Nigel Kershaw makes no secret of the fact that he is not a finance man. Having started his working life begging the bank manager for a loan to process his printing company's first order, he seems almost bewildered to have ended up organising sophisticated models of loan finance for aspiring social entrepreneurs.
But BigInvest, which started in June 2005 as an offshoot of The Big Issue Company, is money-lending at its most innovative. The organisation has set out to find a way of providing support to social enterprises while simultaneously furthering The Big Issue's original mission of providing opportunities to those on the fringes of society.
Having borrowed money from financial services provider HBOS and the Government's Phoenix Fund, BigInvest now has about £3.5m to lend to social enterprises that want to grow or bolster their infrastructure. It has so far helped groups such as the social enterprise water company Belu and the Pines Calyx Project, a conference facility in Kent.
"The unique thing about BigInvest is that it has been founded by social entrepreneurs to finance social enterprises," says Kershaw. "Because we've been the leaders and the pioneers in the sector, we've been there, got through it and made the mistakes.
"I don't have a finance background. Although I have a superb team of financial people, what makes us culturally different is that we're always thinking of the social entrepreneur."
Kershaw describes himself as a poacher turned gamekeeper, and it seems that this versatility has been the key to his success. Having graduated from printer to publisher, and then from social entrepreneur to social lender, Kershaw's skill has been to adapt his own career to fit the gaps in the market he has identified.
He extends the same pragmatism to his view of social business. "We're focusing on social enterprises with asset locks that are reinvesting their profits in the community," he says. "But I have no problem with other sorts of enterprises. There's nothing wrong with profit and surplus - it's what you do with it. Instead of buying a yacht in Marbella, we give our profit to homeless people, who use it to move on and get jobs based on education and training."
Kershaw's method for calculating the effectiveness of social enterprises is to strip out what he calls their "social dividend" - the money that is reinvested in the community or charitable arm - and work out what the turnover would be if this was pure profit.
As a result, BigInvest has come up with new ways of evaluating risk, such as lending against an organisation's future royalties or cash flows. But these successes have not been shouted about from the rooftops, and more than a year and a half after its creation BigInvest still hasn't been officially launched. A party is planned for later this year but, in the meantime, the five-strong team will keep their heads down and get on with the job. "We've just gone and done it," Kershaw says. "We were focusing on growing, really."
For now, Kershaw will continue identifying needy organisations and working out strategies to help them stay afloat. He is refreshingly free of self-importance and insists on dealing personally with every phone call that BigInvest receives so that he stays in touch with what investees want.
"There will come a time when I won't be able to do this," he concedes. "But at the moment we're only small, and I think it's important. In the 10 minutes that you talk to someone, you learn something and they learn something - that's vital."
2005: Chief executive, BigInvest
1999: Chairman, The Big Issue Company
1997: Managing director, The Big Issue Company
1995: Operations manager, The Big Issue Company
1978: Founder, Spider Web Offset
1973: Founder, Rye Express Printers