Eric Hodges, Placemaking & Partnerships Manager and CIP lead at Orbit explains why housing associations are well placed to create lasting change and social impact within communities if they move beyond traditional funding and commissioning mechanisms

The CIP partnership covers over 200 principle local authorities, manages over 400,000 homes and houses just under a million people.  With 1 in 10 people living in a housing association home, few industries have the community and social insight we do.  Less have the daily contact that covers a range of ethnic, cultural, social and economic layers.  This unique placement makes us the ideal local partner for a range of organisations focused on social impact each year.

Before the launch of the CIP, the team at Orbit realised that in our ambition to deliver social impact the way in which we commissioned and funded local services was at risk of inadvertently creating financial and operational challenges in organisations due to the often time-limited and rigid structure of the funding available. The difficulty is that contract-style funding arrangements often   set pre-determined parameters on how organisations can use funds.  The funding is ring-fenced to deliver specific objectives and outcomes but this can overlook the potential wider needs of an organisation as the contract is designed to support the objectives identified by the commissioner. Little of Orbit’s funding focused on helping organisations to upskill staff teams, achieve scale, growth or sustainability; in some ways the funding structure was inadvertently creating additional challenges for some organisations, like fitting a square peg into a round hole. This is not specific to Orbit or housing associations in general, but it highlights the way in which commissioners and funders good intentions can sometimes stifle innovation and flexibility when it is most needed, especially against a backdrop of shrinking public sector budgets and reducing grant funding opportunities nationally and locally.

At Orbit, we started to rethink our approach to how we supported people and organisations locally. We had honest conversations with partners around the issues of capacity and capability and started to look at how we could support overcoming these barriers that we were in part helping to create.  Taking an ‘asset–based’ approach, we considered how we best added value to the opportunities in front of us, realising quite quickly that because we were predominately only offering grants,  that was what people asked us for even if it wasn’t always the right type of support or structure to help organisations succeed.  Our inputs focussed almost entirely on financial support, excluding a range of expertise, assets and resources that would better deliver on the aims of the proposals and ultimately, create more effective and long-term social impact.

As an example, we supported a customer to attend a self-employment course arranged by Orbit.  By the end of the course, the customer had drafted a business plan for a day care service that catered for children with additional needs. The idea was a good one and the customer knew how she wanted to get the business going but Orbit struggled to offer more support as the ideas sat just outside of the criteria our grants were designed for at the time.  The proposal evidenced measurable social impact to both the wider community and Orbit’s customers so we decided to look at the proposal from the perspective of an investor rather than a traditional funder. We identified a space that we could offer for 18 months and leveraged the social commitments made by companies in our supply chains to help refurbish the premises. The finance team helped finesse the business plan and supported the customer to understand the financial management required in running a business.  In effect, the total value of the in-kind support far exceeded the grant funding she had originally asked for.  Orbit’s direct financial input was marginal and was far outweighed by the practical input. Given that 8/10start-ups fail within the first 3 years we wanted to help create an environment that gave the business the starting point. None of which could have been achieved with just a grant.  This approach, and others like it, has helped to fundamentally change the way we look at our community investment activities with a greater focus on ‘placemaking’ rather than funding a collection of community activities.

Housing associations have the resources, infrastructure and reach to adapt to the changing environment that our partners and communities face.  We offer a range of possible solutions and support working with large organisations as well as individual customers with great ideas. We’re at the heart of many communities, helping people deliver what the community wants rather than what funders or institutions think they need. The support and resources provided are structured to help communities become more resilient and self-sustaining, and we want to help  sustain the benefits within communities into the future.

The CIP is part of this shift in our approach, it’s helping to broaden the range of ways in which we can support communities and the tenacity of the four individual housing associations that make up the CIP is truly impressive.  This tentative first step into social investing represents a significant refocusing on what housing associations can do and how we can have a significant impact within our communities and beyond if we think more broadly than just a grants funding programme.