What To Invest In?

Aug. 14, 2013, by Cassie Robinson

Having worked (as programme designer, mentor , facilitator or learning partner) across many of the social innovation funding programmes and incubators (e.g. Nesta's Age Unlimited Programme in England & Scotland, Nominet Trust's Academy, Nesta's Ageing Well Programme, Bethnal Green Ventures, Social Innovation Camp) over the last 4 years, I've seen a huge amount of money given to projects trying to tackle ageing, social care, social isolation, etc.  Some of it has been given wisely and much of it feels quite scatter gun, repetitious and funding decisions have been made in silos.

In terms of the latter, I will write another post about our view of how funders could work better to achieve collective impact. What I wanted to imagine today was where I'd put my money if I had a fund.

I look around at people with integrity, talent, and importantly a real understanding of the problems we face, scrambling to get stuff done alongside writing funding applications and travelling the country to pitch for investment. These people are already committed to trying to address some of the big societal challenges of our time. The more messy challenges within public services or central government and civic society.

Then I look at an organisation like MakeShift, based in Tech City, who in their words, are "a new type of company that makes digital products that ‘give a leg up to the little guy’."  I don't feel it's my place to detail it too much, but from an outside perspective it feels like for a period of time they've been given a breathing space.  I'm making assumptions here, but I'm guessing the person who has initially invested in the company saw two talented people, namely Stef and Nick, who'd already been doing some work together, and between them all they imagined what would be possible. Over the last 6 months they've started to create some digital products and have a larger one currently in private beta. That is all great and I think well done them. I also think lucky them. They are attracting talent, they are building a team, they are fostering a culture, they are getting stuff done.

If I was a funder of social impact, this is the kind of model that I would be investing money in to right now. Of course it's important to keep some funds for open calls, challenge prizes, new people coming in to the space. It's important to keep things open enough for serendipity to happen and for things to feel democratic. I think we all know the challenges of these open calls and challenge prizes too. One thing I have seen in abundance is ideas coming out of hack days and challenge prizes that just fall off a cliff at the end of the process or who spend much of their time trying to build a team and establish a good working culture in order to get stuff done, only to end up getting very little done at all. I'd like to see funds being given to existing cultures and established teams of people, so time doesn't need to be spent setting up core collaborations.

*Imagine if 00:// or FutureGov or Snook or Us Creates (there are other teams too) were each given enough investment not to have to worry about wages or funding for a period of time? I'd trust each of them to generate a heap of brilliant outcomes, address a list of social challenges, if only I was willing to invest in them having a concentrated period of time to just focus on this.

In relation to this, it will be interesting to see what the FutureGov team create in their inaugural hack. I'm pretty sure it's not just the Tech City community that can tinker, play, build and work with momentum. I am pretty sure though that the companies I mention above are asking the important questions.

*As a little disclaimer I feel I should say, the teams I mention might not want that kind of funding. I don't want to suggest that any of them are passive receivers of grant funding. They are all far from that.