I was able to make it along to this year's "Working Capital" conference that was recently staged in Sheffield - a day to immerse myself in reflecting, arguing, sharing, and further exploring the wonderful world of 'social investment'.
Depending on who you speak with, Social Investment is either the next big thing (and has been for a few years...); is a market that's suffered failure in the past and needed interventions from government; or a smoke screen for covering the cuts to grants that sustain many charities and social enterprises...
|money might not grow on trees, but these desktop garden
pots from Key Fund mean you can grow most other things
The day offered a range of perspectives and stories: Cliff Prior of Big Society Capital stating openly what many are starting to whisper in hushed tones - social enterprise should be moving more towards retail and consumer markets because public commissioners are very tough nuts to either crack, or to change their behaviours; and Hazel Blears encouraging those same commissioners to do more to learn from each other to progress the social value act (but in doing seemingly having forgotten previous national initiatives over the last 20 odd years that were designed to do just that...).
But the impressions I'm left with (initially at least - as always, I'm open to others coming back to me to challenge me on these points) are:
- most of the specialist lenders to social enterprise make it difficult for the sector to borrow from them because they usually have repayment terms of only 5 years maximum. But in the private sector its not uncommon to 'refinance' a loan - it can often be hard to get a loan because you've no history of repaying debts; but once you start to, you can flip your loan to another lender on better terms... So what's to stop social enterprises getting what seem initially expensive loans in comparison with the high street banks who see them as being too risky, showing they can manage repayments, and then transfer the loan to their high street bank on better terms?
- the things that are important to those seeking investment (quick decision, affordable terms, flexibility), are the same as for any other type of organisation in any sector seeking a loan
- as a general movement, social investment seems to be a little bit too 'introspective' for my liking: NESTA undertake regular national surveys of social and alternative finance, which no-one referenced today. Without understanding how different 'flavours' of social finance compare to other finance types in how widely they're being used, how can we hope to make a best informed decision about where we should be investing our time in pursuing investment?
But but in all, a good day to reflect, see some friendly and familiar faces, and hopefully the start of most other enterprises' journeys into investment that will ultimately help them create bigger and better impacts on, and for, their respective communities.