Peter Kerr CA: Taking a bite out of homelessness
This article was written before the coronavirus pandemic had escalated in the UK, Europe and the USA and first appears in the April 2020 issue of CA magazine.
Social Bite has gone from one cafe raising money for the homeless into a charity employing 115. Peter Kerr CA tells Kitty Finstad why he quit a steady job to join part time, before rising to be Group Finance Director.
Every 18 minutes. That’s how often a household becomes homeless in Scotland. And while the numbers steadily declined following a peak in applications and assessments as homeless in 2005, since 2016 they have slowly started to rise again. It’s a problem Social Bite aims to eradicate. The Edinburgh-based social enterprise has grown from a single cafe in Rose Street, supplying food to the city’s homeless, to a nationwide movement to end this first-world issue.
Since 2012, when Josh Littlejohn and Alice Thompson launched Social Bite, this business with purpose has gone on to host Social Suppers – evening events for anything from women’s groups to refugees – in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It has staged mass fundraising and awareness campaigns such as Sleep in the Park, CEO Sleep Out and the Wee Sleep Out (for under-18s).
It operates a chain of four social enterprise sandwich shops and a restaurant providing weekly meals and training opportunities. From an idea spawned by just two people with a vision, Social Bite now employs more than 110.
In 2018, Peter Kerr CA was Director of Finance and Operations at Remarkable – formerly Investors in People Scotland. After 13 years moving up the public sector organisation, he was hungry for a new challenge and found himself drawn to an ad for a part-time position as Interim Finance Lead. “It sounded quite interesting,” he recalls. “I wondered if it might be a start-up that needed help and I thought I might quite like to do that, even though I wouldn’t usually go for a part-time or interim position.
Our operations manager said, ‘It’s great we have accountants – accountants are making a difference.’ I don’t think I’ve worked anywhere where somebody said that before.
“I always looked back at that decision, now that I’m here, almost like fate. I’d been at Remarkable for a long time and learned so many good things there. But I had begun to ask myself, ‘Am I learning as much as I did before? Is the challenge still there?’”
So Kerr viewed a restructuring at Remarkable as the right moment to take some time out and “just see what pops up”. When the recruitment agent asked if he had heard of Social Bite, the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes, definitely!”, mainly thanks to high-profile events such as Sleep in the Park and the press generated from famous visitors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
“Initially I was just looking at the finance side,” says Kerr. “I could see things weren’t necessarily working at peak efficiency because it had been an outsourced function.” With so many strands to the charity, including the growing retail side, restaurant and Social Bite Village – a purpose-built supported community, funded entirely by donations – Kerr saw instantly where his accountancy skills and operational experience could add value. “Within two months I’d gone from four days a week to full time, and within five months I was offered the permanent position.”
It was important to Kerr to have ‘Group’ in his job title – he wanted to ensure every function across the group was operating at peak efficiency. And with his broad experience at Remarkable, he felt immediately comfortable spreading his skills. “Sure, I know about finance and accounts and can give you all the graphs and analysis around the actual numbers,” he says.
“But what also really interests me is understanding what’s going on within our business. In pure accountancy practice, you did somebody’s accounts and engaged with them for a period of time. But once you’ve stepped away, you’ve done your job. I’d phone up clients and ask how they’re doing because I was genuinely interested in their business success and wanted to see how I could help.”
Everyone has a voice and if you’re making assumptions without talking to them, you’re probably going to make the wrong decision.
With eyes across so many strands of Social Bite, Kerr says he never wants for new challenges. While most of his time is spent in the office, he has also helped out on the front line, checking up on his team and volunteers at the Big Sleep Out and visiting the sandwich shops.
“I’m naturally curious. I’d happily work a shift in a shop because I want to see the reality of what happens there, which will eventually translate into the set of accounts we produce,” he says. “If you’re in an office making decisions based on a shop you’ve never been to, how do you know why those figures say what they’re saying? If sales are down, should we shut that shop? Maybe there are operational reasons we don’t understand. The people serving the customers are the ones who can tell us – for me, everyone has a voice and if you’re making assumptions without talking to them, you’re probably going to make the wrong decision.”
This holistic view of Social Bite’s vision and values makes Kerr committed to ensuring its future; at the same time he agrees that charities need to operate like businesses to fulfil their missions. “Social Bite has been about trying to cure problems right from the start,” he says. “People are hungry. We run a sandwich shop. We’ve waste at the end of the day. Let’s give it out to anyone who comes in, with no vetting. That’s the simple part.”
Photo: The Duchess of Cambridge visiting Social Bite in Aberdeen. Copyright: Adam Vallance / Kensington Palace
But Sleep in the Park and Social Bite Village require different skillsets. That’s where Kerr’s head for numbers and business operations makes a difference. “We’re fortunate – a lot of our funds are unrestricted, giving us flexibility in how we use them,” he says. “There are also donors who want us to use their donations in specific ways. That’s where my role is important in ensuring we’re using it correctly and ringfencing those amounts.
“We’re funded predominantly by people giving us their money – individuals or corporates – and trusting us to do the right thing. I’m very mindful of that, as is everyone, especially the board. We’ve done things that spike public interest, like Sleep In the Park.
Everyone deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect that we would expect for anyone.
“The board recognise Social Bite is different – it’s never been afraid to disrupt the sector. Josh understands that. He set up the business because he wanted to make a difference. It’s my job to balance the risk in terms of the overall return – especially with Social Bite Village.”
Social Bite engaged with corporates who gave sizeable sums to the village project – a tangible expression of donations driving lasting change. Opened in July 2018, the village homes up to 18 people in specially commissioned twin-share “nesthouses” – all high-quality, energy-efficient buildings that provide safe and comfortable accommodation in a supported environment. Because, says Kerr, simply providing shelter doesn’t eradicate homelessness or the other issues that surround it.
Reasons for becoming homeless can range from relationship breakdown to action taken by a landlord or lender, violent or abusive disputes or simply being asked to leave accommodation. “We don’t know the reasons behind a particular individual ending up on the street and it’s easy to make assumptions. Everyone deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect that we would expect for anyone,” says Kerr.
It’s an ethos that clearly permeates the Social Bite DNA. Kerr recalls a team meeting last year where people were discussing the future and positive changes that the organisation had made: “Our operations manager Angie, who’s been here almost from the beginning, said, ‘Do you know what I think is great? It’s great we have accountants! Accountants are making a difference.’ I don’t think I’ve worked anywhere where somebody said that before!”
Social bite timeline
- 2012 – Rose Street cafe opens, Edinburgh
- 2013 – First £1,000 donated to charity by Social Bite
- 2015 – Five cafes operating across Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow | George Clooney visits Rose Street cafe
- 2016 – Social Bite Academy set up to support staff who have experienced homelessness
| Home Restaurant (now Vesta) opens and Leonardo DiCaprio visits | At first CEO Sleep Out, 350 participants raise £550,000
- 2017 – Sleep in the Park raises £4m to help build Social Bite Village
- 2018 – Social Bite Village opens | Housing First launched in partnership with other charities, with up to £3m funds from Social Bite, aiming to permanently house 830 people
- 2019 – First six people move from Social Bite Village into permanent homes
- 2020 – More than 216 people (and counting) in homes thanks to the Housing First programme
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of CA magazine.