Closing the first #SocialCapitalWeek, Head of Social Investment Cymru Alun Jones explains how social investors can help generate sustainable social capital.
The phrase ‘social investment’ is much used and can mean many different things to many different people. The strapline for Social Investment Cymru (SIC) here at WCVA is ‘Putting money to work in communities’. To us, social investment is synonymous with community investment – an ambition to make communities stronger and more vibrant places to live and work. In other words, building community capacity featuring strong social capital.
Whether by way of grant or loan, any investment comes with an expectation of a return, which in the case of social investors is always linked to social outcomes and demonstrable improvements in the communities in which the investment is made. It’s a two-way street and a fair deal for all.
The way we decide to invest
These outcomes are inevitably linked to Wellbeing of Future Generations Act goals and however difficult or otherwise achievement of these goals might be to measure, they give a good insight into the mind of any social investor and their likely take on growing social capital. This is particularly true of the operating principles allied to the act, specifically those of collaboration and involvement which are at the forefront of not only ‘the way we work’, but also ‘the way we decide to invest’.
A community investment is not a straight linear relationship, as to be successful it involves contributions from everybody involved – that oft abused term ‘stakeholders’. There’s too much history of communities ‘having things done to them’ rather than being empowered to take the lead, something of which social investors are only too well aware. That type of initiative is always doomed to be a well-meaning failure due to a lack of commitment from the perceived beneficiaries. Hence collaboration and involvement are non-negotiable elements on every social investor’s wish list.
Every contributor has a role but with each role goes responsibility. All these contributors are social investors in their own way, even if only one of them is normally recognised as such. A simplification of the contributor groups would be: –
Community Asset Transfer
Bringing buildings into community ownership via formal asset transfer or just straight purchase is one of the areas which can demonstrate what growing social capital means in practice.
Getting any such proposal to even begin to look for funding can be a long and often costly business. There is definitely a gap in the funding market at present for this early stage work which is not easy to source. As these properties often start in local authority ownership there is a big part they can play in providing easy access to information about all aspects of these buildings – legal title, condition surveys, etc. – the equivalent of a building log book.
Equally, working with the local community at an early stage is critical. It’s not good enough simply to announce that a building has to be offloaded at a few months’ notice and expect the community to be in a position to become, from scratch, a credible owner at such short notice.
It has to be acknowledged that the reason why most of these buildings are being disposed of is that the operation they currently house is no longer sustainable. The community to begin with has to be realistic about what it is going to do differently (maybe entirely differently) as simply changing ownership to save the building won’t be enough. The emotional pull of for instance ‘save our library’ is undeniably strong, but in times of ever tightening purse strings what’s the alternative delivery model that makes that work? Social investors, even grant funders are rarely looking simply to ‘buy’ a period of delivery, but really want to be helping create a sustainable legacy.
That sustainability is built on the community valuing (i.e. using) what it creates – use it or lose it. Choices have to be made; buying patterns may have to change. I’ve seen a bank branch closed, not because it wasn’t well used for paying in and drawing out cash, but because it wasn’t used for the services that actually made the bank any money – borrowing money. When challenged on why nobody took out a personal loan from their local branch, the answer was ‘We can get it cheaper from other providers on the internet’. Whether in community hands that bank branch could be repurposed to find alternative income streams to make it sustainable is up for debate, but there will always be cheaper elsewhere and a race to become the lowest price provider rarely ends well. Community buying decisions have consequences for social capital. However, where budgets are tightest, those opportunity cost-based decisions are most stark.
What about the private sector?
Private sector businesses also have a part to play in embracing their responsibilities as corporate citizens. Beyond the obvious activities, how do they make their buying decisions? Is there a local supplier that can be prioritised? Can some of the marketing budget be used to offset any price differential, as there’s a good story to tell for all concerned?
We’ve seen certain places take a collective look at company supplier lists and where there isn’t a local provider, establish one, maybe as a social enterprise with a commitment from the other companies that they will buy from them. All a social investor needs to back a start-up of this nature is some confidence in the likely sales they will achieve and with proper collaboration this can be evidenced.
Private sector procurement is easy when compared to the minefield in the public sector, but all parts of the public sector can play their parts in growing social capital in the places they serve. There is enough scope in procurement rules to make this happen and there’s plenty of guidance and support available through Wales Co-operative Centre’s Social Business Connect service.
Getting all the plans in place, brings everything back to the doors of the social investors who are trying to find ways to support good, new initiatives. The challenge for them is to make their processes as applicant-friendly and as timely as possible. Speed and honesty are important qualities in a funder – the ‘slow no’ is nobody’s friend.
All parties need to be open to different ways of thinking. At SIC we pride ourselves on starting with a blank piece of paper and moulding as far as possible what our funding looks like to meet the needs of communities. Our innovative Social Business Growth Fund and Community Asset Development Fund are both geared to social capital building and show how funding can be truly collaborative with shared risk and shared reward
It is critical however, that we as a collective also invest in other capital, such as social capital that realises the value from social connections, relationships, norms, mutual obligations and identity to a place to achieve the outcomes that can be realised for all. Otherwise, no amount of socially-aware investment will realise its full potential.
As another famous national organisation is fond of saying and proving – ‘together stronger’. Nowhere is this more pertinent than the world of social capital.