What’s in a number?

Tom Sheppard

Digital Manager

6th July 2021



Rosalind Holley (Head of External Affairs) and Hannah Stranger-Jones (Director of Impact & Influence) reflect on the impact of our inclusion ambitions. 

Around a year ago, UnLtd made what felt at the time like a bold move; a commitment to ensure 50% of our early-stage grant funding went to people from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, and/or disabled entrepreneurs. In the 2020-21 financial year, this equated to around £6.6 million funding.  

We made the decision for a mounting list of reasons. The murder of George Floyd and the global recognition of the Black Lives Matter solidarity movement, had given urgency and impetus to our own efforts to become an anti-racist organisation. The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people from already marginalised communities included social businesses struggling to survive. And we had ample evidence that almost all funding opportunities demand social enterprises be asset-locked, discriminating against those without existing wealth and privilege

It felt, in short, that the times we were living in demanded action from institutions like ours to look beyond creating a ‘level playing field’ and lead with equity to change the system.

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.

So what have we learned so far?  

Firstly, we’ve confirmed that underrepresentation is not due to a shortage of talented social entrepreneurs. Arbitrary barriers put in place by ourselves and others have excluded these people from the sector. In the past year, 53% of our grant funding went to social entrepreneurs identifying as Black, Asian, or from a minority ethnic background, or to disabled entrepreneurs. Every social entrepreneur we funded was judged on the same potential for sustainability and impact.  

Secondly, we’ve realised that our 50% benchmark has symbolic as well as substantive power. It sends a strong signal to the entrepreneurs we aim to serve. It has opened the door for us to be part of sector collaborations to make us and our peers more equitable funders. It has also led to meaningful changes of behaviour in our staff and processes covering most, but not all, of the recommendations listed in this excellent blog from charity so white, showing we still have work to do. In relation to grant giving, we have had to think hard and make changes to who is making decisions, and how they are making them

We thought our target might be greeted with more challenge, particularly from other funders and partners. In large part, social entrepreneurs and their supporters have welcomed the decision. Where we have had push back, it tends to be based on the false premise that our target disadvantages those who do not share one of the identities mentioned above.  

Happily our awards remain open to all. Everyone is judged on the same potential for impact. Rather than disadvantaging some at the expense of others, this commitment makes things truly fair, meaning we can clearly focus on talent and potential for lasting impact. Done well, it ensures those who are typically locked out of funding have a much better chance of receiving it.  

And perhaps most encouragingly, we have learned that this commitment does indeed ensure resources are targeted at the places and people that need it most. Over the last 12 months, 70% of the entrepreneurs we’ve worked with have supported Black, Asian, those from minority ethnic backgrounds and/or disabled people; those hardest hit by the pandemic

It’s worth pausing to recognise that a small core of passionate colleagues within UnLtd, comprising people of colour, LGBTQ+ and disabled colleagues, were the first to advocate for these changes and have been consistent champions of an equitable approach. Without their rigorous challenge and commitment to accountability, it is unlikely that we would have made such progress as an organisation. We do not underplay the extraordinary effort that this has taken, including the depth of emotional investment and energy needed to share their insight during a year of heavy grief, trauma and loss.  

What we’ll do next 

While we’ve been resetting how we engage with social entrepreneurs, we’ve also been working hard to define what we want to achieve and contribute to over the next five years, as we emerge from one of the greatest crises of our collective lifetimes.  

Targeting funding where it can make most impact is one of our ambitions. That means we’ll be keeping our 50% benchmark into the coming year, and acknowledging that as we learn more, we may refine it or create new commitments. We know, for example, that when it comes to accessing social investment, women founders, as well as those from Black, Asian, disabled or a minority ethnic background, are typically left out. Black-owned businesses in particular are worse served than other groups. 

Ensuring our support enables all entrepreneurs, whatever their background, to flourish, is another one of our ambitions. We’ll be making changes this year to our products and support offer to ensure that we create an environment where people from all backgrounds feel they belong. 

We also want to use our evidence to influence others. When we have conversations with partners about equity and inclusion, we are still too often told that it is “too difficult”, or “not a priority”. Delving into why surfaces interesting conversations about our fragility as leaders, what we’re unaware of and what we’re afraid of. We want to demonstrate that it’s possible to lead with humility to create equity, and that this doesn’t compromise impact. In fact, it amplifies it. 

So, if you are working in an organisation that funds, we ask you to share this blog with colleagues, and to ask yourselves – what’s really stopping us from taking this step?  

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