Phil Conway
Ashoka Fellow since 2011   |   United Kingdom

Phil Conway

Phil Conway is redefining the industry around the care of disabled children by introducing a flexible, personalized model of care based on the real needs of the clients. Recognizing that, like all…
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This description of Phil Conway's work was prepared when Phil Conway was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


Phil Conway is redefining the industry around the care of disabled children by introducing a flexible, personalized model of care based on the real needs of the clients. Recognizing that, like all children, disabled children need “fun, friendship and fresh air,” he is using modern recruitment techniques to bring entirely new types of carers into the system: Open-minded, energetic young people. By introducing a new type of “personal assistant” into the homecare industry, Phil is shifting society’s expectations about the visibility and inclusion of the disabled.

The New Idea

The Cool2Care model is based on the concept of a “personal assistant”; a youthful and energetic role model who is a friend to a disabled child and part of the fabric of family life. Rather than employing an unskilled older woman who watches over the disabled child while the parents get a break, a young personal assistant aged 18 to 28-years gives the child access to fun experiences and youth culture. They bring enthusiasm and an open-minded approach to the care of the disabled. In contrast to the standardized and medicalized notion of care promoted by most agencies, the principle behind Cool2Care is that the process should be made more personal for families; they should be directly involved in choosing and shaping the support they want, based on their particular needs.

Founded in 2008, Cool2Care uses corporate recruitment strategies to attract young people through youth magazines and the Internet, a stark contrast to the gray box repeated weekly in job pages for low skilled workers. Personal assistants are carefully matched to the needs of families by Cool2Care staff members who know the families personally. The arrangement gives families an easy avenue to find the kind of carer they want, rather than navigate the impersonal agency system or find their own support. Meanwhile, the young personal assistant gains an opportunity to work in a career which was previously considered unattractive, while also playing a role in the wider inclusion of disabled children in society.

Having scaled to 30 locations in the U.K. in only three years, Phil has identified a model which is both highly attractive to families and financially sustainable. Rather than rely on the traditional centralized agency model, Cool2Care is an introduction service, focused on careful matching of client to carer. Once the match is made, the family builds a contract directly with the carer, rather than Cool2Care, and pays the carer directly. Local authorities can also contract with Cool2Care to serve their particular area. The income provided from local authority contracts and introduction fees ensure an ongoing revenue stream which is then reinvested into Cool2Care.

Phil is now working to change the provision of care for disabled children internationally. He is setting up a Cool2Care charitable foundation that will aim to promote understanding and share best practices across the world. He began by sending a group of students to map the disability field globally, developing an overview of best practices and the needs of the sector. Now that the connections have been made, Phil intends to create a self-supporting global network of likeminded practitioners who are creating a better system of care for disabled children and their families.

The Problem

There are 770,000 disabled children living in the U.K., with the vast majority living in the care of their families. Having a disabled child is a life-changing experience for the whole family, especially with regards to the new care burdens. New challenges, such as integrating care services into daily life, often put enormous mental and physical stress on parents. Surveys show that over 80 percent of disabled families are “at a breaking point.” The divorce rate among families of disabled children is 33 percent higher than families without disabled children. There is also a strong correlation between families with disabled children and higher levels of poverty, as parents find themselves unable to work due to the time consuming responsibility of caring for their child: 34 percent of disabled children live in households where both parents are unemployed and 60 percent of disabled children live in or at the margins of poverty. As these statistics show, the consequences of not finding suitable care or not being able to afford suitable childcare, can be devastating.

Finding an appropriate carer for a disabled child is extremely difficult. Parents have a choice between either finding a carer through networks and community pin boards or through using a care agency. One of the system’s major weaknesses is its pattern of standardized service, which is supply-driven and does not allow for individualization: Parents cannot decide which care-assistant to employ and their preferences around a carer’s skills, personality traits, or willingness for weekend/evening work are not considered. Most conventional agencies employ older, unskilled people who choose the work out of circumstance rather than choice. Agencies focus on supplying a responsible adult to deal with the basic physical requirements of the child; enjoyment is therefore not the objective, and activities like leaving the house are forbidden because they are not insured. Disabled children therefore remain out of sight, and cut off from youth culture.

Furthermore, high-quality care under the British care sector is often expensive. According to recent research reports, finding childcare for a disabled child is the challenge most often cited by parents wishing to take on paid work.

Consequently, there is a disconnect between the care services that families need and the services offered by the care industry. Cool2Care aims to close this gap by making care more demand-driven.

