Making the Civil Society Strategy a reality in Birmingham and the West Midlands

BVSC announces a new programme to support voluntary sector engagement with local social investment initiatives, and a launch event to inform and engage civil society groups.

Here, Brian Carr (Chief Executive, BVSC), Jasbir Rai (Deputy Chief Executive, BVSC) and Dr Chih Hoong Sin (Traverse) reflect on the project’s inception and future plans.

The Government recently published its Civil Society Strategy, setting out a vision for how we can build a country that works for everyone. At the heart of this Strategy is the concept of social value, which is described as “enriched lives and a fairer society for all”. The Government believes that social value flows from thriving communities. The Strategy focuses our attention on five foundations of social value: people, places, the social sector, the private sector, and the public sector. Although many have long recognised the important roles that each of these play in the fortunes of our country, the Strategy places emphasis on how these five components can work together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

BVSC, working with its partner Traverse (formerly the Office for Public Management – OPM), has been awarded a grant as part of the Connect Fund, to help make social investment accessible for the wider voluntary and community sector in Birmingham. The Connect Fund, previously known as the “Social Investment Infrastructure Fund”, is a £3 million fund that the Barrow Cadbury Trust manages in partnership with Access – the Foundation for Social Investment. The Fund supports intermediaries and infrastructure organisations to make social investment work better for a wider range of charities and social enterprises.

The project

The project adopts a place-based approach, looking at how social finance may be made accessible to social sector organisations in the area, specifically with a clear eye on enhancing the lives of the individuals and communities served by such organisations. It will aim to build streamlined access to social investment information and opportunities, and to train expert staff across the region so that more (and clearer) social finance support is available to civil society groups. Along the way, the project will help build and nurture meaningful partnerships across the social, private and public sectors so that we may all ‘pull in the same direction’ of achieving greater social good.

We firmly believe that this project is an example of how the vision enshrined in the Civil Society Strategy may be turned into reality. It brings together two organisations united by a shared commitment to enhancing social value: one an infrastructure organisation representing social sector organisations in Birmingham (BVSC), and the other a social enterprise that is employee-owned and was the UK’s first public interest company (Traverse). Associate partners include voluntary sector umbrella bodies from across the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) footprint.

The challenge

We are aware that ours is an ambitious project. Our research shows that there is a real gap in the provision of local social investment infrastructure support which facilitates engagement with social investment opportunities in Birmingham and the West Midlands region. In addition, although awareness of social investment as a concept is relatively high, there can be misunderstanding about what it really involves. Moreover, awareness of specific routes to advice and information is patchy, and confidence in utilising social investment as a viable model to achieve social impact is low, and limited to comparatively few examples of well-designed social investment initiatives. Large swathes of both the social sector erroneously view this approach as “too hard”, “too complicated”, or “not for us”.

While we often talk about unleashing the potential of the social sector, this is easier said than done. Grant funding has become more restricted and competitive, while increasing reliance on public sector contracting has presented both opportunities and risks to the sector. The social sector is also highly diverse, not only in terms of size and income but also in terms of spheres of operation.

We are aware that most social sector organisations do not have the ‘head space’ nor the capacity to engage with social investment. While it is true that social investment will not be appropriate for all, there is a real risk that the lack of capacity, coupled with widespread misunderstanding, can mean that some social sector organisations that may benefit from social investment are not aware of it or may have a mistaken notion of it.

We further recognise that this lack of capacity and expertise means that the opportunity cost is high if we expect individual social sector organisations to learn more about social investment. This is where we think infrastructural and/or umbrella bodies have a real role to play. Such bodies have wide reach. At the same time, there are real challenges in positioning such bodies so that they add value while not competing with their members.

The opportunity

This project represents a real opportunity to build the expertise and capacity of BVSC staff and associates so that they can help members better understand social investment and make informed decisions about its relevance. At the same time, BVSC will also work with members to offer a wider range of innovative solutions to public sector partners and commissioners, for example, tapping into different sources of capital to achieve better social outcomes in the region.

Our primary aim is to build BVSC’s expertise and capacity in this area so that we are, in turn, able to provide needed capacity building to our voluntary sector members and our wide and growing range of public sector partners and commissioners.

With BVSC as a key player and linchpin, we keep the focus on the ‘social’ in ‘social investment’ so that it does simply become a bunch of people ‘talking finance’ in a way that makes no sense to the voluntary and community sector, and can often appear divorced from the realities of everyday lives of the people we serve.

To find out more about social finance in general and this project in particular, you are invited to attend the forthcoming Let’s Talk Good Finance event which is being run by BVSC in partnership with Big Society Capital on 11th October 2018 from 1.30pm to 4.30pm at BVSC’s conference centre in Digbeth.

The event will include information on this new Birmingham and West Midlands programme; social investment case studies from Resonance and Charity Bank; a “warts and all” account of the journey to strong social investment with Natwest Social and Community Capital; hot topics discussion opportunities; and a social investment update from Big Society Capital.

Book a place: www.bvsc.org/events-and-training/lets-talk-good-finance-birmingham