WCVA’s Head of Social Investment Cymru, Alun Jones charts the rise of a Welsh success story made possible by EU funding.
THE STORY OF SOCIAL INVESTMENT CYMRU
It’s with a feeling of melancholy that our Social Business Growth Fund and Community Asset Development Fund approval panel has sat for the last time. The schemes that brought blended finance (a mix of grant and repayable support) in a major way to Wales for the first time are no more. The EU funding that made it all possible is at an end.
It all started in 2006 and it started with a ‘No’. No, WCVA didn’t want to run a grant fund for social enterprises, but it would run a loan scheme to meet a need that the banks weren’t fulfilling. Thus, Communities Investment Fund was born, supported by Welsh Government and European Regional Development Fund moneys, lending in Communities First areas only.
BUILDING ON THE INITIAL INVESTMENT
Close to seventeen years later, we’re still going and most importantly will continue going, serving the voluntary sector across the whole of Wales long past the end of EU funding. We’ve evolved from being ‘just a project’ to a fully-fledged Community Development Finance Institution under the Social Investment Cymru (SIC) brand that encompasses the whole range of activities delivered.
The initial investment of £2.7m of capital to lend has been topped up from a variety of sources along the way and a quick calculation suggests that SIC has invested over £30m in the voluntary sector in Wales since it set out. During the first year of the COVID pandemic alone, £1m a month of blended finance was distributed through Third Sector Resilience Fund as part of Welsh Government’s support to the sector.
We’ve made some good friends, building partnerships along the way particularly with Social Business Wales at Cwmpas. The ‘you do the advice, we’ll do the money’ routine is now well polished and one from which countless social businesses have benefitted.
Work with Cardiff University, Nesta and Energy Savings Trust has spread the range of expertise available to the sector. We are particularly indebted to our long running partnership with Development Bank of Wales and excited as we set out on a brand new project with Manchester Business School.
WHAT HAS BEEN ACHIEVED?
The highlights? Plenty! Whilst picking out SIC winning Social Enterprise UK’s social investment deal of the year in 2017 (won alongside what’s now Platfform) might seem a bit self-indulgent, it felt like an endorsement of everything we had been trying to achieve and got SIC recognised on the UK stage.
Mostly though it’s been about the people and what they’ve gone on to do to improve the lives of others. It’s unfair to single out individuals, but the funding that has helped launch the careers as social entrepreneurs of some true leaders in their fields is what makes it all worthwhile.
AN EXAMPLE OF WHAT THIS APPROACH CAN DO
If there’s one loan that sums up our approach it has to be the one for the Iorwerth Arms in Bryngwran on Ynys Mȏn. The only pub in the village and the last community facility there was set to be sold to a property developer. The local community wanted to save it but needed time to sort everything out and convince the brewery selling it that they were serious.
We were able to agree a loan to a company that didn’t exist, to buy something they weren’t sure of the size of (there were outbuildings and land that may or may not have been part of the deal) for a price they hadn’t yet agreed.
That got them in the game and convinced the brewery they should sell to them. The rest as they say is history. Watching Dafydd Iawn perform Yma O Hyd live there to a packed audience a year or so later seemed somehow to sum up the essence of social investment and define what social impact is all about. We’ve supported another eleven community pubs since!
THE LEGACY OF WALTER DICKIE
One highlight is tinged with sadness. Walter Dickie was a banker and a WCVA trustee who was instrumental in setting up the original Communities Investment Fund. He served as chair of the approval panel until his death in 2017.
In Walter’s memory, we were able to establish a bursary to support leaders in the sector to pursue their professional development and secure the future for social enterprise that Walter longed for. We so far have five beneficiaries of the bursary who have all used it to undertake a wide variety of learning – a little bit of the future is safe in their hands.
WAS THE PROGRAMME SUCCESSFUL?
Has it been a success? The original project had in its objectives ‘to help educate the sector in the use of repayable finance’. Back in 2006 social enterprise was still pretty much in its infancy, as was the provision of social investment. £30m later, it’s fair to say that the sector has got the hang of repayable finance.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER EU FUNDING?
The future? It’s not unduly controversial to say that the way that the ‘levelling up’ funding is being deployed to replace EU money is doing no favours to Wales.
For SIC, the ability to deliver a pan-Wales equivalent of the blended finance offer it has had for several years is severely compromised by the fragmentation of the funding. What we have though is an experienced team of five, delivering a fully bilingual loans service, actively seeking new and exciting proposals in which to invest.
NI YMA O HYD (WE’RE STILL HERE)
SIC’s aim has been and remains to provide the voluntary sector in Wales, with a continuous source of finance to support its entrepreneurial ambition.
With plenty of cash in the bank to lend and no shortage of skilled social entrepreneurs ready to use it, it looks like we’re going to be doing exactly that for some time to come. None of this would have been possible without EU funding. We stand totally in its debt as well as being a tangible legacy of what it leaves behind.
Diolch yn fawr iawn Ewrop.
FIND OUT MORE
We recently released a series of short films highlighting the amazing work that voluntary organisations have done using EU funding: