Two very different events show strength in breadth

This mix of inclusivity and meaning is the key to democratising social investment, writes Nick Temple

Nick Temple
Nick Temple

Autumn is always peak season when it comes to events in the sector, and many of our members have been attending and participating in a range of them over the past month or two. For me, this period always means two things: train journeys and a bit of time to compare and contrast.

And there can be few bigger contrasts than two events I attended recently. One was the Global Impact Investing Network's Forum, held in the 800-year-old Guildhall in the City of London. The other was the Social Enterprise Awards Wales, held at the Swalec stadium in Cardiff. The former was jam-packed with every famous financial name under the sun - JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Rockefeller, UBS and Morgan Stanley; the latter featured some great Welsh social enterprises, specialising in everything from recycling carpet tiles to grounds maintenance.

The former held in-depth sessions on subjects such as "catalytic loss capital" or "the LP/GP relationship in impact-oriented deals"; the latter had sessions about crowdfunding, leadership and innovating to grow.

I learned a lot at both events, chalk and cheese as they were, and they have helped to crystallise three things for me about the constantly shifting topic of social investment.

The first is the power that democratisation can have - Cris Tomos won the Social Enterprise Champion Award in Wales, for example, for his work pioneering community share and ownership models in Pembrokeshire. The ripple effect that this local social investment has had was evident from the tales he told - a car park, a school, a wind turbine and even Cardigan Castle are in community ownership and control through a wide variety of innovative financing methods. He seemed like a one-man crowdfunding platform.

The second is about dialogue. There were some fascinating discussions at the GIIN event, but virtually no front-line organisations were there. Of course, it is a network for investors, but it felt at times as if key voices were missing. As Sir Ronald Cohen, former chair of Big Society Capital, said in his closing speech, "this market should be led by the organisations seeking capital"; but they can't do that effectively if they are not in the room.

The domination by institutions also meant that the retail side of social investment was at the fringes of the conversation, when it might have provided the breakthrough to the mainstream that all at both events are craving. We are working hard on facilitating that dialogue.

The final thought is about inclusivity with meaning - there is huge strength in a movement that includes Cris Tomos and Sir Ronald Cohen, Buzzbnk and Barclays, community shares and catalytic capital. But the risk of that strength in breadth is that terms could lose meaning and intention could get watered down. The way we report social impact and embed the 'social' in the DNA of organisations will grow in importance, not least to ensure that all the different players in this investment marketplace are held to account.

It is this mix of inclusivity and meaning, which comes through dialogue, that is the key to democratising social investment. If we get that right, we can all look forward to getting involved: locally (as owners and shareholders), through institutions, with social ISAs and savings products, and online through mobilising the crowd for support and investment.

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

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