The Strategy

Phil aims to transform the entire care industry by irrevocably changing families’ expectations about the types and quality of care for disabled children, thereby forcing other agencies to follow suit and change their own practices. Phil believes that competition from other companies will be a sign of progress toward the landscape of care for disabled children.

Phil’s strategy begins with scaling Cool2Care across the U.K. The Cool2Care business model rests on three core pillars: The recruitment of personal assistants, their training, and tailored placement of carers into families. Families are identified with the help of the local authority, although any family may refer themselves. Phil’s vision of changing the care sector begins with his recruitment strategy for personal assistants. His recruitment target groups differ from conventional care recruitment profiles; Phil is looking for young people, including students, existing nannies, and young migrant workers, who can provide friendship and a connection with youth culture.

A major goal of Phil’s marketing strategy is to communicate that working with disabled children is a fun way to earn a living. Phil uses his previous experience at IBM to develop a recruitment campaign that targets young people in particular over the Internet and in their universities. Cool2Care has developed a tailored training course to give recruitees the confidence and skills to be personal assistants. Candidates complete a basic social care training course organized in six half-day classes over the course of three weeks. Upon completion of this first level of training, Cool2Care places the personal assistants with families.

Cool2Care makes introductions to families rather than employ the personal assistants directly. Cool2Care staff work to carefully understand the needs of the family in terms of type of personal assistant required and hours needed. In contrast to other care agencies that contract their clients directly, Cool2Care families privately employ the personal assistant on mutually acceptable, flexible terms. Families who want their carers to have more significant training can work this out directly with the carer. This flexibility is key to Phil’s model: If the family needs to change their arrangements one day, they can resolve this directly with the personal assistant rather than going through an agency. Cool2Care only receives an introduction fee, thereby directly transferring the hourly rate paid to the personal assistant. Cool2Care advises the families on how to simplify and manage the care worker employment process, and provides support if problems should arise. In addition, Cool2Care explains how to effectively access state funding sources to help families pay for the personal assistant. These processes reflect Phil’s concern with empowering a whole new generation of care assistants and beneficiary families. They are designed to not only offer the highest possible degree of individualized care, but also to foster confidence between the personal assistants and the families.

All Cool2Care’s employees work part-time, and many are working mothers. Phil’s recruitment strategy for his own staff has rested on the principle that staff could best cater to the needs of the client if they mirrored them in some way. He identified the part-time arrangement as a way to ensure that Cool2Care staff share and understand the same concerns as their clients.

Phil is now working with international partners to identify the leading approaches to working with disabled children from around the world. The process began with sending students to Brazil, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, China, and Indonesia to research the sectors and identify best practices among citizen organizations. Phil wants the Cool2Care foundation to act as an international connector and center of excellence, which provides a platform to the best innovators while allowing them to exchange resources and expertise, and together acting as a louder voice for the needs of disabled children. Meanwhile, Cool2Care’s model is transferable to a range of other social care needs, such as care of the elderly.

The Person

Phil spent 20 years at IBM, a time he describes as feeling like a frustrated “intrapreneur” who always felt the urge to create something innovative with a bigger impact. He was constantly making proposals to his superiors, including insisting on a transfer to Asia to work on a new market despite being told “no” several times. He initiated and implemented several new business strategies within IBM, for example running software marketing for Asia when its market was just opening up.

Phil’s life changed when his first son, Shaun, was born with significant physical disabilities. Shaun’s disability became apparent after his first year of life after missing key developmental milestones. Suddenly Phil was confronted with disability issues and care service delivery, and found that all family life was consumed by these new concerns. He was frustrated by how hard it was to find the right kind of carer for Shaun—the family tried several agencies and by going through their own networks, but none of the people seemed to fit. At the core of the problem was that Phil and his family did not just want a babysitter, but someone who would be a fun peer and role model for Shaun. He realized that many families wanted the same for their disabled children, and were struggling with a range of inappropriate choices.

Phil began to explore how he could address the problems families like his faced. He first joined the board of a large charity working with the families of disabled children, which he saw as a valuable traineeship. Yet, he remained frustrated with existing approaches. Phil then became increasingly fascinated by social enterprise as a means for tackling social problems. He also remained convinced that the prevailing system of caring failed to meet the actual needs of disabled families, and that a new business model could underpin a better approach. Phil rapidly built up Cool2Care on the principle that it would only affect the industry if it quickly operated nationally. Phil is now exploring how the Cool2Care model can adapt to different target groups and geographies.

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