Ah UnLtd. Do we love you or hate you? Are you the social investment Starship Enterprise or Death Star? Can we do anything to build on your successes and correct your flaws, or are we powerless to resist your might? Our answers and their honesty will much depend in which corner of the next social investment conference we find ourselves. And probably by how much we’ve had to drink.
Almost everyone in the social enterprise sector has been touched by UnLtd in some way. For many new social entrepreneurs it is one of their first sources of grant funding. For many corporate escapees, it is a bridging point into jobs in the social sectors more widely. Many, now, of our sectors leaders have also spent some time within its walls. It has undisputedly been one of the leading organisations driving the concept and practice of social entrepreneurship in the past decade and has spawned similar operations globally, branded as UnLtd and otherwise. Yet I take as a truism that UnLtd is not as highly regarded as it could be, not by award winners, by sector commentators, by even its own past and present staff. And though there are few with the confidence and independence to question its methods, as with any large social sector institution, it bears asking what it does well and badly.
At the most basic level then, asking “What’s next for UnLtd?”, prompts the answer “whatever it wants”. These questions always revolve around governance and it’s easy to forget that because of UnLtd’s endowment, just as with any foundation, it retains a peculiar business model that allows it to exist forever and be accountable to only a very few. And it is another truism that any oligopoly scenario, where a lack of competition is inherent, has the fruits of much complacency and inefficiency. There is no natural mechanism for such an organisation to get cumulatively better, or if performing badly, go out of business. UnLtd therefore falls foul of many of the traits that Jake Hayman described in his popular blog last year and Flip Finance started to unpick in their Foundational Thinking Hack. If nothing radically changes, UnLtd could continue to be a strange collection of the sublime, benign and malign.
However, we should always hope for much more and there is a catch which might lead to a search for other answers. UnLtd’s governance is wrapped by a little known process whereby the Big Lottery and the Minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, can ultimately reshape its endowment for the public good if they so choose. As the sole trustee of the separate Millennium Awards Foundation which comprises its endowment, UnLtd could be removed at any time. With last year’s reported government near raid on the funds of the Big Lottery, there will surely be questions as to whether the UnLtd endowment is entirely safe. And though the government seems quite distracted at the moment, that leaves UnLtd less room than other Foundations to rest on their laurels.
Not privy to any such discussions, UnLtd’s new leadership team will nevertheless be keen to work out what might come next. To start with, there is much to commend about its performance over its early existence. Having won more than one UnLtd award over the years (along their various award stages) and worked closely alongside them as partners in a number of fields – in universities and the youth social action spaces especially – I’ve seen many sides of their ways of working. The confidence boost that winning an UnLtd Award brought and the external stamp of approval for one’s work was immense, some of their venture analysis tools for award winners (something they used to call the Venture Diagnostic Tool) were / are also excellent. And I still know of no greater resource than the Built to Last toolkit, parts of which will now be slightly out of date but are very well updated in their Matrix.
However, I do often wonder though if UnLtd would win one of its own awards. Whether, if the new CEO went through and filled out one of their applications and went to one of their panels UnLtd would come out on top. Because the thing that troubles most is UnLtd’s success rate in growing substantial and sustainable social enterprises. Its theory of change doesn’t seem too bad, but as Flip Finance’s very own David Floyd pointed out the barriers to growth for social enterprises still seem all too apparent. The old names are still the best names when it comes to who are the big players and household names in social entrepreneurship – Divine, the Big Issue, Jamie’s Fifteen – and after 10+ years of growing interest in the sector much led by UnLtd, it is a struggle to name any organisations who have grown or scaled to any significant size having been through a process of incubation.
UnLtd’s greatest strength but also weakness is therefore its Award system. Without doubt many social entrepreneurs have benefitted from the funding, advice and training that UnLtd offers. However, the question remains, what social enterprises has UnLtd support which have really ‘gone to scale’? The key challenge remains that social enterprises, despite being told they are on a ‘journey to growth’ often do not receive the key support they need at different times to overcome their key hurdles. And this challenge seems to get no easier, nor the solutions more attuned to the apparent need. And with ongoing lower levels of ‘free’ money washing around then it will be as hard as ever. Achieving this seems a conundrum to which nobody has good answers, but few have the resources of UnLtd to experiment with new models of work. Yet with these challenges come the search for answers, seemingly recognised by UnLtd, with an apparent drift towards more “profit with purpose” enterprises. What that actually means has been well questioned by David Floyd and it begs a further question as to whether this goes to the heart of their challenge.
Their impact measurement and approach has always focused on the breadth of their impact, not the depth. I think the analogy is of ‘letting a thousand flowers bloom’. But I know too few flower-based solutions to radical social problems to be comfortable with that as an approach forever. UnLtd have done much to build the brand of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship but it is time for them to invest in approaches that realise the depth of investment needed. I have written elsewhere about what I’d see as a vision for true venture philanthropy and incubation of ideas that grow. It is well within UnLtd’s resources to achieve some of those things, if that is indeed the aim. UnLtd could be the “from birth to death, like the NHS” steward of social enterprises in the UK. That’s what I’d want to see. That to me would see real growth in social innovation. It will require some redirecting of the oil tanker though certainly.
Three core recommendations for now would cover:
- If UnLtd’s aim is to take a venture as far as it wants and is able to go, it needs to start delivering on that ambition. Too often a venture falls out of the system to be picked up later in another UnLtd funding round, with a new business development manager. A real incubator would never do that.
- Despite workarounds, UnLtd still centres its attention on the individual entrepreneur. No great organisations are built solely by one entrepreneur and such an insistence on an ‘Award winner’ contributes to a culture in which the senior teams of social enterprises are built from the start with an individual centred culture, rather than a team culture. UnLtd should fund ventures and teams, not individuals and change their language to reflect that.
- Venture support should be done by actual entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs are always hugely willing to share their expertise with others. We should be aiming to connect real entrepreneurs to our most impressive ventures.