Last Thursday, the news broke that Cliff Prior, currently Chief Executive at UnLtd is set for a transfer to the manager’s chair over at Big Society Capital (BSC). Many observers have enthusiastically welcomed Cliff’s move and it’s easy to see him fitting hand in glove at BSC. Others may prefer Liverpool FC’s new manager Jurgen Klopp’s own turn of phrase which means the same in German: fitting like an arse on a bucket.
So what tactics might Cliff bring to his new club? He could keep playing pretty much the same way of course and not tinker all that much. But there’s plenty of disquiet out there about BSC, not just among charities and social enterprises who can’t understand what all the fuss is about, but also among the social investment folk frustrated with the way BSC is set up. Just £50 million invested in almost five years on near commercial terms isn’t really winning over the fans. So surely Cliff has to do something if he wants to lead a truly popular institution…
So he may want to tear things up a bit. But what can he change? There are two obvious options here. First, who gets the cash? Cliff has probably been the leading advocate of so-called profit-with-purpose businesses over the last few years. Opening up who is eligible would widen BSC’s market way beyond the not-for-profit sector. There’s also a question of whether BSC might focus less on funds and more on those who support social enterprises in other ways beyond finance.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, what are the terms of the money and the cost of the capital? 5% interest rate you say? That’s not really terribly exciting, compared to what’s on offer from, say, Unity Trust Bank, Esmée Fairbairn or Barclays Capital. It doesn’t really matter who you open up the cash to if they’re not very interested in what you offer anyway.
So does Cliff have room for manoeuvre? As it happens, there are several constraining factors around the direction of BSC:
- EU State Aid law prevents BSC throwing around subsidy on too generous terms. But the state aid approval for BSC is up for renewal. Could it be loosened?
- The Merlin Banks all have a stake in BSC and expect their money back with interest, which impacts on the investment strategy. Could the banks be persuaded to relax their demands?
- Legislation restricts BSC to using dormant accounts money only for organisations that exist wholly or mainly to provide benefits for society or the environment. But the legislation also allows spending on young people and personal access to finance – could this be exploited?
- BSC’s governance and staff are presumably attached to the current strategy. Shifting direction will be a big test of Cliff’s persuasive ability to take people with him. But then some members of the Board and Trust are there to represent the voluntary sector, for example, and likely to resist widening the scope of BSC’s mission. Could they be shifted?
- Government ministers presumably also retain a strong interest in how BSC works. While they may be happy for BSC to move a little faster, it seems unlikely that the PM thought his flagship Big Society vehicle would be using ‘the people’s money’ in dormant accounts to finance private businesses.
So Cliff may not have all that much room to play with if he wants to make a difference, up against Brussels, the banks, the law, the Board and the Government. Where to attack and who has the weakest defence?
Perhaps Cliff could take some inspiration form Jurgen Klopp’s signature Gegenpressing tactic. This would be a riskier, faster, more exhilarating brand of social investment. Not copying big money models but forging a distinct style of its own with a rooted, emotional connection. This could mean focusing BSC’s resources on aggressively circling private sector market failure to seize possession – buying out private equity owned care homes, developing large scale co-operative housing projects or even developing social enterprise responses to the closure of Redcar steelworks, for instance. This would be Heavy Metal Social Investment. Instead of complex orchestration and the tiki-taka of press releases – what Klopp would call a “silent song” – we could expect more of a high tempo, counter attacking approach, harnessing the power of collective. It could certainly give the crowd something to cheer about. Good luck Cliff.