Posted 07 Sep 2007 | Stories | Case Studies

UNLOCK was founded in 1999 by former prisoners who wanted to create opportunities for others who had been through the criminal justice system. By 2000 it was established as a charity to improve things for ‘ex-offenders’.

UNLOCK was founded in 1999 by former prisoners who wanted to create opportunities for others who had been through the criminal justice system. By 2000 it was established as a charity to improve things for ‘ex-offenders’.

One it helped was Neil (not his real name) who was working for a security company when his licence expired. He was shocked when the Security Industry Authority refused to renew it after changing its policies so that it no longer employed anyone who had been in prison for more than 24 months. Neil had a three-year prison sentence dating back 28 years.

“It was something that I did when I was really young,” he says. “I thought because I had lost my licence I wouldn’t get any more work. I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and they put me in touch with UNLOCK.”

UNLOCK provided advocacy and helped Neil make submissions when the case went to court. He won the case, got his license back and won half his court costs, something he says wouldn’t have happened without the charity's help.

Executive director Chris Bath joined UNLOCK in 2005 as head of projects and soon began working with Pilotlight: “The organisation had never had a plan. There were no clear answers to the questions ‘what is UNLOCK and what does it do?’”

The Pilotlight process gave the charity an operational plan and a re-brand replacing the term ‘ex-offenders’ with ‘reformed offenders’. “It was about sending out a different message,” says Chris.

“The process gave us a single vision for the first time, with short- and long-term objectives and who was accountable for them.”

This vision led to huge success, with UNLOCK’s income more than doubling from £180,000 in 2007 to well over £400,000 in 2008.

“Eighteen months ago we put our heads up for air and realised our operational plan had come to an end.”

UNLOCK had effectively become the victim of its own success and in doing so had forgotten about sustainability, so in November 2011 Chris turned to Pilotlight for a second time.

“We were working incredibly hard but running on reserves because we didn’t know where we were going,” admits Chris. “We needed clarity otherwise the organisation could just peter out.

“We had an amazing few years after the first Pilotlight process, culminating in winning the Guardian Charity Awards in 2011, essentially as a result of that work.

This time the team realised that they needed to be clearer about their core work. “We had become involved in lots of different things – social research, consultancy work, evaluations – so we needed to go back to the drawing board and understand what we did better than anyone else.”

Discussions with Pilotlighters led to the realisation that while providing information, advice and advocacy was their core work, it had never been properly funded.

This enlightenment led to a change in UNLOCK’s vision and mission statement and dropping the reformed offender tagline. “We want to see people with convictions reaching their potential. Our mission is to assist them to overcome the long-term disadvantage of a criminal record through information, advice and advocacy, developed and delivered by peers,” says Chris.

UNLOCK now has a strategic plan that is well evidenced and enables the charity to approach new funders. “We’ve always applied for criminal justice strands of money, but now we recognise our wider impact – social justice, social improvement, and tackling discrimination and disadvantage. Now we can see the different options.”

The Pilotlight process has also kickstarted other ideas, including setting up a social enterprise around its online publication, theRecord; and for those who can’t access the internet, a pilot project to test community-based face-to-face delivery of information and advice by people with convictions who have turned their lives around.

Chris has already recommended Pilotlight to another chief executive: “The Pilotlight process helps you gain professionalism without losing your purpose.”

As well as a Pilotlighter from Lloyds TSB, UNLOCK’s team had two individual Pilotlight members. One of these was independent venture capitalist Andrew Dixon. He has worked with the Ministry of Justice, so was keen to use his Pilotlighter role to help a charity working with prisoners.

He was really impressed with Chris and his team, but says, “Their costs were too high for what they were delivering and they were trying to do too many things for too many people.”

The Pilotlight process provided him with a good reminder of “the importance of focusing on what you are good at and being able to communicate that to the team; having costs aligned to objectives; and staying one step ahead when it comes to funding”.

“By working together, Chris, the Pilotlighters and the trustees have enabled UNLOCK to survive. Without the changes it would have perhaps failed.”