Smells like teen spirit?

by Gemma Rocyn Jones

Over the past few months an analogy I've heard repeated several times is that social investment is like teenage sex, everyone is talking about it but, it turns out virtually no one is actually doing it. With Big Society Capital's announcement last week that they've already made £37m of investments it may seem that the contrary is true. But, to continue with the analogy, this is more a case of the school nurse going into schools distributing free condoms; investing in intermediaries isn't quite the same thing as £37m going into the balance sheets of social sector organisations. However, I'd like to think that this is where the similarities between teen sex and social investment end. Where the sector would be better off looking for lessons is from this Summer's Olympics and the success of Team GB.

If securing investment is akin to winning a medal at the Olympics (and when it comes to being considered investment ready it often feels as far out of reach as an Olympic medal) then Big Society Capital's announcement, is reminiscent of statements that LOCOG was on track to deliver the London 2012 Games. This should give us confidence that the infrastructure is being put in place. Great for the Games themselves but for Team GB to win gold though, they needed to have a team of world class competitors. So how can Team GB’s success in London inform our work with getting ventures investment ready?

1) It’s a team effort requiring specialists. Our success in cycling has been credited to the vast team of specialists, physios, trainers, nutritionists, technicians, who surrounded Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and team. Translate that to social ventures and they too need focused help with business models, financial planning etc. But it’s not just generic support, specialists are important too. As Boston Consulting Group highlighted, it’s no longer enough for that specialism to be ‘social’. Ventures need people who understand health commissioning, youth services, the education framework etc. It’s a telling statistic that the four sports receiving over £25m are those where we had some of our biggest successes (rowing, athletics, swimming and cycling).

2) Legacy planning. (As fans of TwentyTwelve will appreciate, I do mean legacy here and not sustainability). It’s just not enough to have Bradley Wiggins winning every championship in sight, we have to be putting efforts into succession planning and developing the winners of the future. In social investment the list of winners is not long and the same names often come up as having secured support from various funds and programmes. This is not to bring them down, they deserve investment and it’s fantastic what they’re achieving, but we simply need more ventures to be doing the same in the years to come.  

3) Role models matter. This is where it’s clear that social investment needs role models to show it is possible, and not just for the supposed elite normal people can make it too. But being a role model goes beyond being visible champions who will inspire the next generation (although how great would it be if we had more ventures like Teach First or the Open University as household names, being emulated in the same way as the Mobot and Wiggins’ sideburns). Watching Sir Steven Redgrave literally supporting Zach Purchase after the men’s lightweight pairs, clearly shows what a defining influence people who have been through it themselves, can have on those coming up behind them.

4) Investment. All of this, bringing the team together, inspiring a generation etc costs money. Before our top athletes could win sponsorship from the likes of Nike, they needed a track record of success, and in order to achieve that track record their raw talent wasn’t enough. They needed someone to fund their training and living costs to enable them to realise their potential. Of the £264m invested in Team GB, 60% came from BIG Lottery and 40% ultimately from government, with further funds being raised through private sponsorship and personal fundraising efforts by individual athletes The Cabinet Office has invested £10m in the Investment and Contract Readiness Fund and £10m in the Social Incubator Fund, but the simple truth is that we need more of it.

Obviously accessing social investment isn’t a competition and winning gold or using social investment won’t be for everyone, but, with Boston Consulting Group estimating that the demand (and need) for capital investment into the social sector could reach £1bn by 2016, it definitely feels like it’s time that those willing the social investment sector to succeed stopped allowing themselves to be distracted by tales of teenage sex and followed Team GB’s lead. Perhaps then it will be Team GB looking to emulate our success in Rio 2016.

To find out more about how the Young Foundation has been inspired by Team GB see our Accelerator Programme which is drawing on all of these lessons to support social ventures win gold.