In for a penny… In conversation with Pennies CEO, Alison Hutchinson CBE

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of catching up with Alison Hutchinson CBE, chief executive of Pennies. Even if you haven’t heard of Pennies yet, there’s a good chance you’ll have used its platform – the UK-based fintech charity has revolutionised how we make microdonations, digitising the old experience of popping your spare change into a charity box at the till.

When we met, the organisation had just reached a key milestone, surpassing £30 million in donations from more than 120 million individual customer contributions.

Alison grew up in the West of Scotland, into a family that ran a string of local businesses, from B&Bs and dry cleaners to taxi services. “I had a very commercial mindset from a young age,” Alison told me. “My parents instilled a few key values in me: the customer is king, make sure you hire the best people you can possibly afford, make more than you spend and give back to the communities you serve.”

After hearing Alison’s story, it’s clear that this value set has underpinned much of her professional life. After graduating from Strathclyde University, she spent 15 years at IBM before joining Barclays Bank as CEO of their B2B division. “In those first few years I learnt by being given big opportunities,” she told me. “I’ve spent a lot of my life learning to swim in whatever new role I’ve been given. I think that has given me the confidence to take things on, and to always put my best foot forward.”

In 2008, Alison was approached by Pennies, which at that point was no more than a handful of people around a kitchen table with an idea. In an increasingly cashless world, and one in which retailers were beginning to embrace an integrated multichannel strategy, the Pennies founders wanted to find a way to sustain the UK’s favourite way of donating to charity – putting pennies in a collection box.

“We went right back to what my parents had told me,” Alison explained, “and worked out what the consumer proposition was. We asked ourselves: what is it that people love about charity boxes?

“We whittled it down to a few things: it’s easy, it’s affordable, it’s always their choice. Customers do it because they want to, not because they have to – it makes them feel good. We knew we had to preserve these core elements, but in digitising the process we could also enhance it, and trace the impact of those pennies while still keeping the consumer’s identity anonymous so they can be guaranteed no follow up from the charity.”

An advice session at Maggie's St Barts on the left and a photo of the Pennies donation feature at the point of sale in The Entertainer
An advice session at Maggie’s St Barts, just one beneficiary of Pennies donations; Pennies in action at the point of sale in retailer The Entertainer

Alison tells me about the early days of Pennies, and the journey to securing philanthropic funding, testing early operating models, finding retail partners, and identifying technology firms with the infrastructure to power Pennies. Their mission was simple: to give customers an easy way to microdonate to charity at the checkout, online and in-store.

Pennies’ first-ever retail partner was Domino’s Pizza. Alison recalls the morning that Pennies went live on Domino’s, sitting next to her phone ready to order a pizza and donate via the Domino’s app. “Even though we were specifically aiming to be the first people to donate via Domino’s, we ended up being the third,” she said. “That was when we thought: this feels like something special, like something that’s going to work.” Following a three-month initial trial, Domino’s has never switched off – and just last month was celebrating having facilitated more than £6 million in customer donations through Pennies.

Certainly, it has taken a village to get Pennies to the position it’s in now. “The list of people who have helped the Pennies journey is longer than anything I’ve ever been involved in,” Alison tells me. “I think what’s special about this project is that it’s a community of people coming together, giving a little and really achieving a lot. All the way through the journey people have wanted to hand over the baton, share their concepts and keep things going – it’s truly been a community initiative.”

“We also knew we had to apply our business heads to this great idea,” Alison explained, “and create a robust business model which supported the charitable initiative.” Currently, while 100% of the money donated via Pennies goes to charity, 90% goes to the nominated charity and 10% to Pennies in order to cover its overheads. As the organisation grows and more microdonations are made, that 10% will become 9%, then 8% and so on.

More than a decade on from its inception, and Pennies has come a long way from its humble beginnings around a kitchen table. The charity has more than 60 partners – from retailers and pubs to petrol forecourt operators and football clubs – and has helped more than 650 regional and national charities in the UK and Ireland. The organisation speaks to a number of issues at the forefront of the consumer-facing sector today, including the increased pressure from shareholders for businesses to focus on ESG, the willingness of customers to give to charity and the growing awareness of company values from consumers and employees alike.

Photograph showcasing the Pennies roundup feature on the Screwfix app, alongside the Pennies logo
The Pennies roundup feature, shown in the Screwfix app

I ask Alison what’s next for Pennies. “There are a number of major new retail and hospitality businesses we are working with to implement Pennies… and there’s a big pull for us to go international,” she says, “but in whatever way we do that, we’ll do what’s right for that country and community. It’s not about Pennies going into that country, but about us being a being a catalyst to unlock microgiving in a way that suits their culture and their approach, and helps create a sustainable legacy of feel-good giving.”

Certainly, the future looks bright. Even despite the cataclysmic events of the past year, Pennies finished the 2020 fiscal year up 6% on 2019. “Everything we’re seeing points towards a more generous bunch of people who want affordable ways to join together and give a little back,” Alison says. “If I took all the pennies that were raised in 2020 and stacked them back to back, it would reach a quarter of the way round the world!” | @TheMBSGroup

The MBS Group has been proud to advise Pennies on a pro-bono basis since 2013.