When Carol Botten joined VONNE in 2014, she was asked to think about what more they could do to meet the organisation’s strategic aim to “support the sector to be effective, ambitious and enterprising”.
After being appointed CEO in 2018, here she shares their journey so far:
2014: In an environment of austerity, public sector cuts and greater competition for grant funding, the need to help the sector develop diverse income streams was ever more pressing.
We had previously kept a ‘watching brief’ on social investment as an opportunity for some parts of the sector. For instance, we supported social investors to raise their profile with the sector through our events and had some social investment resources on our website. Beyond that, our involvement in supporting the sector on social investment was limited… though we knew there was more potential for us.
Getting off the starting blocks with Let’s Talk Good Finance
Fast-forward two years to 2016, Big Society Capital got in touch with an idea for a series of regional events called Let’s Talk Good Finance. These events would be for charities and social enterprises who wanted to learn more about repayable finance and hear the first-hand warts and all journey of their peers. There was also a desire to build on their involvement in the North East Social Investment Fund. We collaborated with North East Social Investment Company to jointly fund a series of events in the region.
The first Let’s Talk Good Finance was held in Newcastle during September of that year, hosted by us and Social Enterprise Acumen. Over the next 18 months, events were held in a range of different locations Gateshead, Durham, Middlesborough and Houghton-le-Spring.
Developing the infrastructure around social investment
Then in 2017/2018 we saw a clear opportunity for us to continue to build on our work.
We applied successfully to the newly launched Connect Fund focusing on how we could use our role as a regional VCSE network organisation. Our aim was to gather partners to create an ecosystem of different organisations and actors to work better together to produce a cohesive North East Social Investment Strategy.
Alongside the network activity, we also wanted to develop practical tools that social investors and support organisations can use, such as successful case studies (we’d already seen the popularity of hear from a peer sharing at Let’s Talk Finance events & were keen to develop that further).
Another North East first - Piloting Good Finance Live
Image taken from Good Finance Live
In September 2018, we delivered the first ever Good Finance Live with support from Good Finance, Big Society Capital and Access. Building upon the success of the Let’s Talk Good Finance events which were also tested in the NE, this had an ambitious new format to enable organisations who were actively looking for social investment to meet social investors face to face. The event also provided opportunity to hear from a variety of peers who had secured social investment. The event was a great success attracting 16 social investors to the North East and over 60 charities and social enterprises - mostly from the North but some even travelled from Kent!
Shortly after, I attended a Connect Fund community learning event which brought grantees together to share what we were doing and inform the next steps for the programme. Through this, I discovered that our project was the only one based in the North East, although others were working in parts of the region.
Image taken from Good Finance Live
In the North East, the majority of the sector is small and has limited ability to develop income streams due to size, location or cause. Remembering, social investment might not be right for everyone, we need to target organisations who could use earned income and social investment to become less grant reliant, releasing grant funding to really focus on where enterprise and trading is not viable or appropriate.
Grant will always be a vital component for funding our sector but social investment is a new option for funding the creation of impact and one we can’t afford to ignore.
Since I started in my role in 2014, we’ve learned a lot on this journey. Social investment has to work for social investors but there is still significant work to be done to make it work for much more of the VCSE sector. In my following blog post I’ll reflect on the lessons learned and have a look at how much ground we’ve covered so far…
By Carol Botten, CEO of VONNE. This is the first part of a two blog series.