A day in Sheffield with the Connect Fund unveils some exciting developments
Sheffield. Eleven o ‘clock on a Monday morning and I’m eyeing with some suspicion a circle of yellow cones. This is the Connect Fund Learning Community event where I have been asked to present. My organisation (CERT) has been lucky enough to be selected to deliver a Connect Fund project that was designed to increase the take up of social investment in the Humber region.
Given the chance to give something back and support the Connect Fund, I was delighted to offer my services to attend this event and share my 20 years’ experience of delivering enterprise support – or 20 years of making it up as we go along as we like to call it…
The aim of the day was to explore four key issues:
- What is your organisation doing to support VCSEs on enterprise development?
- What are the challenges?
- What are the solutions?
- What is the role of infrastructure in enterprise development?
Back to the yellow cones: there is good news and bad news.
The good news is that we are not going to be forced into exercise or be made to run round them in small circles until we are dizzy and sick. The bad news is that it’s all about speed dating. In fact, it was just a really good way to get a room full of people to break the ice and find out about each other’s projects.
It soon became apparent that people had travelled from all over England, from a wide range of backgrounds. All had interesting perspectives on how we can encourage more organisations to consider enterprise and how to best support organisations that choose to make that journey.
My job was to “warm-up” the participants with a swift romp through the questions based on my experience. Thoughts covered such diverse areas as why organisations deliver this sort of work, diversity issues, quality, financial sustainability, delivery styles and partnership working.
My group got stuck into looking in depth at the challenges and solutions to deliver enterprise support. Given the wide variety of people in the groups, and the very different roles they played, many common themes came out of the discussions.
- Governance was a key area of work
- It’s a challenge to work with risk averse trustees
- Investment jargon isn’t clear or useful
- Social return on investment is either very important/ the spawn of the devil
- Making time, space and resources for organisations to consider this route needs to be created
- Peer to peer learning
- Better quality specialist support
- Better access to high quality resources
- Investors need to get VCS ready as well as the VCS getting investment ready
Neil Berry provided insights from the Access Foundation on enterprise development. He presented the aims and objectives of his organisation – to work to make charities and social enterprises in England more financially resilient and self-reliant, so that they can sustain or increase their impact.
I was intrigued to see the “wiring” behind the Access projects. It’s not often that a funder opens up on how programmes are designed. People got the opportunity to comment on the levels of intervention, and the sort of organisations applying. There was a recognition that bigger organisations were often in the best position to get at the funding, and that some saw larger scale funding (£50k) as an opportunity to get a post paid for!
The most interesting aspect of the day for me was when a number of delegates shared their views on the role of social investment. Several individuals made strong cases on its unsuitability for some charitable organisations. I spend at least half of my time helping organisations to decide whether or not enterprise/social investment is for them. Charities are charities for a reason and some should stick to that, particularly if they do not have an identified source of revenue. Mission drift is a real and present threat.
What surprised me was the feeling that social investment was a threat. In an ideal world, is grant funding all that is needed? It’s not a point of view that I share. It is a timely reminder to people like me that we need to be clearer about getting our message out to the sector and not forget that for some organisations we may look more like a threat than salvation.
So just one day in Sheffield but a lot of learning, some good networking opportunities and a lot of valuable insights. I might just go to the next one!
Neil King is Director at CERT Ltd, a consultancy that provides social enterprise support in Humberside. You can find the lessons learned from CERT’s Gearing Up! Connect Fund project on the Learning Resources page.