The House of St. Barnabas was founded in the 1800s to support vulnerable homeless people. It has recently transformed its model to become a not-for-profit private members’ club existing alongside an integrated employment academy. The charity is based in a Grade 1 listed property in the heart of London.

The problem

Homelessness is a problem in the UK which has not gone away. Over 2,000 people slept rough in England on any one night during 2013 – this has risen since 2013. As the last Government stated: "the vast majority of homeless people are actually families or single people who are not literally sleeping on the streets but living with relatives and friends or in temporary accommodation". Over 100,000 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance in 2013/14, which has also risen on previous years. Once homeless, it can become increasingly difficult for these individuals to get their lives back on track, to find a home, to find secure work and recover from a range of complex issues.

The solution

The House of St. Barnabas was founded in the 1800s. For a long time it was not formally incorporated as a company but is now both a limited company and a registered charity. There is also a wholly owned trading subsidiary of the charity, The House of St. Barnabas Events Limited. 

The then House of Charity bought No.1 Greek Street in central London as a home of refuge “for the waifs and strays of the turbid sea of human society”.  More recently, in 2005, the organisations decided that it was no longer viable or practical to run the House as a hostel for homeless people and the last residents were resettled in 2006. The accommodation no longer met the regulations and over £1.5m would have had to been invested in order to bring the facility up to date whilst reducing capacity from 40 beds to 15. 

The trustees then concentrated on refocusing the organisation as a social enterprise with a not-for-profit private members’ club and an integrated employment academy supporting the original charitable objective of helping individuals through work. The mission of the charity remains to “provide a safe environment for the vulnerable homeless, where they can rebuild confidence and skills” and the aim is to create a future where sustainable employment is a reality for those affected by homelessness. This is all housed within a beautiful Grade 1 listed property in the heart of Soho. The house was shut in January 2013 in order to allow renovation works to be undertaken. The house has now been restored while preserving original features and the identity of the building.

Business model

The not-for-profit private members club was opened in October 2013, set up to create in the same market as established names like Soho House and the Groucho Club. Working in partnership with the catering business Benugo, the House of St. Barnabas has created an environment which is home to a growing membership with an interest in social change. The club dovetails with the employment academy which helps vulnerable people reconnect with the labour market. Other services as well as the members club include a private venue for hire as well as food and drinks sales. 

Members who are invited to join not only pay the membership fee but also set up a monthly donation to the work of the charity. Membership is £600 or £300 for under 30s and those living outside London. 

In the last financial year, the organisation turned over nearly £1 million of which around a quarter came in the form of donations and grants and the rest through trading. The charity is ultimately backed by an asset in the form of a highly desirable central London property. This building could be worth £4 million but to sell it on the open market would require permission from the Charity Commission to ensure this was not in conflict with the original duties of the trustees as custodians of the building.    

The House of St. Barnabas employment academy supports individuals’ skills and potential with a concentrated focus on helping them move into paid, secure employment.  The academy works with them to give individuals an opportunity to learn new skills, regain confidence and bring their CVs up to date. The academy aims to work effectively with partners, who can refer people on to the House of St. Barnabas.  Those referred must feel ready to return to work, be free from alcohol or substance misuse for three months and have an adequate comprehension of the English language, among other criteria. The Academy then provides hospitality focused skills training, work experience in the club at The House of St Barnabas, coaching support, a City and Guilds qualification in Hospitality, a mentoring Programme and links to a a range of employer partners. The House also offers a chance to gain paid employment within the club at The House of St Barnabas and post-programme support, using a peer-led support model.   Clients are trained in the academy on the top floor, before moving downstairs to the bar and restaurant and bar for practical work experience and hospitality training.


The House of St. Barnabas is a particularly good example of an innovative way in which a charity has re-examined its core purpose and re-imagined its business model to respond the modern world. It also works in an innovative partnership with a large commercial business Benugo who provide hospitality services. Sandra Schembri, CEO says “Benugo has a great track record of creating bespoke dining spaces, and the collaboration will add to a hugely successful national portfolio of ventures within public spaces.”


It is early days for the House of St. Barnabas, having only been open for just over 6 months as a club. However, the memberships has grown, plans are more or less on track and the club has been successful in earning significant publicity in both the social enterprise world and more widely.

