New push to increase use and understanding of social investment

Social Enterprise UK has teamed  up with the BIG Lottery ‘Big Potential‘ programme and the Social Investment Business to produce a range of online resources aimed at increasing the use and understanding of social investment.

BIG Potential is the lottery’s new three-year, £10m grants programme which will make grants to eligible voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations “with the aim of improving their sustainability, capacity, scale and social impact”. What that means in practice is helping them prepare for social investment, partly by drawing on support from an approved list of ‘investment readiness’ support providers. This fund is intended to complement other initiatives, such as the Cabinet Office Investment and Contract Readiness Fund (which from the 3rd July 2014 is restricting new applications to health and social care organisations).

The resources — which include a new explanatory guide to social investment and a series of short and very well produced video case studies — are here.

The video case studies are extremely interesting and include Birmingham’s own My Time CIC.

The single most useful item is the new guide. If you’re trying to catch up on social investment and orientate yourself in this bewildering new marketplace, this is the place to start.

What I most like about the guide is that it is forthright. Social investment is not for everyone. It is aimed primarily at trading organisations because these have the potential to create a surplus and hence repay investors. Not all third sector organisations can or should be trading organisations. Some voluntary and community activities realistically can only be funded by grants and donations. These are important messages and it is right that this new guide should spell them out clearly and honestly.

Most social investors will expect you to be able to both articulate your social impact, and explain how you measure it. Have you tried and tested your work, and measured the results?  — Social investment explained, The Big Lottery Fund (June 2014)

One of the key messages I took from the My Time CIC film comes from Big Issue Invest’s Danny Wilson. Starting at 1:58 Wilson says, “we are looking for organisations who provide high social impact as well as — we hope — some financial return. My Time had a very clear articulation of what it is they did. If you said to  them, ‘how are you making the world a better place?’, Michael [Lilley] was there with five or six answers straight away.”

This made me sit up and take note because all too often social enterprises and many other types of ‘social mission organisations’ struggle to to provide a clear articulation of what they do and the social benefit this activity delivers. I’ve been involved in two extensive social enterprise surveys in the past nine or ten months that have amply confirmed this problem. And yet it is this — this clear articulation of purpose and results, if you like — from which everything else flows. If you haven’t already done so, try it. Get your people together for an hour or two and pose the question. “What do we do and what does it achieve?” I bet you end up with more answers than there are people in the room.

Anyway, I’m glad to see new resources and advice around social investment being produced by sector organisations such as SEUK and Big Potential — rather than by social investment providers. Call me old-fashioned, but I think this may offer us a more objective account of social investment.

Social investment is not a grant or a donation. It is money provided to enable your organisation to generate more income or be more effective: growing your business, putting in place better systems, doing more social good, and repaying the investment in the process.  — Social investment explained, The Big Lottery Fund (June 2014)


Birmingham UK. Freelance research, evaluation and policy consultant specialising in social enterprise and the third sector. I maintain the BSSEC blog and website

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