Our operations manager discusses the very different world of social investment
Moving out of our comfort zone
Coming from Quaker Social Action’s creaking and “characterful” offices in Tower Hamlets, my director and I were a little out of our comfort zone.
But there we were, in an elegant wood panelled board room, right next door to Prince Charles, with a view over Green Park to Buckingham Palace. This was our first meeting with our social investor – a large European investment fund. Ice-chilled glasses of Evian at the ready, so began the Dragon’s Den…
Two years of research and development
Rewind two years earlier, a legacy provided opportunity for us to develop a shared housing project: Move On Up. Supported by additional investment from Quaker Homeless Action, we initially focused on providing an affordable, high quality, supportive housing option for young adults in East London. However, our development work led us to specifically explore the unmet housing needs of young adult carers. Keen to support innovative housing projects with a social justice focus, we were introduced to Commonweal Housing, who worked with us to develop the offer and highlighted the potential to scale up the project through social investment.
In our minds Move On Up was initially a small, one house project. But now we've finalised £2.3 million of social investment and our one home has turned into four. Through the process, we have dealt with new partners and funders all with different approaches, needs and questions. We had to be ready to answer them all, and commit ourselves to a time consuming, but rewarding process which seemed very daunting for a small charity.
Tips for smaller charities considering accessing social investment
- Your project proposal must be solid. There is a strong chance you will face much higher scrutiny than for usual funding applications. Ensure you have developed a very solid and unique offer backed with evidence – expect the Dragon’s Den treatment, weakness will be sniffed out like a shark sensing blood.
- Partner up. While we had some experience in housing, we needed a stronger basis for the development of Move On Up. We worked with Crisis, Commonweal and the Ethical Property Foundation to ensure that we utilised the experience of others to improve our offer. In terms of working with young adult carers, we established a relationship with Carers Trust to ensure residents are better supported and the impact system is more tailored. In terms of our credibility, these are crucial relationships.
- Understand social investment – both you and your trustees. It can be confusing, and people have different definitions and varying models of what social investment is. In all actuality if the structure is right, the financial risk to your organisation will be low. However you need to understand the different options, the legal structures and be able to communicate this simply to your trustees.
- Be confident. In certain areas you are the experts. If you really understand the need, have developed a strong offer which demonstrates knowledge of the beneficiary group, and have a well thought thorough theory of change, outcomes and impact measurement, then be confident in facing challenges and questions on this.
- Consider and take on feedback. While you may exude confidence, you won’t have thought of or prepared for everything. Our long and sometimes intense discussions with our social investors were rigorous and threw up new issues we hadn’t thought about, and identified where we needed to work harder, or explain things better. Take this with good grace and be open to being challenged.
This article first appeared as a blog on Big Society Capital