UnLtd: It's all about people-powered solutions

UnLtd is the largest provider of support for social entrepreneurs in the country, and a partner in the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change. Here Dan Lehner, interim head of ventures, describes their contribution.

The Big Venture Challenge (BVC) was designed as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change programme. It represents a 3 year programme, run by UnLtd Ventures, working with 25 ambitious social entrepreneurs in England who need access to finance, support and networks to help them reach scale.
At UnLtd, the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, we believe that it is people who make the difference. Our starting point is the extraordinary ability human beings have within themselves – some of them to a remarkable extent – to create social change. We work with over 1,000 social entrepreneurs per year and have national reach across the UK. We spot raw talent and we connect high potential individuals to the resources that they need to deliver social impact.
The Ventures team were overwhelmed, figuratively and literally with the response to our call out for BVC applications in April 2011: receiving 1,000 expressions of interest and 638 full applications. The filtering process was an incredible experience. We had a clear idea of what we were looking for: innovative people-powered solutions to social problems in their communities. More specifically we targeted confident, well-connected, committed entrepreneurs, with scalable models, strong social and financial performance, a robust plan and a clear investment need. After 2 months of due diligence, meeting and reading about some incredible people, we managed to select 41 hugely impressive individuals for interview.
To get down to the final 25, we recruited nearly 50 external judges – influential figures from social investors, entrepreneurs, staff at key corporate partners and government – to join the interview panels, over a whole week. With their insightful questioning and expert analysis and a lot of strong coffee, we made our decision on the final cohort.
The final 25 are a diverse bunch. Some pre-revenue, some very well established; some running charities, some for-profit companies; some selling to public sector, some to private sector, some direct to consumers. Many are people who have lived with the problem they seek to solve – the winners represent people who are nurses, social workers, ex-addicts, patients, people with disabilities, people who have experienced mental health problems. Some of the winners are people from the commercial sector including city bankers, corporate managers, computer programmers as well as public sector leaders.
What they share is that they are all ambitious, determined social entrepreneurs who are passionate about delivering social impact at scale, and they all put people at the heart of their solutions. They include:

  • Coalition for Independent Living: a national network of disabled peer brokers to help others with disabilities manage their own care provision using their personal budgets
  • Ripplez: spun out from the NHS to create a social venture to provide support services for teenage parents which will scale across regions
  • The SWEET Project: an innovative, sustainable new business model that provides frontline care for families at risk
  • Patients Know Best: puts patients in control, saves them distress and saves the NHS money, by giving them access to their own medical records online to co-ordinate their care provision
  • Arrival Education: puts disengaged, excluded young people in leadership positions
  • Housing Action: puts homeless people into private rented accommodation
  • Spacehive: created a crowdfunding platform to develop new neighbourhood projects
  • MyKindaCrowd: created an alternative careers service in light of the withdrawal of Connexions

Our aim is to support the Big Venture Challenge Winners to multiply their impact many fold across the country. Yes, we want to scale these ventures – but ultimately, it’s all about the impact they create.
To help their scaling process, each Award Winner receives £25,000 and the opportunity to pitch for funding of £50,000 or £100,000 should they attract external investment of similar levels. They also get access to first class business support and powerful networks. Each Winner works with an UnLtd Development Manager who diagnoses the key areas of support and how we feel we can add value:

  • Which investors are most relevant and when should conversations begin?
  • Which professional support providers can we bring in: lawyers, financial advisors, mentors, PR teams?
  • Who can we introduce them to? Commissioners, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders?

Of course, many connections are happening without our involvement. The offer of match-funding has attracted many investors we didn’t know and the cohort have already started working with each other and with many of the judges they met during the application process. We hope being part of the cohort also acts as a powerful message to potential partners and customers, a marker in the sand of their ambition and an endorsement of their exceptional talent.
Here at UnLtd, we are at the very beginning of our journey working with these incredible entrepreneurs. We’re hoping to learn huge amounts about what it takes to scale social impact through people powered solutions and we’re eager to share this with the rest of the sector.

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