For leaders of early-stage social enterprises and charities, the possibility of scaling their ventures to serve a wider populace can seem remote, at best. Their focus is on delivering impact on the ground with the scantest of resources, often they lack the business and financial acumen to visualise a larger future. Innovating Minds, a Birmingham-based mental health startup and 2018 grantee of The Fore, is one example is successfully making this leap. The combination of talents that enabled its transformation has led to an innovative model of funder collaboration.
Mary Rose Gunn, founder and CEO of The Fore, and Chris West, Partner at Sumerian Partners, described this new collaboration model at the recent Festival of Learning, hosted by London Funders, an annual conclave of funders, civil society organisations, community partners, and others about best practices and funders’ role in supporting London’s communities for the longer term.
As the two funder representatives explained, small charities and social enterprises are currently fighting for a decreasing share of the £3.5b philanthropic pie—a share that’s already a mere pittance by any standards. Small enterprises’ eye-level focus on impact while simultaneously searching for funding often blinds them to their potential for scaling, Gunn said. “It’s only when they learn a bit more and we get them involved in education and training and other support that they realise there is something like social investment out there that could help them get bigger much faster.”
The Fore awards unrestricted grants of up to £30k to small charities and social enterprises, while Sumerian steps in when an enterprise has reached a growth stage, investing up to £150k in a variety of financial instruments over a 7-to-12-year period. Despite these differences, they share a similar process of rigorous vetting and then supporting an enterprise through follow-on skills training and, in The Fore’s case, also providing access to a network of pro bono professionals.
The two funders realised there was enough overlap in their due diligence processes that by joining forces and sharing their conclusions, they could eliminate redundancies, thus saving themselves and their target enterprises time better spent on achieving their respective goals.
Innovating Minds proved to be a test case for their collaboration. The social enterprise provides training to teachers to recognise and support children and young people with emotional and mental health needs. The Fore had awarded the startup an unrestricted grant in 2018, enabling its founder and CEO, Dr. Asha Patel, to hire her first staffer, a relationship manager who doubled the number of client schools.
A year or so later, Patel realised that her organisation had reached a stage where, ideally, it would pivot to providing its service online and thus vastly expand its target market. But she lacked the business and financial know-how to make that possible. That’s when Gunn connected her to Sumerian’s Chris West. Thanks to the due diligence information that The Fore provided, West could immediately get to work helping Innovating Minds establish internal procedures around governance and finance while funding the development and eventual launch of its first digital product—an online training, networking, and information hub for primary and secondary school mental health leads.
Patel, who participated in the Festival of Learning session, was effusive in her praise for the funder collaboration that helped move her startup into the big leagues. “Unlike others who might pigeonhole you, The Fore and Sumerian get you to start thinking as if you’re a larger organisation, that your barriers and scaling problems are like every other organisation, which then allows you not to let the legal structure hold you back,” she said.
Gunn added, “Our partnership with Sumerian is about knowledge sharing and encouraging and platforming as many of our grantees as possible to other funders to help them find a more secure future.”