How to bridge the gap in the social investment market

We should look more closely at the technological and peer-to-peer models that are disrupting mainstream finance, rather than replicating that mainstream, writes Nick Temple

Nick Temple
Nick Temple

A report from the Community Development Finance Association, called Mind the Finance Gap, was launched last month. As the name suggests, the research has identified significant unmet demand for community finance - unmet to the tune of more than £6bn, the CDFA estimates.

Of this, it identifies an unmet demand of between £1bn and 2bn from civil society organisations for such alternative finance - almost 60,000 charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations whose needs are not being met by the mainstream.

While I was waiting on the platform for a train to arrive the next day, the monotone "mind the gap" of London Underground reminded me of the report and got me thinking - is the existing social investment market really addressing that gap? The CDFA report says that approximately £286m of social investment has flowed into charities and social enterprises, but how much of that has been local, small-scale, patient, risky and suited to the legal structures and ownership that those organisations choose? Of late, it seems that more and more of the available resources, be they grants or public funds incentivising investment, are flowing to the large, the proven and the clearly commercial - commercial in both structure (equity investment requiring a company limited by share) and return (because the rates of return demanded are high).

I wonder if we shouldn't look more closely at the technological and peer-to-peer models that are disrupting mainstream finance, rather than replicating that mainstream. How many charities and social enterprises would use a finance model such as Zopa if they could lend to each other more easily?

What is the public service delivery equivalent of Market Invoice? If the government can use Funding Circle to lend £20m to small businesses, why not do the same for civil society through some of the burgeoning crowdfunding platforms? Why can't there be more social enterprises like GenCommunity, innovating in the community shares space? Where is the ethical Wonga? In the words of my favourite ice hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, we need to "skate to where the puck is headed, not where it's been" - and the finance 'puck' is surely headed towards peer-to-peer and new technology.

There is another crucial thing to take from such organisations: they are shaping finance (and technology) to achieve their goals and to meet needs, rather than shaping their organisations to suit the available finance. And that starts with acknowledging that there are needs to be met. As the CDFA report demonstrates, charities and social enterprises are not being demanding in a foot-stomping "I want a grant!" fashion. They have tangible finance demands that are not being met by existing providers.

Attempting to fill that gap will at the very least require a coordinated effort from government, banks and existing alternative finance providers. But there will be others who seek to do so, for a gap is also an opening, and perhaps a disruptive peer-to-peer initiative will seize the opportunity that opening provides.

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

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