#AccessEd 21 – What’s in a name?

Some linguistic reflections as we consider the next phase of our capacity building strategy....

In my previous post, I presented some initial themes coming out of the feedback we gathered on how we should develop our capacity building activities from 2018 onwards. Our online form closed last week, and I’m pleased to say we had a number of really thoughtful submissions before the shutter fell. You can read all of them in full here – 37 pages in total, and well worth an hour of your time if you’re involved in any part of the social investment ‘scene’. Many thanks to all of you who took the time to share your thoughts with us.

There is a lot for us to digest and reflect upon in these responses, along with the many conversations we’ve been having over the past few months. Whilst there is still much detail to pin down, we’re focussing in on a direction of travel: the Access team and board will be discussing our thinking at this stage when we meet at the beginning of July, working towards a fuller discussion of more developed plans at the end of September. From October we’ll then begin the process of commissioning our next set of programmes and activities.

In the meantime, I wanted to highlight one issue which has consistently been raised, both in the responses to the online form and in discussion with those in the sector: the use of the terms ‘investment readiness’ and ‘capacity building’. Feedback has pointed to clear differences in opinion in how these terms have been used across different programmes, providing a wide range of support activities.

This matters because it has a direct impact on the expectations and engagement of the organisations we exist to support: charities and social enterprises working towards achieving greater financial resilience, in order to help them deliver and sustain the social impact they are having. From their perspective, it is inevitable that the language used to describe a support programme sets the frame for them, and may lead to some deciding it’s not for them or (perhaps the least desirable outcome) thinking ‘it’s not really for us, but we’ll try to present ourselves to fit the label, because we want the funding’.

We have heard from a number of different people that have made the point that the term investment-readiness implies that an organisation being ‘made ready’ is already clear that it needs and wants to take on investment. It also communicates an assumption that what is required by investors for an organisation to be ready for their investment is consistent across the piece, whereas we know in practice that this is not the case. Furthermore, the implication that investment is a goal in itself, rather than a symptom of having developed a trading proposition whose growth can be supported by investment, can be unhelpful. A more representative description may be ‘trading and enterprise readiness’: and beyond that label, this may be best placed in the context of a more general strategic organisational review (something which is a valuable exercise for social organisations across the board).

As for ‘capacity building’, it is a term that has been used to cover a wide range of activities, and contains within in it some inherent ambiguity. Capacity may be built internally (eg providing resources to free up staff time within an organisation – in our context, referred to as ‘back-filling’), or externally, through provision of expertise from a third party (commonly in the form of consultancy support) or developing partnerships.

Internal capacity constraints can be related either to resource availability or to capability: for example, a Chief Executive may be quite capable of writing and refining a detailed business plan, but lacks the time to prioritise this over other competing pressures. External capacity-building, meanwhile, always brings additional resource, albeit on a temporary basis: though it frequently also brings additional capability (ie skills lacking within an organisation). There is also the question of the legacy of external support, in terms of the capability of the organisation over the longer term: while for some activities it may be a sensible division of labour for skills to be bought in as needed, there is a case for placing an onus on such support being delivered in a way which leaves the internal team better equipped to do more of the work themselves.

Finally, we are conscious that effective capacity building can take the form of learning from peers, which could be described as a mixture of the internal and external. It is clear that each has their value, but there are more questions for us and others to test which might be the most effective, in different contexts and stages of an organisation’s development.

Developing our thinking on such questions will inform the shape of our next set of programmes, and, bearing in mind the influence we hope to have on the emerging marketplace, we’ll also paying close attention to what they should be called. As ever, we welcome your thoughts on any of these points: please do get in touch.