As someone who has spent their entire life working in social enterprise and social investment, I come to this topic biased and have a strong belief that charities and social enterprises have a key role to play in improving a place. This comes from a sense that a stronger social economy can play a key role in building stronger, more cohesive communities, in creating opportunities for those who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance, and in improving the physical and mental health of the people who live there. This is particularly true in what civil servants and social sector professionals tend to call the ‘most deprived areas’ or ‘areas of multiple disadvantage’, language which provides no hint of their potential for enterprise or renewal. The new post-Brexit language of ‘left-behind areas’ has perhaps more of a grain of pointed truth about it.

A short and glib answer to the question “What does it take to improve a place?” would therefore be “It depends on the place”. Which is true. In my time running the Social Enterprise Places scheme at Social Enterprise UK, which aimed to catalyse and support geographical hot-spots of socially enterprising activity, we identified a number of consistent factors behind the success of these places. These included a history of ‘non-conformism’ or alternative approaches to the local economy, some strong local exemplars that signal what is possible, a group of key leaders across sectors with good working relationships, but also a compelling need which drives action. This need looks different in different places: Alston Moor in Cumbria has developed a self-sufficiency and enterprise because it is largely cut off from the main regional centres of investment, transport and infrastructure; Plymouth has some similar isolation, but also had to develop and create a new economic future after the demise of marine and naval industry in the city; Hackney remains one of the boroughs in London with the starkest inequality and poverty alongside wealth.

So there needs to be a drive to improve things (necessity is the mother of action) and cross-sectoral leadership to transform that drive into action (because one sector alone can’t improve a place), but these can only work on solid foundations. Some of those foundations are about culture, history and existing relationships – but it is also about assets: the valuable things (people, organisations, buildings) which a place already has within it to work with. These need to be invested in, supported and cultivated if we are to see places improve: not least because starting with the strengths of a place rather than from a deficit perspective (disadvantaged, deprived) speaks volumes to those who live and work there. All of which is very familiar to those who work in what is sometimes termed ABCD – asset-based community development.

The organisation I currently work for, Social Investment Business (SIB), has been engaged in precisely this work of investing and supporting community-based organisations for over 15 years. We have managed several hundred millions worth of social investments into local charities and social enterprises, and also helped enable business support to hundreds more. All of this aims to build these organisations’ enterprise and resilience so they can create more positive impact and improve the places they operate in. The names of these funds and programmes articulate this clearly: Communitybuilders, Big Potential, the Adventure Capital Fund.

What does this look like in reality? It looks like a loan and a grant to a homeless charity in Winchester which helped them achieve a new building to provide support in, and a workspace for other charities which earns them income: they are now seeking to extend the building to provide more supported housing. It looks like a patient and flexible loan to a community partnership in Prudhoe to build a new community centre which now contains the library, the local police, citizens advice and a range of social sector organisations on the high street. It looks like a grant to help a housing association in Bristol develop its work helping refugee resettlement and reintegration.

These examples are not meant to be glossy report case study fodder: these and many others are real, their journeys have been difficult, there have been many ups and downs, their relationships with Social Investment Business have had to evolve, and there are successes and failures. We are at least as often involved in restructure and recovery work as we are in recognising success and cutting ribbons. What this work demonstrates to me is that finance is a key part of improving a place but how that is done is equally critical: patient, relationship-based, flexible finance suited to the organisations with assets to build on is always going to deliver stronger outcomes in the long-term than a mythical incubator unicorn promising to scale everything within 6 months to Silicon Valley-esque heights; or indeed, than a grant-funded project attempting a quick fix in a year. One of the elements of social investment that tends to get underplayed, its multi-year view and commitment, may be why it is a key part of the answer.

This duration and commitment to a place, to the people who live and work in it, has to be given as much emphasis as any capital or revenue investment, as any business support programmes, as any other flagship initiative. With this long-term view, places can also start to try and build and grow other key elements: leadership, relationships, cross-sectoral working. In combination with existing assets and networks, this can really improve a place. This requires different people and organisations to act with humility, foresight, and to use their drive and restlessness to change things not for myriad short-term projects but to fuel the patience and persistence needed over time to build change from the ground up. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but neither was it changed in a week, and we mustn’t leave these areas behind again.

About the author

Nick is Chief Executive of the Social Investment Business.  SIB provide loans, grants & strategic support to charities & social enterprises to help them change the lives of the people they work with.

Renaisi worked closely with Nick whilst he was Deputy Chief Executive of Social Enterprise UK, until January 2018.

Twitter: @nicktemple1