I distinctly remember my first meeting at Big Society Capital.
I was there to get background on their website redesign project and was sat at a table surrounded by many of the fine folk at Big Society Capital. They had incomprehensible job titles and were talking about something called social investment which meant nothing to me. I was smiling and nodding and trying not to feel like an idiot.
I have deliberately avoided thinking about finance for much of my life and have a low level of financial literacy. Having a mortgage, I just about know what equity is, but I don’t have a credit card, or ever use hire purchase. I like to keep things simple when it comes to money so that I can put my time into important things, like family, designing websites and riding bicycles. To say that I am risk-averse is to miss the point – I just don’t much like the centrality of economics and finance in our culture.
So to say that I was out of my depth is an understatement - I was totally lost. Not only that, I was, frankly, a little hostile to the idea. Being a bit of a champagne-greenie it was difficult for me to see past the political implications of the ‘Big Society’ label.
I have since learned that my rather basic level of knowledge and sceptical attitude is not unusual in those coming to social investment for the first time. So it turns out my ignorance was a great benefit to me as I embarked on a journey to discover what this thing was and why it might be useful to people. My motivation is very different but I had to actively try to understand social investment. Which is, of course, the very journey that Good Finance is meant to be helping with – only for charities and social enterprises.
A year later and I wouldn’t say that I am any closer to getting a credit card, but I can see that it’s not only possible to use finance in an ethical way, but that it can be a real enabler to those tackling some of society’s most difficult problems. Initially, I confess, I thought I was going to be working with sharks, but it turns out that the sector is full of very genuine people who are looking to make a difference - who knew!
When I’m thinking about how to design and communicate social investment I think back to that first meeting. Here I was, surrounded by key players and trying not to make a fool of myself - what would I have needed to get me through that experience in good shape? I was lucky enough to get some good online links and some patient explanations over a couple of cups of tea with Jo at Big Society Capital, and this was enough to get me started.
That’s the kind of fundamental question that drives our work on Good Finance - what do people need in order to get this? What are the key pieces of information that turn on a light for people? How can we help them through their preconceptions to a place they can make an informed assessment of the social investment options and whether it’s appropriate for them? So who is the best person to ‘have a coffee’ with, either literally or metaphorically? We know there is plenty of opportunity for those who can get beyond that initial stage of ‘what is this and why should I care’.
I am less awkward now that we’ve talked to many people in the charity and social enterprise sectors. And while I can now have a credible conversation about things like Trustee’s reluctance to embrace debt-based finance, I never let myself forget having that ‘first day of school’ feeling. It’s my job (with Emma from Snook) to hold onto that feeling and design the progression from it to a place of understanding and, finally, perhaps to a place where people are confident enough to take on investment – if it’s right for them - to help them do more of their fantastic work.
Now I know that it’s a journey that is worth our time and attention to help people on. Even as an observer, I can see that social investment can have a transformative impact. I can’t see myself rushing out to start a social enterprise anytime soon, but I am very happy to be helping those that would.
By Allen O'Leary, Independent Website Consultant