Problems and challenges

One issue for the House of St. Barnabas has been to ensure that their plans and aspirations have been compatible with charitable law. The building is no longer held by the original unincorporated charity but by the new company. The value of the organisation in terms of its balance sheet is also highly dependent on the intricacies of relatively ancient UK charity law. 

A further challenge is the extent to which the organisation still, to a degree, relies on grants and donations as part of the funding mix. Cash flow management has also been a challenge as the business has switched its business model, invested in new plans and started a new life. To support this, the charity was able to secure a loan from Charity Bank in order to help it manage its cash flow more smoothly.  

One external risk is the extent to which the new Crossrail development may potentially affect the fabric of the building. As custodians of a grade 1 listed building, the trustees have significant responsibility for its physical condition. Crossrail is a new east-to-west rail link which passes under the centre of London and could feasibly alter the foundations upon which the House is built. This has meant that House of St. Barnabas supporters have had to spend considerable time liaising with the development team and taking steps to mitigate against structural risks.

A further risk for the daily management of the business is the extent to which it relies upon successful partnerships with vulnerable people with complex needs. Homeless people are perceived in different ways within the UK and there can be some communications and reputational risks when working with these types of clients.  

One challenge for the organisation has been to attract the right blend of members, finding the right balance between quality and quantity and ensuring that the House of St Barnabas remains distinctive in a crowded market. The House seeks to “establish a new genre of members club for a socially aware and creative generation of people who are looking for a club that they could personally identify with” and this is an unproven model. The House used “empathy mapping” and “member archetypes” to identify three key target markets, profiling the type of customers for whom the House would be attractive and to develop a strategy for developing relationships with these groups. 

Finally, as with almost any social enterprise in the UK at the present time, the economic environment remains a considerable risk for the organisation both in terms of the potential for attracting paying customers and the organisations ability to respond to social need.


In the future, the House of St. Barnabas aims to more fundamentally address underlying causes of homelessness rather than only dealing with the symptoms. This means gaining more influence over policy and perhaps think-tank style approaches taking place from within the spare capacity on the third floor of the building. The charity wants to play a more significant part in social change and increase its impact “outside the four walls”. This could take the form of a “social collaboration hub” in which the charity convenes a range of stakeholders to consider intractable challenges and explore solutions. This would accompany a bigger and better employment academy and the provision of more work experience opportunities.


One key lesson from the experience of the House of St. Barnabas is the ongoing influence and complexity of charity law dating back hundreds of years. This can have a direct impact on an organisation’s aspirations and finances, potentially restricting the possibilities of social enterprise, innovation and financial sustainability while also ensuring charities continue to focus on their social objectives. Sandra Schembri, CEO, says “Building a new model has been challenging. In 2006 we undertook a lot of research and took advice regarding the shape we needed to be in to support our clients. It took 26 months – and a lot of money – to get permission to change the building's use. Some hard decisions were made over that period, including reducing team members (including myself) to part-time working and making some redundancies.”

Leader’s perspective

Sandra Schembri is focused on the future commercial success of the organisation: “First and foremost the club must be a successful business in its own right. The charity will be relying on the club for the funds necessary to run the employment academy and support its former students. Our aim is for the charity to be self-sustaining within five years of opening the club. Our revenue streams are membership fees, donations, venue hire, a share of F&B (food and beverage) turnover. We are also in talks with some fantastic brands about how we can work together on the project. Virgin Media has already confirmed its support.”

But Sandra does not lose sight of the social purpose of the charity: “Most of us have networks to rely on when we feel below par; someone at work who can give us a hug or a friend with a cheerful text. Most of our clients have lost these networks. The house offers them a chance to make connections beyond the world of homelessness, rather than leaving them prey to institutionalisation”. 

Some people may doubt how a model as seemingly exclusive as a private members’ club fits with the ideal of inclusive, democratic business which social enterprise appears to represent. But Sandra is convinced that this tension can be reconciled, explaining how “The stereotype of the private members' club is of moneyed patrons dangling empty glasses at their servers, awaiting refills and attention. The phrase "social enterprise" conjures up images of a worthy but less than luxury service. What if instead, a members' club could be just one part of a humanist ecosystem that offered members three things: a Grade I-listed sanctuary (with a secluded garden and private chapel) in the bustling heart of Soho, a connection to the rich history of the area and the city, and the chance to reintegrate those devastated by homelessness into sustained employment?”


Text: Dan Gregory, Head of Policy at Social Enterprise UK

Source: “China-UK Social Enterprise and Social Investment Case Studies” publication