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Social investors should choose horses for courses

Third Sector, 8 January 2013

Nick Temple

Nick Temple

We need less polarising position-taking and more plain English support to help organisations decide what is relevant to them, writes Nick Temple

Here at Social Enterprise UK, we're just getting over one of the busiest months on record. We had Global Entrepreneurship Week, Social Enterprise Day, the Social Value conference, the Social Enterprise Awards, Good Deals, the 10th anniversary of Social Investment Business, and our annual general meeting and council meeting. November is increasingly becoming 'social enterprise month'. We didn't even have time to grow moustaches, which is probably not a bad thing.

That procession of events has brought about a whole lot of conversations and networking, and one thing has kept coming up: yep, you guessed it - social investment. It is officially taking on Marmite status: you either believe it will revolutionise the social sector (and the investment industry) by leveraging billions of pounds, or you think it is the worst and most inappropriate thing since Rylan on The X Factor. Recently, for example, people have been tweeting the likes of "How to get investment-ready? First, don't be a social enterprise" and writing blog posts asking "If social investment is the answer, what is the question?"

It seems we are swinging unhelpfully between one position and the other, without any sense of the nuances or reality of the space in between. Plenty of social enterprises and charities are making use of social investment, at all scales of operations, to provide capital to deliver and expand their work and social impact. And there are plenty of others for whom the strategy is simply unsuitable or who find it difficult to access and navigate what is still a fledgling and fragmented market. The same is true of products: there is a lot of focus on social impact bonds, but much less about other types of social investment. Little is written about the quiet growth of community shares, the burgeoning crowdfunding market, retail bonds, revenue participation, the local work of the Key Fund and community development foundations, and the ongoing success of old-fashioned loans.

To use an old maxim, it is horses for courses. But first we need to help organisations on the ground better understand their particular 'course' (their needs, model and readiness) and then help them to understand the range of 'horses' available (including different types of finance, the various providers and the terms and restrictions involved). We must make it easier for them to get on board. It's about finding what is appropriate and right. To continue the horses-courses metaphor, if you're going around Aintree in the Grand National, you don't want to pick a flat racehorse such as Frankel; and if you're going around Silverstone, you won't want a horse at all.

What is called for is less polarising position-taking and more diagnostic, practical and plain English support at the grass roots to help front-line organisations decide what is relevant to them and how they can access it. Among all the talk of investment-readiness (a leading contender for the most over-used term of the year) and investment returns, we should be thinking much more about investment relevance: how social finance fits into the current context and situation of the third sector and, in turn, its relevance to each individual organisation. That way, we can cut through the noise and hyperbole to what really matters - getting finance to charities and social enterprises so they can deliver much-needed services.

Nick Temple is director of business and enterprise at Social Enterprise UK

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