A renewed mission for Access

Access – the Foundation for Social Investment, has announced it will not close, as originally planned, in 2026. Seb Elsworth, CEO, reflects on the decision and the implications for the future.

Initially established in 2015 with a clear remit to disrupt the social investment market and reach communities that were previously excluded, Access was originally funded for ten years. While the total amount of money we have had to distribute has grown, without the availability of longer-term funding, our resources would have been exhausted in around 2026-7.

Our fixed life approach has had advantages. In leading the organisation, I have often described it as liberating rather than a constraint. It has meant that we have focused on our relationships, network and impact rather than growing the organisation itself. It has kept us focused on the specific role we have to play and driven us to embed learning.

In 2020 we entered the second half of that planned life. We needed to develop a clear view about our future, through both seeking to define a legacy and building a clearer view about whether closure was the best way for our mission to be achieved.

With our partners, the Access team and board have spent a great deal of time considering the implications of proceeding with our planned closure in 2026 and the alternatives.

In September 2022 the Board concluded that, on the assumption that further dormant assets will flow over the long term to social investment, Access should not work towards closure. We now know that dormant assets will indeed be available and so we can confirm that we will extend our life. The reasons for this are set out below.

Listening to our stakeholders

We have always been mindful of not wanting to develop an organisational ego. The power imbalances of being a funder can also easily give the impression of indispensability. We knew that any call to extend our role must come from the organisations we seek to support.

Over the last two years, multiple external stakeholders have publicly advocated for a continued role for Access highlighting the value we bring in terms of reputation, stability, relationships, and additional resources for charities and social enterprises. Numerous partners told us that closing at this point would be detrimental to both the charities and social enterprises we exist to serve and the broader social investment ecosystem.

This has been reinforced by the independent review of grant subsidy into blended finance – commissioned by DCMS and conducted by NPC, the Adebowale Commission on Social Investment and the Quadrennial Review commissioned by the Oversight Trust.

A clear role for Access in future

Within this broad support for Access’s role, it is clear that there is a need for social investment to continue to evolve. Disrupting the social investment ecosystem and seeking to align it around the needs of charities and social enterprises has been at the heart of Access’s work since we were created.

This has resulted in some significant progress. Blended finance models have met the needs of a much wider range of charities and social enterprises: smaller organisations, based in underserved parts of the country, and led by more diverse groups. Data from SEUK shows that most organisations are now able to access most of the smaller-scale unsecured finance they are looking for – a sharp contrast to a decade ago. The narrative around social investment has also matured. Gone is the unhelpful hype of an easy solution to austerity, and in its place is a much more useful discussion about the role of enterprise within the diverse income streams in our sector, and how enterprise models can best be grown.

This progress has come from an increase in the smart use of grants within social investment, both for blended finance and enterprise development programmes. Just maintaining this progress will require an ongoing supply of grant over many years. We have thought long and hard about where this might come from at the scale needed and concluded that Dormant Assets was by far the best opportunity.

But simply maintaining the progress we have made is not enough of an ambition. Social investment must better serve the needs of charities and social enterprises and help achieve wider goals of spreading opportunity around the country, improving places, communities and people’s lives. The Government’s own response to the dormant asset consultation provides a good summary of several of the themes which social economy stakeholders have coalesced around over the last few years. The Adebowale Commission provided an important contribution to this debate.

These themes include increasing the flexibility of products, tackling barriers to equal access to investment and addressing issues of affordability. Wholesalers like Access need to continue to strive for transparency in our model, in our vision and in our decision-making.

In the run-up to the consultation, we worked with a broad coalition of partners across the social economy and business sector to set out the Community Enterprise Growth Plan. It envisages a new approach to social investment – one that prioritises places and communities that have not benefited in the past, and an approach that encompasses a broader range of tools and products.

We see a clear role for Access to play in facilitating the Community Enterprise Growth Plan and distributing funds from Dormant Assets to help social investment reach more organisations and communities. This means continuing to manage the flow of grant for blended finance and enterprise development and making the case for the long-term flow of this support.

Renewed strategic focus

Although we will be around for more than those original ten years, some of the hallmarks of our fixed life will continue. This includes a strong commitment to network leadership and an open and transparent approach to learning, and a desire to embed good practice across the ecosystem to the greatest extent possible.

The trustees have been clear that this decision does not mean we intend to exist in perpetuity.  We plan to work with the Oversight Trust to periodically review the need for Access’s existence as the ecosystem continues to evolve, with the long-term desire to close if we can. We will seek to facilitate social investment stakeholders to build a shared vision for the ecosystem and constantly challenge ourselves as to whether there are better structures to deliver that shared vision.

As part of looking at our role within the ecosystem, we are developing a set of guiding principles that will shape our work over the coming years. These include simplifying the flow of resources to the greatest extent possible, actively engaging partners to redesign and build an investment ecosystem that works for all charities and social enterprises, and making the long-term case for grants in that ecosystem.

This is not a position we have arrived at lightly and I hope the decision to extend our lifetime, though not indefinitely, underlines our commitment to building an investment eco-system that works for all charities and social enterprises.