First Ark rebranded as Livv Social Investment - Jack Stopforth explains why pro-bono work matters
Between 2017-2020 I chaired the First Ark Social Investment Panel. First Ark now trades as Livv Housing and is a large housing association and building group based in Prescot, Merseyside. In 2017 the team at First Ark put together a fund of £6 million to invest in social enterprises and charities across the North West of England. The funding came from the National Lottery Community Fund, Big Society Capital, The Access Fund, Reach and The Good Finance Group.
The newly-renamed Livv Investment fund has continued the work and has already provided a lifeline to around a dozen community based businesses including a bakery located across the road from the famous Anfield Kop (Homebaked Anfield), a West Lancashire women’s enterprise (The Sewing Rooms) and to Carer Support South Lakes, a Kendal-based provider of social care across the south of Cumbria.
Like all of the Livv Investment clients these are serious businesses managed by incredibly committed people. As social enterprises they must include in their articles of association an “asset lock” - a binding commitment to reinvest profit to the benefit of the company and the community but in every other regard, they are businesslike organisations subject to the same statutory obligations and commercial pressures of any company.
Originally I was approached by First Ark because they wanted a Cumbrian representative on the new board but once I’d agreed to join they asked if I could chair an investment committee with oversight of the total fund. I was pleased to accept the role and enjoyed my three years working with an impressive panel of people whose experience and expertise in evaluating and delivering social returns on investment far exceeded my own. Like me, the other four panellists ran businesses or organisations but were pleased to carve out the time needed to read, debate and determine applications for funding. Supported by a small and genuinely impressive executive team, Livv Investments is doing important work in a sector of the economy that is growing fast. All of the panel members work without fees or payment beyond reimbursement of travel expenses since the five North West counties cover a lot of territory and we have investments in all of them - Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire. I resigned as chair in 2019 for reasons unrelated to the fund and still support them with referrals and advice as needed.
Pro bono work - where professionals waive fees to help clients- is important for several reasons. First, many potentially successful business ideas, whether in the commercial sector or social, never get off the ground because their originators lack the track record, collateral or expertise to qualify for conventional bank support. There is, unfortunately, truth in the old joke that says a banker will only lend you his brolly when the sun is shining. Secondly, for a new start up business to have access to a credible professional with a history of business success and a support network is utterly invaluable in lending credence to the project and accessing ideas and expertise otherwise beyond their reach.
Finally - and in some respects most importantly - the adviser him or herself benefits by working with individuals or collectives whose passion for their work can restore and replenish one’s faith in society. It might sound far-fetched but the buzz you get from working with people who are on a mission to change things is absolutely infectious.