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Sustainable business models

07 August 2013

As we develop a global strategy to help us become the firm we want to be in 2020, we know that the challenges we face are often the same as those confronting our clients and communities. The question is, how do we work together to emerge from this difficult economic period stronger and sharper?

Our number one priority is to understand and plan for what the future will bring for us and our clients. This applies just as much to our work in the not-for-profit and charitable sector, where our partners and clients also face significant challenges in the current economic climate – challenges that threaten their ability to provide critical services to vulnerable people around the world.

So, as with our own organisation, a big focus of our work is on developing sustainable business models and undertaking projects with not-for-profit and charity partners, which ensure their provision of vital services and resources long into the future.

Sustaining the free legal advice sector

Our work with legal advice centres in London is a good example. Our lawyers have been volunteering their time at free advice clinics for decades – it's a key part of our pro bono work. But, against the backdrop of severe funding cuts to legal aid in the UK, we have stepped up our involvement to help restructure the model for legal aid centres in the long term.

We have worked with the UK Government and not-for-profit advice sector – as well as a number of other law firms – to come up with a template for strategic partnerships between commercial firms and legal advice centres, which will generate profits that can then be fed back into their frontline services.

Our own strategic partnership is with Toynbee Hall in our local London borough of Tower Hamlets. In 2013, our partnership helped to generate £60,000 in profits – enough to fund Toynbee Hall's Free Legal Advice Centre for a year, supporting around 2,500 people. With continued backing, profits are forecast to rise to £100,000 this year.

Microfinance and social investment

Another example is our global Microfinance and Social Investment group. With lawyers in 30 offices around the world, the group works on much-needed solutions to transform businesses and local economies in the developing world. The group also does an increasing amount of work on social investment funds, which direct private sector money to fund public sector projects.

Microfinance is a key aspect of our global charity partnership with AfriKids, a child rights organisation that works in a remote area of Northern Ghana.

A sustainable charity partnership

In May 2012, A&O staff chose AfriKids to be the firm's global charity partner for two years.
AfriKids' entire model is built around sustainability and planning for the future. Since it was set up 11 years ago, it has been working towards an end goal of closing down its UK fundraising operations by 2018. Its aim by this time is to make its charitable work in Ghana self-sustaining – funded entirely by the profit-making businesses it is developing there.

A&O’s fundraising and pro bono efforts are being channelled towards AfriKids' social enterprise projects in Ghana – for example its medical centre – which will generate the profits to fund its work with vulnerable and disadvantaged children for the long term.

We’re also working on a business plan to scale-up AfriKids' microfinance operations and launch a full-scale microfinance institution, which will provide loans to 10,000 women over the next five years. Providing individuals - particularly women - with the means to earn and control their money is one of the most effective ways of breaking the cycle of poverty and dependence.

Our people told us this was a key reason for choosing AfriKids as a global charity partner – it’s an organisation that is planning for the future. There’s a real determination to make the communities it supports independent from overseas aid rather than continuing a cycle of handouts and dependence. It is thinking much longer-term, but with a tangible end goal in sight.