age, which is why the mantra for our social activities is ‘bingo is bullshit’. We design tattoos, paint like Picasso, learn graffiti art and recite poetry. Whatever you think a group session for older people is, think again.
[TP]: What do you feel has been the cause of this epidemic of loneliness and isolation amongst much of our older population?
[MN]: It’s tough to pin it down to a singular cause and many of the negative attributing factors have equally powerful positive aspects to them. Take the digital revolution, for example. We work with people in their 90s that can WhatsApp friends, FaceTime family abroad and catch-up on the iPlayer on their tablet as competently as any young person. That said those people are the minority and with local bank branches closing, automation at the supermarket check-out and people standing at the bus stop answering emails rather than chatting about the weather, it’s easy to see how the world in which an older person has lived for most of their lives is a distant memory.
It’s important to differentiate the two. ‘Isolation’ is the social side of things: do people have access to their community, do they see friends, can they afford to travel to amenities? ‘Loneliness’ is the feeling: disconnection from a setting, a belief that you’re not valued, that no one cares. Isolation is the part we can tackle and, we believe, can impact a person’s feeling of loneliness.
I think people are more open to acknowledging and discussing their feelings of loneliness now, in the same way that the stigma around mental health is not as it once was. Terms like ‘epidemic’ do illustrate the vast problem we face but that’s a result of people, of all ages, accepting that this problem exists, it sucks, and they’re wanting to do something about it.
[TP]: Compared to when you first started b:Friend, do you think that much has changed in your charitable sector?
[MN]: When we kicked things off around two and a half years ago, I was a little naïve to the way things were in the sector, to be honest. I was a bit gung-ho in my approach but assumed that if you can demonstrate a model that improves people’s lives you’ll have the support of the people high-up that make important decisions. Pretty wet-behind-the-ears, right?!
Even in that short time period, the demand for health and social care interventions from the charity sector has increased dramatically, yet the infrastructure to fund that demand is not forthcoming. As we’re based in the community we can often achieve better results, at a lower cost, with longer-term benefits. Yet as we’re leaned on more, and the financial flow doesn’t seem to follow, you’d be surprised how many organisations delivering vital services are months or even weeks away from having to close their doors.
We’re our own worst enemy, to be fair. It’s a sector consisting of highly skilled, resilient and qualified people, doing amazing things daily, because they’re passionate. We’d work for free (and most of us have or do) to improve someone else’s life circumstances. That is taken advantage of somewhat, and I feel the sector may need to become a bit hardier if we’re going to be seen with the merit we’ve earned.
[TP]: Which other organisations do you most admire in your sector, and are they looking to tackle loneliness in the same way as you, or through different means?
[MN]: I love the work of The Cares Family. They were part of the inspiration for b:friend and helped us to develop from very early stages right up to today. They work to a similar model, trying to reduce loneliness, but focus more specifically on connecting young professionals and older neighbours in our ever-changing cities around the UK.
I also hugely respect the work of Coppafeel. They’ve thrown out the rulebook when it comes to breast awareness. Their aim to educate young women and men is vital prevention that will increase early detection and save lives.
[TP]: In your opinion, what is the one thing that needs to change in the philanthropic sector?
[MN]: As a nation, I think we have an incredible sense of civic duty and when you look at donations made to charity in 2018, it was a whopping £10.3 billion. The importance of the sector doesn’t go unnoticed (albeit most of that goes to the biggest national charities rather than grassroots ones). If someone, for example, attempts suicide or is a victim of domestic violence, their immediate safety and health needs are met by our awesome NHS and social care system. Most of the ongoing healing and support for that individual, however, is picked up by our sector.
Regardless of wealth or status, in times of need and vulnerability, it is charity and community that gets an individual back on their feet.
I’d like to see philanthropy take a strategic leap. Philanthropy won’t just be about financial giving that mirrors need and plugs the gaps in services, but it will also be about tapping into the skills, contacts, influence and network that can create meaningful change. Philanthropists investing in our sector shouldn’t be seen exclusively in terms of money. I mean, yes, let’s not rule that out… but a buy-in that brings a shared level of passion and commitment to bring about societal change.
People that can give are often superbly successful in their field. Philanthropists shouldn’t see themselves as the person that simply writes the cheque but as an asset, a collaborator and a partner.
[TP]: What is the most valuable lesson that you have learnt as a result of setting up b:Friend? And what has been the greatest surprise so far on your journey?
[MN]: The greatest, and most humbling, surprise so far have been that people. I’ve never met so many people who have bought into a concept so passionately, and so much so that they pledge an hour of their week to visit a stranger, have a cuppa and a chat, and transform another person’s existence.
The most valuable lesson has been to never underestimate anyone. I’ve seen unbelievable kindness from people I never expected; emotional support offered from someone deeply suffering themselves; and people that have given up on themselves finding the courage to re-engage.
At a time of political and societal division, each way you look, there is such wonderful goodwill to be witnessed between everyone, every day and everywhere.
[TP]: What part of your work makes you most happy, and what aspect of your job regularly drives you insane?
[MN]: The happy part is easy. Each week, without fail, an older neighbour will approach us and tell us frankly that their befriender has completely changed their life. I found that difficult to accept at first because it’s only an hour a week, how much of difference can that make? But it transforms a psyche: from monotonous solitude to knowing that someone values you, what you have to say and how you feel.
