Newsmaker: Community financier

Adventure Captial Fund chief executive Jonathan Lewis aims to bring a commercial rigour to the world of community enterprises.

Jonathan Lewis
Jonathan Lewis

Two months ago, Jonathan Lewis left his lucrative post as director of digital channels at ITV to become the chief executive of the Adventure Capital Fund, a little-known organisation that invests in community enterprises. When asked why, Lewis does not once mention that he wanted to "give something back" - nor does he moralise about wanting to "make a difference".

For Lewis, the ACF is purely a business challenge and an extension of his previous experience in making organisations work. His vision is clear, and he is articulate about his proposition.

"We're chasing principled endeavours that are financially astute," he says. "Community enterprise guy starts with one idea in his head, which is 'How can I make things better?' and I have to get this other idea into his head, which is 'How can I make it financially sustainable?'"

Coming from an organisation, ITV Digital, with a turnover of more than £200m this year, Lewis is now head of another that is trying to raise £150m for future loans and investments by 2011. He admits that the culture change is significant and that instilling business acumen in the sector will be a long and difficult journey.

"In the case of community enterprise, there is a danger that people will put their projects at loggerheads with money, as if money taints things rather than enhances them," Lewis says. "I try to get people to think of projects and money as positively interwoven things."

Unsurprisingly, Lewis carries the vestiges of his former job. His casual, trainers-with-a-suit style is more new media director than voluntary sector chief executive, and he is clearly a creative thinker. He annotates his explanations with pages of diagrams and scribbles to illustrate how organisations should be planning and advancing.

Apart from a spell as a non-executive director of an NHS mental health trust, however, Lewis has no previous experience of working with the voluntary sector and it is still not obvious why he was chosen for the ACF post.

When asked why he got the job, Lewis emphasises that he is able to lend a fresh perspective to the team. "Entering a new market, you have an objectivity that is very useful," he says. "In the third sector, there are a lot of things that look incredibly sensible to me as well as some that, from a private sector point of view, are harder to understand."

For Lewis, one of the sector's more puzzling aspects is the amount of time spent in discussion, and he diplomatically suggests the need for some streamlining.

"There's a great deal to be said for talking about ideas and principles, and that's why I joined the sector," he says.

"But at the same time, it stops people getting on with making practical commercial decisions. Some of the conversations I hear in the third sector I just think 'we don't really need to talk about that - can we just get on with it?', because you've got only a finite amount of time in the day and you've got to make these things work financially."

To this end, Lewis is full of ideas on how the ACF could work more effectively in helping community organisations to expand. "We want the idea of an engaged investor to become much more sophisticated - like a whole production line for community businesses," he says.

Lewis sees social enterprise as the natural evolution of business, and is ambitious for its future. "The 21st century version of capitalism is social enterprise, so we're at the front of where business will be in 20 years' time," he says. "We're on the right track, but we need to do it bigger and better."

Lewis CV

2007: Chief executive, Adventure Capital Fund
2004: Director of digital channels, ITV
2002: General manager of digital channels, ITV
2000: Director of channel strategy, Granada Media
1998: Co-founder of media consultancy Griffin Lewis
1996: Head of channel strategy, MTV Europe

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