If UnLtd is serious about supporting a whole marketplace of social entrepreneurship it will need to seriously wrestle with the challenge that there cannot only be one major player for a healthy system to develop. It needs to have more confidence that its endowment gives it a unique position to think longer-term and act strategically. Even if it means it operates at a smaller scale, but more strategically, it needs not to act like other less well supported charities and be constantly scrabbling for new pieces of work that don’t marry well with its long-term strategic aims. Slow and steady wins the race and UnLtd would do well to follow its own advice and iterate its programmes accordingly. Too often too much money has been spent on programmes with poorly proven impacts, to see them dropped or de-funded. It’s quite hard to spend £2m quickly and effectively and to iterate your programme design methodology, working out exactly what is successful and impactful. To draw a blunt comparison, if a start-up enterprise were given £2m you would expect them to ramp up their work over time, rather than try to spend it all overnight, immediately.

So, I’d love to see a business plan from UnLtd that was truly co-created by people from across the social entrepreneurship sector. A business plan that designed an exit strategy for itself, that had a real vision of success with its ventures, that would see it as a failure if in 2030 it was still sitting atop its £100m endowment. UnLtd feels like a Foundation that could be owned by the sector and it would be much more radical and impactful for that.

How the ambitions are ultimately fleshed out, needs to be left to a wider group to decide, it would need to build on the 2015 strategy. But perhaps it could start something like this:

“The theory and practice of the wide range of activities labelled ‘social entrepreneurship’ has exploded since the Millennium. There are now tens of thousands of people throughout the UK who work for social enterprises or would call themselves social entrepreneurs. Many of them are making an extraordinary difference to people’s lives and inventing new ways of making a difference in the 21st Century that take the best from the worlds of business and philanthropy. And there is a substantial and growing ecosystem to support this to continue and expand – the advent of organisations such as Big Society Capital show just how much potential exists for this to grow and flourish. At least on paper there is a hugely exciting vision behind social entrepreneurship and its growth could be transformative on the UK.

UnLtd can take credit for much of this. We recently published information about our impact after circa 10 years and can be very and rightly pleased that 72% of those we supported said that they wouldn’t have started their venture without our support.

Yet are we doing enough? Why throughout the social entrepreneurship sector do we have less than the reputation we could? Are people jealous of our success and influence or do we need to reflect on whether we’ve got something wrong? Why too did two of our founding members, Community Action Network (CAN) and Senscot (Social Entrepreneurs Network Scotland), recently make such a public declaration of parting ways with us in response to our decision to promote and support for profit legal entities in the social entrepreneurship field? Such questions give us pause to reflect on how well we are currently achieving our mission.

Unfortunately, when we listen to what is said about us it’s true that despite being one of the largest providers of capital in the sector, very much deciding who and what gets funded and one of the most significant voices of influence, helping others (including government) shape their strategy in relation to social entrepreneurship, we are not as warmly regarded in the sector as we might be. We are perceived as a monopoly, as the head of the family that gets their way but is no longer respected by sons, daughters, even in our darkest moments ourselves. People sometimes perceive that we throw our weight around, are poor at working collaboratively in partnership, are arrogant. Ultimately, despite adding value in certain respects, our impact doesn’t match our influence and we do not always work and live by the values and standards that we expect of those whom we fund.

Yet it need not be this way. There is a huge wealth of talent in the social enterprise sector to help us reform and overcome our current addictions. And there is a vision of us being a well respected steward of the next phase in the development of social entrepreneurship. This Business Plan takes us on that journey of renewal and redemption. In other markets (take tech for example), incubators, investors and venture capitalists are often hugely well regarded (as the bad ones go out of business). The best (such as Y Combinator) are lauded as demi-gods for their expertise, influence, success and ability to back winning ventures and help them grow. We don’t find many in the UK who would perceive the same of UnLtd and we want to change that.

We believe we could:

  • Better help social entrepreneurs achieve their goals and, in particular, scale by taking them on a more defined, structured and well supported journey.
  • Use our endowment investments to better effect.
  • Use our influence more wisely in shaping strategy for the social enterprise sector.
  • Increase our range of partnerships and make them more effective.

By no means is all of what we do in need of refreshing and there are many organisations in the social entrepreneurship sector that embody many of the failings described in this refreshing of our strategy. However, our influence, weight of capital and ability to change the landscape make us by far one of the most important players.

Let’s call a spade a spade, if our ambition is not actually to create high-potential, high-impact social ventures, but to support individuals in their skills development, whilst providing some seed capital then let’s acknowledge that to the sector and to each other. But why not see if we can achieve that as well as have a greater impact. That will only happen with a fundamental re-think and refreshing of the core model of support, which then has the potential to scale significantly.

We are UnLtd. We can be UnLtd. Here is UnLtd 3.0″


Adam O’Boyle is Founder and Executive Director of Hub Ventures. Read the first part of his ‘What’s next for… Unltd?’ blog here.