I like how you mention ‘drives you insane’. It’s the most overused phrase ever but insanity, so said Einstein, is “repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results”. This is where we’re at with health and social care policy right now. Research dictates investment in prevention will change outcomes and be cheaper than treatment; but we need to be bold. Be it youth violence, education of looked after children, mental health support or socially isolated older people.
[TP]: If you could play God and create a perfect human world, what three things would you change?
[MN]: I’d probably start by making it absolutely crystal clear that whether a human believed in me as their God, or one of the other hundreds of Gods, that it was absolutely fine and I was cool with it. As Gods we have no beef with each other, in fact we’re all good mates, and I’d encourage the human world to categorise less and accept more as, frankly, I’m a bit of a pacifist-God.
My second action would be to remove injustice as a construct. It’s broad, I know, but it would incorporate all forms of discrimination, prejudice and corruption. If there’s a truly level playing field then let’s see how we get on.
And finally, I’d ensure the world continues to use all the plentiful resources it has. People would live lifestyles of abundance, and I would encourage humans to maximise their happiness in the here-and-now because they’ll be thriving for a long time to come. Or, maybe, I’d pump the brakes, transform the way they live and ensure humans can continue to enjoy the perfect planet they have.
[TP]: What is the one piece of advice you would give any budding social entrepreneur?
[MN]: Don’t give up. Seek help, it’s lonely. Grow resilient, you’ll take a few hits. And give off good vibrations, you’ll get them back.
[TP]: Who do you admire or respect the most?
[MN]: I admire the rebels. Your Greta Thunberg’s, Rutger Bregman’s and former Sheffield Lord Mayor, Magid Magids. Even when you believe in something passionately it takes a lot to stand against social convention. And even if you do stand up against it, you better be willing to commit because your nerve will be challenged.
It’s not about protest for protests sake – but meaningful change will only arise when leaders think and go beyond norms. Even if I don’t agree completely with their stance, they have my absolute respect.
[TP]: What do you think is the greatest myth about the charity sector?
[MN]: Probably that it’s staffed entirely by volunteers or people that can’t make it in the corporate world. Unfortunately, I’ve met people over the years that dismiss the expertise of the sector and almost look at it as a nice pastime.
I find the diversity in the sector makes it one of the most vibrant and innovative sectors around. Professionals with more letters after their name than in it; people who’ve spent their career in the corporate world but elect to put their skills to use in other ways; people choosing others over themselves.
With very little resource we achieve a heck of a lot.
[TP]: Overall, do you think technology and social media has improved human interaction? Or do you feel it has had a detrimental impact to the way we socialise in society?
[MN]: It’s probably not productive to compare a time pre and post technological change. It’s all here to stay. What we need to focus on is how we utilise the platforms in the best way. Sure, the ways and means with which we interact have changed but hasn’t that been the way throughout history. Developments like the postal service, printing press and the telephone, not to mention the transformation of transport, have all impacted how humans interact.
As much as AI could be a tool in reducing isolation, can you ever replicate the benefit of face-to-face contact? If you speak with your friends on WhatsApp each day, sharing photos, videos and hilarious memes, would you prefer that to catching up over coffee or a beer instead? Technology and social media are changing how we interact but it’s our choice as to how we use them in a way that works for us.
[TP]: If you didn’t do what you do now, what you be doing….?
[MN]: I’m not sure, really. The time will come when I’m ready for a new challenge, but what that would be I don’t know. I don’t believe that if you want to bring about societal change you can only work for a charity. People across all sectors do things professionally or personally that make huge differences to their community, but whatever I do I think I’ll always be pushing for things to improve for the most vulnerable in society.
But not a politician. If you catch me in politics you have my permission to give me a whack!
ON THE SPOT
Town or Countryside? Countryside – sheep over shops any day.
Favourite city? New Yourk City (which is ironic given my last answer).
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? Ayrton Senna. I’m a bit of an F1 nerd.
If you could learn a new skill it would be…? A musical instrument. At this stage I’m not even fussy, but ideally a guitar or a saxophone.
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? Chicken Dippers, chips and beans (plus ketchup). I was about 7. Not sure I can pinpoint other meals specifically so it must be this one.
The one essential you can’t leave home without? A book. Doesn’t matter which one.
Biggest extravagance? City breaks. I like to fly places in Europe for long weekends sometimes. I suppose that’s quite extravagant.
Favourite book? Farenheit 451 or The Invention of Air.
What would your gravestone read? Brown Bread. But cremate me instead please. Less mess.
MAKE MY DAY
Dream introduction: Someone passionate about ensuring later life is as fun, engaging and full of friendship as any other period of a person’s life.
Dream collaboration: Someone or a brand that wishes to immerse themselves in this issue. It’s such a vast problem, and we don’t claim to have solved it, so collaborators that want to be part of a solution would be great to work with.
Dream funding (please specify what it would go towards): 100 electric vehicles that are travelling everywhere, every day, taking people out of isolation and into communities. If we could transport people to places of interest the engagement would go through the roof. Museums and libraries would be busy, medical appointments would be met, high streets would have more custom, schools would have intergenerational activity. And all that while not damaging the planet.
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