Neil Berry: Is social investment building charities' resilience?

Support infrastructure should recognise that resilience is about the wider ecosystem in which charities operate, not just the organisations themselves

Neil Berry
Neil Berry

Over the years I have had involvement in investment-readiness schemes in multiple ways. I have been a recipient of support, a provider of support and an architect of programmes. Across all of those experiences I have witnessed the full range of end product. I have seen amazing quality, diligence and fantastic outcomes, but I have also seen some poor and frankly exploitative behaviour. I have seen support that truly empowers and builds an organisation’s capacity, but I have also seen support that disempowers and breeds future dependence.

A new approach has been put in place in recent years as the focus of support for charities and social enterprises looking to grow and consider social investment has moved away from concepts of "investment-readiness" and towards those of enterprise and "resilience". A more resilient sector is more likely to seek and use social investment, but that should also be the ultimate goal of that investment. Resilience is therefore both lifeblood and symptom of a healthy social investment market.

As with any change in a course of treatment, this new approach has had some interesting and sometimes unexpected side-effects.

A focus on enterprise development and incremental progress rather than grandiose scale has gradually seen smaller and more locally based organisations able to avail themselves of support programmes. This process began with the introduction of Big Potential Breakthrough, which opened up the exploration of social investment to a much more diverse group of applicants than programmes such as the Investment and Contract Readiness Fund. Access has sought to continue that trend through our Enterprise Development Programme and the Reach Fund. And we have been pleased that the breadth of applicants to these programmes seems to be more closely representing the charity and social enterprise sector than some of the previous schemes. For example, the median turnover of organisations accessing the Reach Fund since 2016 has been just £88,000.

The reach of these programmes into the smaller end of the sector was very much an intended consequence of their design. But perhaps less intended has been the expansion that we have been seeing in the choice and availability of support purchased through the grants that organisations have drawn down. Smaller and more local organisations, seeking more modest levels of support, have collectively selected a much broader range of advisers and supporters than has been the case in those previous grant programmes, which were aimed at raising large amounts of investment.

There appears to be a pattern – albeit an unsurprising one – concerning the scale and complexity of an organisation’s aspirations and the nature of the providers they choose to work with. More modest plans are attracting the attention of more localised and context-understanding supporters, able to provide more generic, wrap-around support, often much more cheaply than has been the case in past programmes. More complex or ambitious plans, however, are still requiring the expertise of higher-profile providers, often national in reach, who are likely to have deeper understanding of specialist markets and greater experience in raising social investment. This split feels entirely appropriate to us and has the added bonus of delivering a cost profile that appears to be offering good overall value for money.

I said at the start that I have witnessed a broad range of quality in terms of the support provided by such schemes. What I have not seen, however, is evidence that there is any correlation between good, bad or indifferent and the location, reach or size of a provider. And over the past three years under the Reach Fund, the greater breadth of the supplier base has brought very high levels of satisfaction with the support received. We therefore need to retain and build on the diversity of advice and support available, while also finding ways to ensure that front-line charities and social enterprises can be informed purchasers of that support. The Connect Fund, run by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, is trying to do just that, for example by building a strong base of social investment capability within the Councils for Voluntary Service network. The CVSs will always be the first port of call for many, so we need to ensure that a certain level of skill and knowledge is available at that local level.

If our aspiration is for a growing, more pluralist and more resilient sector, then support infrastructure will need to reflect all of those things too. Resilience is about eco-system, not just organisations. Access will continue to ring-fence 10 per cent of our endowment to support infrastructure. We find it encouraging that the recent trend through open-access grant programmes, which have not been particularly designed to affect that infrastructure, has nevertheless been to promote increased plurality in the support sought by front-line charities and social enterprises.

Neil Berry is director of programmes at Access – the Foundation for Social Investment

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