Access warned that it must listen to the sector's needs

Experts say the new social investment body should not impose its ideas on charities. Sam Burne James reports

Access – The Foundation for Social Investment
Access – The Foundation for Social Investment

In March, the coalition played its final hand before the election of its attempt to grow the social investment market when Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, launched Access – The Foundation for Social Investment.

Described by Wilson as a "sister organisation to Big Society Capital", Access is itself a charity and has two strands. The first is running capacity-building programmes over the next 10 to 15 years that will help charities and social enterprises to become investment-ready and financially robust. The government has pledged £60m in funding for this from repayments of loans from the defunct Futurebuilders Fund.

The second strand is its Growth Fund, which will operate for seven years, funded by an initial £22.5m grant from the Big Lottery Fund and the same amount in loan finance from BSC. It will pay money to social finance intermediaries who in turn will give up to £150,000 in blended finance (of which no more than 50 per cent will be grant, the rest repayable loans) to individual charities and social enterprises.

John Kingston, chair of Access, who also founded the social investor CAF Venturesome, says the charity has been set up for a segment of the market not served by BSC: smaller and early-stage organisations. "This particular segment of the market is outwith the founding principles of Big Society Capital, which has a very big mandate, and I think to expand it possibly wouldn't have been a great idea," he says.

With many organisations floating around the social investment space, Kingston says, Access needs to be clear about its mission. "One of our communication objectives is to provide absolute clarity about our role compared with other organisations, not just BSC," he says.

Access hopes to achieve a lot over its lifetime, he adds: slowly but surely, social investment can grow, just as ethical investment has in recent decades.

Whether the market grows as much as Wilson and his predecessors have hoped remains to be seen. The week after Access was launched, the independent Alternative Commission on Social Investment published a constructively critical analysis of the government's social investment record. Among its recommendations was an appeal to politicians to stop hyping up the market and the suggestion that government should focus on the sector's needs, rather than prioritising the growth of the market per se. David Floyd, a consultant who led the commission, welcomes Access, saying it has a strong team and should be well placed to meet needs that are not currently being met by the social investment market.

But Floyd says Access faces two potential dangers: the first that BLF money is used to "prop up existing investment models that don't work, rather than supporting new, innovative social approaches to investing"; the second that its capacity-building will push charities towards social investment, rather than focusing on building their capacity in the way most relevant to individual organisations.

Andrew O'Brien, head of policy and public affairs at the Charity Finance Group, says he welcomes both Access and the alternative commission as a chance "to restart the social investment conversation". The word conversation is key - O'Brien says Access must listen to the needs of the sector. "For social investment to succeed, it has to be something that the sector as a whole feels it owns, rather than something being promoted from the outside," he says.

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