Releasing the Potential of Social Entrepreneurs

Releasing the Potential of Social Entrepreneurs
Social Value Lab
15.02.12

Some observations on the progress, effectiveness, and impact of the Firstport awards programme.

The assignment

Another great assignment … working with the team at Firstport to help take stock of their awards programme – how well it works, what impact it’s had, and how it can get better. We did the useful … crunched some numbers on where the money went and how it was used, listened to the views of the great and the good associated with Firstport, and gathered a massive amount of survey data along the way from awardees … and the best bit for me, listening to the stories of almost a dozen of Scotland’s next wave of social entrepreneurs that have been assisted by Firstport.

A well-oiled machine

The Firstport awards programme (now including the Social Entrepreneurs Fund) has been around for quite a while … for even longer if we consider the pioneering awards programme from UnLtd on which it is based. This means that over time the nuts ‘n’ bolts of the programme have been tightened up. Indeed, the evidence from our evaluation shows that the programme is now a well-oiled machine in most respects … there is a rapid 6-8 week turnaround on applications, there is 80%+ customer satisfaction across the main features of the grant-making process, and there is an effective two-stage financial platform for social entrepreneurs who are ultimately successful in the funding competition.

Some impressive numbers

What really impressed me by the numbers coming back from Firstport evaluation was two things – how far a relatively small amount of money can go, and the pace at which bright ideas are being turned into promising new social ventures. While I don’t want to bore you with the details … Between March 2009 and September 2011 Firstport managed funds of more than £1.5 million, allocated 265 awards, and in doing so supported 232 early-stage social entrepreneurs. These 232 entrepreneurs took their ideas and very quickly turned them into well over 100 social ventures. One-quarter of these ventures are already supporting jobs and three quarters are supporting volunteers. Taken together, the ventures have generated a turnover of £6.5million in the last 12 months (two-fifths from trading). In turn the ventures are achieving an impressive social impact; reaching some 16,000 beneficiaries every month and delivering important work in communities across Scotland.

Personal transformations

The biggest impact for me though is on the people. There’s really good evidence that the social entrepreneurs with the help of Firstport feel empowered and better equipped to take on the challenge of establishing a social venture. You just have to look at the impressive stories from some of the social entrepreneurs to understand the difference that Firstport can make … Greg at the Glasgow Bike Station, Mary at MyBus, Tracy at KidzEco, Graham at Reach for the Sky Basketball, and many more. Social entrepreneurs brimming with enthusiasm, confidence, and potential, while already achieving great things.

Not just a cash machine

… But how does Firstport make a difference. Is it the cash, is it the sound advice? The comment that Firstport (unlike some other grant-makers we might name) is not just a ‘cash machine’ couldn’t be truer. Given that three-quarters of awards are for less than £5,000, it’s not just the money that really matters (although it is essential to most awardees). Equally or more important is advice that social entrepreneurs can get access to during the early stages of their journey. This is essential in instilling confidence, providing a sense of direction, and maintaining focus as the new venture gets off the ground. The current jargon would describe Firstport as a truly ‘engaged grant-maker’.

Not totally cracked it yet

So far, so good; the awards programme is both efficient and impactful, but there’s always room for improvement. In no particular order, here are my top three priorities for Firstport …

1. Reach: Still too many awardees are drawn from among a well-educated, articulate bunch from the urban central belt of Scotland … so clearly, more to be done to get beyond these usual suspects and reach promising social entrepreneurs across Scotland.

2. Scale:
It’s the ‘what next’ question. The Firstport offering can take aspiring social entrepreneurs and their ventures only so far. But what about the high fliers that naturally emerge? Is there a ‘Level 3’ financial offering or support package required to help them reach scale?

3.
 Community: My experience, and that of the awardees we spoke to, is that the social entrepreneur’s journey can be a relatively personal and isolating one. I’m a great believer that there is both strength and visibility in numbers. So, what more can Firstport do to connect up and build a community of social entrepreneurs across Scotland?

Next steps

It’s clear to me from the views gathered and numbers presented that the awards programme has still a really important niche (how many other funds can you think of that systematically support individuals rather than organisations to bring about social change?). Our report therefore recommends continued refinement rather than wholesale change at Firstport. With a few tweaks, greater targeting, and further reach our report suggests that the awards programme should be able to make an even greater impact.

To find out more about the impact of the awards programme see the full report here.

Jonathan Coburn
Director, Social Value Lab
jonathan@socialvaluelab.org.uk
www.socialvaluelab.org.uk