Suzy Powell explores how chief executive Celia Tennant and her team at Inspiring Scotland use a ‘venture philanthropy’ model to inject entrepreneurial acumen into charities.
On the wall of Inspiring Scotland’s Edinburgh office is written in large stencils: “Together, we are social problem-solvers”.
The organisation is a venture philanthropist – instead of financing businesses and start-ups, it invests in charities to tackle poverty and disadvantage head on.
Inspiring Scotland was set up in 2008 by the trustees of the Lloyds TSB Foundation, which incubated the fledgling organisation for its first year in its shared office on Gorgie Road, an area of Edinburgh that is itself gradually transforming as new apartment blocks spring up next to traditional tenements.
The model of combined funding and support for the third sector is an amalgamation of several from around the globe and was a first for Scotland.
The organisation brings together multiple partners – including charities, communities, government and individuals – to draw in funds to tackle deep-rooted social problems with an ultimate goal of transforming lives.
No small feat, but it is something the organisation has orchestrated with impressive results over the past 10 years.
“We have seen a huge growth in venture philanthropy – it takes the principals of venture capital but takes it into a philanthropic setting,” explains Celia Tennant, who joined as head of funds at its inception, becoming chief executive four years ago.
“It’s about social impact and doing the best for people who need support.”
Tennant describes is as “blended funding”, pulling in finances from individuals, the Scottish Government, businesses, trusts and funds.
“We fund and support amazing charities doing exceptional work,” she says.
“Our initial aim was to set up a fund a year and have a mechanism to coalesce funding around a social issue and we have managed to do that.”
Faltering first steps
Today, Inspiring Scotland manages nine funds worth a total of £120m, working with a portfolio of 200 charities, along with nearly 400 professional individuals who volunteer their expertise in a wide range of disciplines.
There are programmes aimed at: reducing youth unemployment; encouraging children to play outdoors more; breaking the cycle of poverty in communities; improving the lives of people with autism and their families; and supporting victims of childhood abuse.
Inspiring Scotland’s first funded programme, “14:19”, is coming of age; by the end of this year, it will have achieved its goal of helping 35,000 young people into employment, skills and education.
To date, £48.3m from a variety of sources has flowed into the programme to support disadvantaged young people across Scotland.
The charities involved have been able to leverage a further £64.6m, supporting even more young people into positive destinations; its successes, and occasional failure, provided valuable lessons for the organisation in its early days.
“We cut our teeth with the 14:19 fund,” explains Tennent. “It was a hugely ambitious, visionary and high-profile fund.
“We had a thorough due diligence process, we recommended a portfolio of charities to our trustees and they ratified that. Then, around a year and a half after starting, we were not happy with a small percentage of that portfolio.
“What had we done wrong? We wanted a balanced portfolio, but we had taken on too much risk. We had more ambition for one charity than they had for themselves, so we parted company and it was a straight forward exit.
“That was our fault and it could have been embarrassing. And another one, we misjudged the relationship, despite having a partner agreement in place.
“We learned: don’t avoid risk but if you are taking on something new, be sure you are choosing the right partner and explore the depth of that relationship.”
Despite these initial teething problems, the 14:19 fund has been remarkable, not only by transforming the lives of so many young people, and giving them purpose and hope, but by its longevity.
Having a 10-year programme broke the mould, which previously saw five years’ funding or less for specific causes.
Interestingly, the number of people going into employment increased from 23% at the start of the fund to 31% by 2016.
Plans are underway for a successor fund, with conversations already taking place about the shape that this legacy to 14:19 will take, and potential partners which may be involved.
“We have one of the lowest rates of youth unemployment in Europe and we have been part of the solution, but the job is not yet done,” says Tennant.
“We have a duty to carry on. The fund will close at the end of this year because that it what we said we would do and we have to be true to our commitment.”
Playing the game
Another funded programme that is having a major impact is “Go2Play”, which aims to make play an integral part of young people’s lives.
Since 2009, it has supported 16 charities and allowed 30,000 children to access 45,000 hours of free play in some of the most deprived areas of Scotland.
“Go2Play has always been about young people having that right to play, to have fun and enjoy themselves and problem solve,” Tennant explains.
Research shows that play is vital in forming life skills such as resilience, confidence through making friends and teamwork, as well as leading to healthier and happier lives.
“Play is really important in nursery provision and much of that should be outdoors,” says Tennant.
“We are trying outdoor nurseries in Castlemilk, where eight nurseries share outdoor space. There has been a 78% take-up.
“In Drumchapel, the take up has been 48% – it’s about helping parents and not being patronising.
“We can take a lot of learning from Finland and the other Nordics – it’s about what we need for a good society.”
More than £860,000 of Scottish Government funding has been awarded to Inspiring Scotland and will be channelled through eight local authorities to make outdoor play a reality for hundreds of nursery school children, and Tennant sees extending outdoor play to primary schools as the next natural step.
“Link Up” is another funded programme, which Tennant admits is “hard to describe”.
“It’s about being alongside communities that are better known for what is bad about them than what is good about them.
“We should be alongside people: it’s a very human to human approach.”
Two-thirds of people involved in Link Up, which responds to what people living in the community want, felt better both physically and mentally, and 92% had not been involved in a voluntary community project before.
Making poverty history
At the root of many of the social issues that the funds tackle is poverty, and it is getting worse, with increased use of food banks, children sharing beds and primary school children falling well behind their peers in the classroom.
Managing themed funding programmes is just one part of what Inspiring Scotland does.
The organisation recognised that Scotland had an abundance of people willing to volunteer for the third sector, and now has a member of staff who helps to match those volunteers to charities.
There are nearly 400 pro bono and “low bono” volunteers – people with a lot of life experience and a high degree of emotional intelligence who can advise charities on different aspects of their work, from financial to legal, employment to marketing.
The organisation also helps charities looking for board members by finding potential candidates, but at the end of the day, it is the charity’s decision on who to appoint.
Tennant is very clear that Inspiring Scotland is not a regulator but supports the aims and ambitions of the charities directly through performance advisors, a role that Tennant describes as a “critical friend”.
“They speak to the chief executives of the charities to find out how things are going, what’s going well and what’s not going so well, is their ‘Plan A’ working, building their trust that we are not going to withdraw that money,” she explains.
Prior to joining Inspiring Scotland, Tennant worked as a regional manager for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in charge of a large, geographically-dispersed team; these days, she heads up a team of 31.
Her prior experience of managing people on different employment contracts and working patterns no doubt influenced her decision to introduce flexible working policies, which led to her winning the Institute of Director’s “director award for family friendly and flexible working” in 2015, with Inspiring Scotland also being named “best third sector employer” in the 2017 Working Families Best Practice Awards.
“It was lovely to be recognised, but I struggled as it’s common sense – we are an organisation that is small,” Tennent argues.
“Flexible working allows the staff to do the right thing for them and their families. We have working from home, compressed hours, we have staff who look after children and parents. It’s a complete no brainer.
“The basic principal is about having people at work being the best they can be. It’s about looking after the team here and ensuring they are able to contribute.
“It’s an open and transparent business so it’s obvious when things are not happening.”
Tennant is determined, passionate and driven in helping others, but she is also acutely aware of the precarious nature of charitable funding – not helped by the fall-out from the recent Oxfam crisis.
“It is concerning for the overall sense of trust of the charitable sector in Scotland,” she says.
“It should be a wake-up call for all organisations to look at their policies and procedures.
“We’ve more to do. We’ve no intention of stopping and intend to do more to change the chances of our future generations, giving them the means, opportunity and aspiration to thrive in life – economically, socially, culturally and ethically.”
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