Over the past six weeks, since joining Big Society Capital, I have been on a journey of learning, listening, and growing. Having worked in the charity sector in Scotland for several years, from leading campaigns in a national advice charity to directing a charity focused on tackling tech abuse in Scotland, entering the world of social investment was a scary yet exciting step – or enormous leap – for me.
My first week at Big Society Capital was like opening a (virtual) door into a country I had never been before. I was navigating a landscape where I had many questions, a list of things I wanted to explore, and I was curious about everything. The only thing I knew for sure was that I certainly did not understand the language. Within my first three days, I had attended a Financial Promotions webinar, joined a meeting with an investor about our on-going social investment tax relief campaign and delved into the world of compliance. My brain was aching. But, as with exploring any new place I learnt quickly from the locals, my fantastic new colleagues in the Social Sector Engagement Team, each with a contagious energy, bustling with ideas and with an acronym for everything.
By the time I reached the end of my second week, I was feeling more at home. Picking up familiar phrases, spending more time with the locals and ticking plenty of activities off my to-do list. Helpfully, working in the team of translators, I was invited to learn how we make the world of social investment understandable to charities and social enterprises, and then in turn, how we bring our learning from the sector back to the organisation.
Commonality in a changing world
Speaking to a charity CEO in my third week, I was asked what had led me to Big Society Capital and this started a rich discussion. As with most people who work, or have worked, in a charity we learnt quickly how much we had in common. We shared an acute understanding of the gut-wrenching passion and desire that burns within every part of the sector to make meaningful difference to those who need support. Yet, often trapped in a cycle of restrictive grant-funding and lack of resources, things can be slow and measuring impact can be challenging. I responded to the question simply: I want to support the sustainability of a sector that I care vehemently about.
Yet, we both acknowledged that the sustainability of the social sector sits against a backdrop of fierce uncertainty. The ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many social enterprises and charities to change their service delivery model overnight. Whilst this has yielded some positives, it has been a challenging and stressful eight months and the future looks increasingly unclear. Domestic abuse across the world rose by 20%  during lockdown and as the number of people in employment fell across the UK, the number of people claiming Universal Credit rose by 117% . Behind each statistic, is an individual, a member of our local community who is leaning on, turning to and some even solely reliant on support from frontline services. The big question being, is it possible for the social sector to meet that demand as it collides with redundancies, donation drops and funding squeezes?
And whilst another unanswered question was added to my list, fundamentally for me, I was starting to piece together the unique role that Big Society Capital plays in helping to solve some of the most critical social problems in the UK, as a social investment wholesaler.
“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”
Joining Big Society Capital, or indeed any organisation, during a global health pandemic comes with its challenges, with one of the greatest being the lack of in-person connectivity. It is also easy to feel disconnected from the reality frontline organisations are faced with from our home offices and even more so, from our position as a wholesaler.
Luckily for me, the team were in the throes of organising the Big Society Capital Virtual Festival, bringing together honest stories from the frontline and horizon scanning for the future from charity and social enterprise leaders. The inspiration for this was to bring every part of Big Society Capital together, from investment through to HR, to listen, learn and connect.
Armed with my homemade festival bunting and #BuySocial goody bag, the Virtual Festival was off with a bang – or in my case, a live saxophone serenade from a musical social enterprise leader.
“An agile mind will always thrive in times of crisis...and just because we are a social enterprise, it doesn’t mean we can’t be as successful as any other business in the world.” Each experience from social sector leaders from across the UK was different, but all attached with a common thread of resilience, creativity and most importantly, the ability to bounce back. Under enormous pressure and faced with choices many of us would never want to make, we learnt of a community café that had opened two weeks before lockdown and of an international events business whose trading had almost ceased altogether.
For me, this was a pivotal moment of understanding the building blocks of the social investment journey. I could see the flow of our capital from fund managers into social sector organisations who use this capital to bolster, innovate and sustain for the future. I listened to how individual investors had responded quickly and swiftly with mounds of support and heard plans that were being activated in charities and enterprises to secure resilient, regular traded income with more velocity than ever before. Determination to achieve and succeed in the darkest times of adversity.
As I listened to each story, told with brutal honesty, it became clear to me that no matter what organisation or position you are in, conversation is vitally important. And that is what we need to continue to do, to build trusting relationships, listen and respond to the need of the social sector, to ensure no-one is left behind.
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 BBC news