Tuesday 13 November 2012

In Dublin's Fair City; leaving clear footprints!

I have put on my Social Investment Business hat and arrived in Dublin for the European Venture Philanthropy Association's annual conference. A relatively new organisation (but then social investment is a fairly new concept) it gathers together those involved in social finance, venture philanthropy and impact measurement.

The Conference started in a supposedly traditional Irish way with drummers. See them here:

I've been involved in social finance now for 8 years in my role as non exec Chair of the Adventure Capital Fund and the Social Investment Business group. The ACF celebrates its 10 year anniversary this year and its interesting to reflect that back then the idea of making loans to charities and community enterprise was seen as esoteric, if not positively dangerous. Loans were seen as a tool of the devil. Indeed there are still people around who think like that! But I always took the view that the devils tool can be turned to social advantage. And the last decade has shown the power of that idea.

The work of the SIB group in Futurebuilders, the community builders programme and the health social enterprise investment fund has been independently evaluated twice. The record is clear. Loans work. Our default rate is very low and our investee organisations have grown. And for me the fact that we have been able to invest in small community organisations and help them grow is a tribute to the power of loans to grow the sector.

Our loan work is based on the concept of the "engaged investor" so differs from the devil banks approach. That does not mean we shy away from taking drastic action to correct problems (we have had to step in and remove poor management and governance in a number of cases) but generally it's about supporting organisations on their growth journey.

Now, a decade later, social finance is the new fashion. Nearly everyone is an expert. Why, even the EU Commission has got into the act (not unhelpfully I have to add). The EVPA conference is packed out. New trends tend to attract geeks and fools as well as those making some remarkable innovations. There is now a lot of interest in bonds and equity. These seem very sexy and exciting. Yet what the sector now needs most are straightforward loans. So let's not get carried away with the new. Its a point I intend to ram home in my interventions.

One of the participants from Norway talked about her organisation's mission to make impact and "leave clear footprints". I wonder if we in the sector are always clear on that need. So we get involved in innovation and then fail to scale it up or spread the lessons. So one of the key aspects of social finance needs to be measuring impact and scaling what we do. How many examples of good practice do we hear about and then wonder why they are not spread around the country?

Great to be in Dublin. I feel at home; indeed my family used to have a house in Merrion Square before the Troubles. And tonight our reception with the Taoiseach is in Trinity College where generations of my mother's family studied; many of them to become Priests in the Church of Ireland. So I'm observing their footprints; the books of my Grandmother's cousin, Edith Somerville, for example, but also the silent footprints of the contribution the many Limricks and Somervilles; alive and dead, have made to building this beautiful country.

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