Social investment is an exciting and growing field. More investors are deploying more money in different areas to benefit more people and more communities.
This is why I was delighted to join Big Society Capital in September as the new Head of Strategy and Market Development.
So, what are my early reflections?
First, the sense of energy and movement. I have lost count of the number of people who have said that the social investment field is unrecognisable in scale and ambition from a few years ago, but who also are full of ideas for future developments.
Second, a desire to couple that energy with a sharper focus on the biggest opportunities. In the early days of any new approach or new market it is right to try out a lot of initiatives, pursuing different leads to see what happens. Over the coming year we should be more purposeful about directing our energy to where we will have the biggest impact.
Third, the fact that the “social investment market” is a misleading concept. There isn’t really one market, but lots of very different activities, loosely linked by the application of repayable finance to solving social problems. Apart from that link, there is not much in common between a multi-million institutional investment in social housing and a fund that gives small amounts of high-risk unsecured long-term debt to a small start-up experimenting with new technology. Talking about a single market can obscure this desirable diversity.
A large part of my new role is to help Big Society Capital chart a coherent path between the need to focus and the need to reflect and understand a hugely complex landscape. Our current strategy lasts until 2017, and we are now kicking off the process of looking at what comes next. In doing so, we want to harness that energy and movement I mentioned earlier. Soon we will be publishing some analysis of what we have learnt from our and others experience so far, and what that implies for the big questions that social investment needs to address in the coming years. I look forward to hearing a wide range of views in response.
Finally, in doing this new role I can’t help but reflect on my previous long experience at senior levels in the civil service.
Government has often seen social investment as a way of bringing in additional funding and new providers to improve public services and deliver different outcomes. That remains an important goal. However there is another dimension often forgotten by policymakers. Regulation or service re-design is one way to tackle a social problem. But another approach is to build organisations and institutions that embody the values and motivations needed to make a difference. The social sector, supported by social investment, has much to offer here. This is not a new idea: the co-operative movement and mutual building societies show the long heritage of social impact through the creation of value-based institutions. It may be time to renew this approach to tackling the social and economic problems we face.