UnLtd faces the difficult challenge of huge expectations that come with having a gigantic endowment and the ability to have a ‘forever’ business model. This comes with its own pressures and challenges. But come on, who wouldn’t want these challenges?
After a stable ten years under Cliff Prior who has moved on to become CEO of Big Society Capital, UnLtd can reflect on being perhaps the dominant force in frontline social investment and social entrepreneurship in the UK. With a new CEO in Mark Norbury, from the charity for Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, the social innovation world is waiting to see if Mark will continue down the path Cliff laid out or whether there is a distinct and different vision that will emerge.
Having spent a lot of the last 10 years working with or for UnLtd – including 18 months as Head of Networks until late 2013 – I think there are three inter-related priorities sitting at the top of Mark’s inbox, in reverse order of priority, are:
- Finding the right operating model.
- Understanding UnLtd’s position in the market and moving away from programmatic delivery.
- A bold vision for UnLtd’s impact.
Priority 1: a strategic operating model
UnLtd hasn’t really changed the way it has delivered money and support to social entrepreneurs for a long time. It has changed the name of Awards, streamlined some internal processes that were especially cumbersome and had a relatively recent brand refresh. In terms of improving the methods and means of support for social entrepreneurs, however, there haven’t been any great strides forward.
One thing UnLtd could speed up its efforts around is in rethinking the role of Award Managers (AMs). These are the frontline support UnLtd offers its social entrepreneurs. They have a number of roles to fulfil all at once including business advisor, personal mentor, investor and case manager. The problem is that AMs don’t offer the kind of intensive, bespoke support social entrepreneurs could benefit from – partly due to too many entrepreneurs on their plates and partly because a significant number of AMs aren’t experienced entrepreneurs themselves, so don’t have the experience or legitimacy to be effective mentors or coaches. There is also no distinctive ‘UnLtd model’ of support for social entrepreneurs that would mean AMs could pivot their role to signposting to a depth of resources developed and delivered with consistency across the country.
- UnLtd should become a digital-first organisation. What does that mean? Prioritising the development of digital tools and resources that can either be used independently by social entrepreneurs to learn at their own pace or used by AMs on their tablets to walk through the material with social entrepreneurs who need more bespoke support. My recollection of my time at UnLtd was the most effort spent on technology was around the internal intranet. It all felt a bit 1990s. I’d get rid of the intranet (if it is still there), get Slack up and running instead and spend the time and effort on developing resources with social entrepreneurs. Which leads to my next suggestion…
- UnLtd should crack itself open a bit more – develop programmes, tools and its learning offer with social entrepreneurs in the driving seat. After all, the real expertise resides not in UnLtd offices but in the community of entrepreneurs UnLtd has supported over the last decade or so.
- UnLtd should be about articulating the myriad pathways to personal resilience needed to be a successful social entrepreneur, developing the models around the entrepreneurs rather than the funding available. In fact, I think UnLtd should halt the development and delivery of non-core programmes until it has really nailed down what it means to be an UnLtd social entrepreneur.
UnLtd has the chance to set the bar on what quality support for social entrepreneurs looks like, not just try and up the numbers of partners, awards given and sectors entered. This requires a real focus on its core competencies and not being all things to all people.
Priority 2: move away from aping the models of every other intermediary
UnLtd has been playing the same game as everyone else in the social innovation space – bidding to run increasingly large programmes in a particular sector such as higher education or housing. And because of UnLtd’s size, presence, stability – and ability to offer funding in the form of Awards to sit alongside these programmes – it is absolutely no shock to discover they are successful at picking up these pieces of work.
However, these programmes could have been run by other organisations in the space. By running these contracts themselves UnLtd have been shaping the social investment market by squeezing out any space for intermediaries to gain funding to run programmes. We have a less diverse sector as a result. For UnLtd, it simply means adding to their headcount and recruiting staff on temporary contracts for the duration of the funding.
In order to maximise its impact, UnLtd must seek to avoid replicating or competing with other intermediaries where it can. UnLtd should endeavour to help create a richer intermediary sector through collaboration. Investment into new intermediaries, or even starting and incubating new intermediaries itself before spinning out, is a role that would offer the market a much needed injection of energy.
Priority 3: a vision that isn’t limited
UnLtd has to go where no one else in the social investment or social innovation market can go:
- To take on the most difficult tasks, to weave together collaborations and coalitions to make a marked difference in a way that no one else could do.
- To explore new ways of investing in social change because they can afford to take the risk.
- To use it’s considerable and secure resources to push all of our thinking on how we can create new, sustainable, replicable models of supporting anyone to become a social entrepreneur regardless of their background and current circumstances.
That is the real definition of impact for UnLtd. Anything less is squandering the opportunity of having a ‘forever’ business model in times of increasing complexity and change.