Shopping or investing?

Cliff Prior

The December 2012 editorial quotes Mark Hecker of Reach Incorporated saying, ‘It has become commonplace for funders … to require “proof” before any money is provided …’ How true and, if taken too far, how damaging.

UnLtd backs people as social entrepreneurs, starting new social programmes of their own design. Most of the people we support have personal experience of the problem they seek to solve, and most come from backgrounds that mean they do not have the cash, the contacts or the confidence to get up those first few steps on the ladder to secure conventional grants. We believe the talent is out there, and that every community facing problems contains within it someone who can step forward as the solution.

This is not impact investing. It trusts the people who live with the problem to come up with better, more authentic solutions. And solutions are rarely the mirror image of problems – they may come in as unexpected sideways approaches.

What are we here for as foundations? In The Grantmaking Tango (2004), Julia Unwin spoke of giving, shopping and investing. The trend to impact investment has shifted many foundations away from simple gifts, but not really to investing: rather, to shopping, to buying some preset outcomes via proven initiatives. True investing would recognize that many of the intractable social problems we seek to address are not amenable to any existing approach. They demand innovation, system change, radical approaches, trial and error. True investing would ask us to take risks and fund approaches for which there is no existing measure; to invite new talent on to the stage.

Let’s remember James Dyson had over 5,000 prototypes before perfecting his engineering solution. Let’s be brave, and fund blue-sky ideas and new people as well as going to the shops for this year’s update on more of the same.

Cliff Prior

Chief executive, UnLtd

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