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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Innovators need practical support, as well as cash

The government has finally announced a £750m bailout package of support for charities and social enterprises large and small. It has been slow to act, but the cash is a welcome relief for the sector, including the brilliant portfolio of 200 charity and social enterprise innovations that Nesta is currently supporting to test new ideas.

Our conversations with the portfolio over the last few weeks left us in no doubt that cashflow was the primary need - some because of soaring demand (like home learning edtech platforms Seneca Learning and Skills Builder or food sharing schemes like Fareshare); others because they can’t enter public sector buildings so won’t be paid to deliver as normal (like VIY who renovate youth clubs with young people and Oomph who deliver fitness in care homes).

As we outlined last month, our first act was to reach out to all of them to reassure them that we will be flexible on delivery and payments to ease their cashflow, but it's great to know the government will now pump significant new money into the sector too.

But the conversations also revealed other (non-financial) support is needed like coaching, expert legal and financial advice and tech wizardary to help charities and social enterprises adapt and thrive to a new reality of delivering during COVID-19.

We have therefore today allocated a further £250,000 to help our existing portfolio of innovators through the upcoming weeks and months. We don’t want to add more work for grant recipients, so there won’t be an open call or application form. Instead, our programme managers have discretion to offer access to a bank of experts as needs arise. It’s our way of being as helpful as we can while organisations on the frontline are so stretched.

Based on the conversations this is what I expect will be most in demand:

1. Expert advice on people management

Some grant recipients have sadly already had to furlough staff, but what do you do if the staff still turn up for work the next day as a volunteer? And how do you onboard and manage new volunteers you’ve never met? Innovators want time on the phone with HR experts to check.

2. Pro bono tech support

Many are having to deliver their services online for the first time, like the Cares Family who have swapped face to face intergenerational tea parties and dances for online meet ups. Others already worked online but need to upgrade and adapt their tech to cope with demand like GoodSAM who are supporting the NHS to mobilise volunteer responders for community needs (alongside their day to day responders to cardiac events). Innovators want time from coders and those who run online events and delivery already and can advise on how to do it well.

3. Business modelling

Our innovators want help with financial and business case modelling from expert consultants. Some may not have a market to return to - for example, we’re expecting schools to not want new work with outside organisations in the first term back so education charities will need to remodel fast. And many charities are facing a huge loss of donations which the Chancellor acknowledged pledging to top up charity donations with £1 from the government for every £1 donated by the public to the BBC’s Big Night In. The hospice sector is a case in point where donations are expected to drop by 30%. The government has earmarked £200m for these which will be welcome news to innovators like St Joseph’s Hospice who we support.

4. Coaching through change management

Finally, many of the CEOs and founders we work with would benefit from some coaching. Change management is a craft and many are being thrown into it fast. All are stressed and working long hours. They want a trusted coach to listen and reflect with. We have identified 10 trained coaches within Nesta’s workforce to do this work one to one.

Replicating and scaling successful models

A common mistake when under pressure is to reinvent the wheel. So outside of this work we’re also making a small number of one off awards to innovations which share the wisdom of the crowd quickly so others can replicate what works.

The first is an award to the team at Newspeak House who have crowdsourced the Coronavirus Tech Handbook with contributions from all over the world on how individuals can play a part in responding to the COVID-19 emergency. It covers everything from manufacturing instructions for 3D printing ventilator parts, to tips on how to hack scuba gear for face masks, to tools for mutual aid groups to self organise efficiently. The handbook is already attracting 20,000 views a day. Our £50,000 award will help the team reach even more technologists and citizens with informed guides to what works.

The second is a grant to the Jo Cox Foundation to help establish the Connection Coalition in partnership with Nesta, MIND, AgeUK and others, to promote social connection at a time of physical distancing. We know isolation impacts wellbeing, mental health and resilience. Our £30,000 award will support the coalition to gather examples of what works and make it easy for people and the voluntary sector to replicate these models in their own communities.

I don’t expect us to make many of these awards (our focus is primarily on our existing portfolio) but I’ll share when we do.

Where next?

I hope this package of non financial support will boost our portfolio’s ability to adapt to new delivery models through COVID-19. We’re also taking stock on how we need to adapt our own plans at Nesta for the year ahead as our CEO Ravi shared last week. Stay tuned for more.


Vicki Sellick

Vicki Sellick

Vicki Sellick

Chief Partnership Officer

Vicki was Chief Partnership Officer

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