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On Equal Footing: Why Making Big Society Work is No Small Challenge

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Last week I found myself speaking out against the government's Big Society Capital launch. Not because I wish to stand in the way of new funding mechanisms but because I know from experience what it takes to make a charity a viable, investable prospect.

Since the turn of the year I have been working with York People First on a pro-bono basis - lending my support and experience to help an outstanding charitable organisation become self-sufficient.

York People First speaks for people with learning disabilities and helps them to speak for themselves. Its staff, volunteers and supporters are the very essence of 'Big Society - ordinary people who have been mobilised to improve their community for the people in it. Apart from an early injection of funds from the great tax on hope we know as the National Lottery, YPF has received no government funding. The charity relies on charitable giving and the occasional awareness raising training work for, mainly, public bodies.

I heard about the charity on the BBC Politics Show in a plea for help as they were down to their last few pennies and faced closure. Expecting to write a cheque I was instead met by a request to help the group become better organised and, ultimately, self-sufficient. This is a modest charity with simple but nonetheless admirable goals from people who wanted to raise funds for issues campaigns, cultural events and of course to keep a roof over their heads. In short, and in the spirit of Big Society Capital, they wanted to become investable.

Since my first introduction I have been working alongside YPF to package one of their 'services' as a sought after product which will be attractive to businesses (more details to follow). Their route to funding is fairly straightforward so we simply had to refine it and throw some PR support into the mix. Nonetheless, we are still far from ready to launch a fully independent and investable proposition. And this is my concern. YPF has gained access to my support, network and media team and, as a result, will have a better chance of success. What about the countless other groups out there which offer services and advice that are more difficult to market. How will they get to that crucial stage of being investable and thereby able to benefit from Big Society Capital? They need help to make the transition into safe investments for everyone.

As a social worker turned entrepreneur I invest solely in social enterprise. In doing so I recognise that the terms need to be 'soft' and the return expectations modest. But even modest expectations have to be met. Otherwise we are left with risky investments that leave failing organisations in their wake. Assets provide little in the way of security either. The mere thought of evicting disadvantaged people from their homes because an asset had to be repossessed encourages investors to leave a donation and look elsewhere.

For Big Society Capital to work we must recognise the challenges. Organisations which rely on governmental grants and trading need time to diversify their customer base, and small charities with no public sector support need help to strengthen their income stream before they become investable.

From where I am sitting, the transition into Big Society will be fraught with failure unless the process gains widespread support from businesses to ensure that organisations which provide vital community support and services can participate properly.

York People First is an independent self advocacy group whose aim is:
• To help people with a learning disability to speak up
• Teach the community about the rights, the abilities and the strengths of people with a learning disability
• To provide training to students, staff and members of the community who work with people who have learning disabilities
• To represent people with learning disabilities in York and the surrounding area at local, regional, national and government level
• To build people's confidence and create future leaders