Shining Armour or Sheep’s Clothing

Shining Armour or Sheep’s Clothing
Clore Social Leadership Programme, by Mary Duffy



Expectations remain high around social investment in the UK. Efforts to support social enterprises and more traditional charitable organisations to understand and prepare for social investment through improved knowledge, confidence and informed decision making are likely to increase the volume of good investments being made. However, there are potential consequences for how work aimed at ‘doing good’ is viewed, especially with the most marginal groups and the most challenging issues where ‘success’ may be measured in small increments. While there are relatively few high profile Cassandras there are many who express tempered concern about where the social investment/social business road may lead. 


Drawing this debate into sharper focus can only be positive for those primarily concerned with social impact work. As long as concerns lie unaddressed (or unspoken), engagement with what could be a major way of expanding and improving social impact work will remain less than it could be and chances to shape social investment so that it is more suitable for the sector, and so that it fits best with the wider funding context, may be lost. 


Two issues are central to the debate that is needed. The first is whether the focus is the voluntary/social enterprise sector’ or ‘social impact work’.  


Some resistant voices present views more in terms of protecting the sector than in relation to protecting/improving the spread and quality of social outcomes. The two are not the same. Not all needs can be turned into markets or can be served by social investment. It may be that social investment approaches could work well for some areas, improving reach and results for many groups in need. If this means it does not cover other areas, this is not necessarily a problem if those are being well enough served by other funding approaches. This is where a more coherent approach across the funding arena is required, especially regarding understanding organisation types and missions. 


The second issue is how much people object in principle to the idea of investing in social impact work or whether their concern is more about who is investing (and getting any return). The stereotypical ‘rich guy’ looking for a return is too easily portrayed as self serving, whilst community members providing small amounts of money for something with a view to later repayment provide a more palatable picture, as does a foundation recycling returns to fund another social intervention. However, the initial investment principle (expectation of a return) is the same. If this issue could be unpacked, there might be a way to better address concerns about immoral profiteering.


Many of these tensions are most clearly articulated in Scotland. Overlaying these is a sense of cultural identity deeply uncomfortable with ideas of profit-distribution applied to social impact work, in spite of a Scottish philanthropic history peppered with such dual motivations. Yet there is also a clear articulation of a Scottish society where innovation is prized and where the motivation to increase capacity for good is strong, leading some to feel uneasy about the naysaying around social investment and the possible missing of new and stronger routes to improve social outcomes. This makes surfacing the debate even more important in Scotland. The opportunity is great given that there remains much still unresolved regarding how social investment might play out there.


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