Social investment – is it all about the money?

Sophie joined Access for six months as part of the On Purpose Associate Programme, which helps professionals move into purpose-driven careers through a year-long programme comprised of two work placements, training, coaching and mentoring. Here she reflects on her time with Access. 

My six months at Access has sadly come to an end and, unbelievably, I’m already a month into my second On Purpose placement. So what have I learned and how has it shaped my thinking?

Apart from coming to the conclusion that my Access colleagues are some of the best people I’ve ever worked with, I’ve learned a lot about the path a charity or social enterprise takes in seeking and securing social investment.  The most important lesson was that securing investment isn’t the end of the journey. Social investment is a vehicle to help organisations along the way, putting them in a stronger position to achieve their goals – but not the end goal in itself. That lesson leaves a niggling question: What happens after an organisation has taken on social investment? Is it better able to maintain and increase its social impact? Is it left more financially resilient? Or in a world of harsh financial realities should we consider a small organisation’s continued existence a triumph in itself?

My monitoring and reporting role at Access was focussed on putting in place the mechanisms to help us answer these questions over the life of the Growth Fund. But I was initially dismayed to realise how hard each of these questions is to tackle.

Take financial resilience, for example. Naively, I thought monitoring resilience would be fairly straight-forward.  The theory goes that improved access to small amounts of blended (loan and grant) finance would improve organisations’ financial resilience – for example by providing working capital or enabling growth. But it is surprisingly difficult to define ‘financial resilience’.  Resilience might look very different for different organisations. Even once we have a working definition, we have to consider how best to compare organisations that have received finance with those that haven’t.  To do this we have to take a snapshot of the organisation’s financial health before it took on investment and then begin to accurately chart its progress over the full term of the loan. We are making good progress on this, but it remains challenging to account for so many other factors that might be at play.

Greater financial resilience should also result in organisations that are better able to maintain and grow their impact. But here, once again, proving the link with data is challenging. Six months wasn’t enough time to get under the skin of what social impact reporting means in the context of being a social investment wholesaler – this is a challenge that I’ve left for the next On Purpose associate to tackle (good luck Sajni!) 

Part of the complexity of these challenges lies in the stage the Growth Fund is at. Access is receiving increasing amounts of data on investments from our growing portfolio of social investors, but few organisations have had their loans long enough to start determining the impact they are having – on the organisations themselves or their beneficiaries.

Over time I think data analysis will bring the picture of the impact Growth Fund investments are having into sharper focus. As it does, the conclusions will be fascinating, allowing Access to see what works, when, and with which types of organisations. The lessons will be useful not only for Access but its partners, social investors, and the charities and social enterprises we are ultimately aiming to serve.

I loved my 6 months at Access and really appreciate the perspective my work has given me. I hope to see the other side of the coin in my second six month placement. I’m working for a frontline delivery organisation which is seeking to grow its impact significantly whilst, at the same time, become more financially sustainable. I’m intrigued to find out where trade-offs have to be made between focussing on long term growth and sustainability on the one hand and meeting short term delivery and break-even pressures on the other.