What strikes me most is interconnectedness, in two ways. The first is that of sectors. The University of Manchester, where I spoke, is looking at how it creates, fosters and finances social enterprise through working with large employers, existing researchers, spin-out infrastructure and local government.
The events on social value in Totnes and Exeter in Devon drew attendees from the private, public and social sectors. And at the Community Development Finance Association conference in Bristol, the wonderful Fair Finance and Five Lamps rubbed shoulders with Citibank and RBS.
There seems to be to be an increasing understanding that tackling large, intractable problems relies on previously siloed sectors working together. This cross-sectoral approach is growing fast in social investment: the Social Investment Business has launched a new fund with Social and Sustainable Capital; Centrica has its social investment fund, Ignite; the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and
Accountancy is advising local authorities on all things social investment and social enterprise; the Big Lottery Fund has launched Big Potential to help charities and social enterprises to get investment-ready; and housing associations are exploring social finance in different ways, from supporting residents in starting enterprises to co-investing in established ones. Arguably, the biggest challenge is just keeping track of developments and working out how they fit together.
The second area of interconnectedness is an increasing understanding of the need to think about markets. I was interested by a Canadian report, Scaling the Social Finance Pipeline by Coro Strandberg, that drew out some key findings not always seen in UK equivalents – namely that "non-profits are more entrepreneurial than expected", that many "have financial competency but lack marketing competency" and that there is a need to grow social procurement and link buyers, sellers and investors.
This is music to my ears. As we come out of the era of peak hype about social investment in the UK, we will see more focus on supporting the front-line practitioners and growing their markets, rather than changing them to suit existing investment; and we will see more social finance working with policy-makers, purchasers and commissioners – UnLtd’s new scheme looking for social entrepreneurs in social care is a case in point.
Sales and marketing will ensure that people and organisations buy social to pay back those who have chosen to invest social. I don’t mean that all social sector organisations need to buy a Mondeo and a shiny briefcase and become experts in glib patter. I mean marketing in the sense conveyed by the management consultant Peter Drucker: he said that "the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits them and sells itself". A policy wonk might call this "user-centred design" or "participative co-production", but it is about ensuring we keep user, provider, buyer and investor interconnected. Then social investment, and those responsible for making it happen, will really be powering a new way of doing business.
Nick Temple is director of business and enterprise at Social Enterprise UK