20 Years at Key Fund - CEO Matt Smith

When I first joined Key Fund on 10 June 2002, I never expected I’d be its CEO 20 years later.

I grew up in a single-parent family in a tough working-class area of Doncaster where aspirations were low.  I expected that I’d work in a factory or something similar, like my dad and my friends’ parents.  But I was relatively smart, and despite a strong commitment to ‘coasting’ and putting most of my focus on playing football, I did ok at school and went through to sixth form. 

Something changed at this point and I seemed to flourish, having moved schools.  I challenged myself, met some great friends, and found some supportive teachers, all of whom encouraged me to believe that I could aspire to something else – and in fact I did, doing well enough at A-level to earn a place at University, the first in the family to do so.    

I emerged at 21 with a degree and no clue as to what would come next.  I knew that I had a passion for fairness and wanted to do something that positively impacted on communities like mine, as I had seen first-hand what poverty did to people.  But that was as much as I knew. 

This passion, via a series of initial wrong turns, brought me to Key Fund, which was created to move money into places where it didn’t traditionally flow; like the places I grew up in.  It resonated with me and stirred something.  I had found my place.

When I first joined, Key Fund had provided a few hundred grants and just one loan. Today, we’ve completed over 2,600 investments, and I’m particularly proud that the vast amount of these still go into the most disadvantaged places. 

But we have so much more to do.

So, as I reach my 20th anniversary, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learnt over those two decades and where I think we, that is Key Fund and the sector more widely, need to focus.  So, I humbly present to you my five key thoughts:   

One: Community and social enterprises are powerful agents of change – but need the right policy environment.

They can transform people and places. We face enormous challenges as a society, from the cost-of-living crisis, to empty high streets/centres and a climate crisis, but I truly believe community and social enterprise offers many solutions, reaching people in places where other sectors do not.  But they can do much more if the circumstances are right and this needs to be recognised more in public policy, where sadly it seems to have slipped down the agenda.  We need to get behind our representative bodies like SEUK, Responsible Finance, the Social Investment Forum and others to create a more unified voice, as colleagues in Scotland have.   

Two: People do amazing things but need help – social investment is only part of an answer.

Just repayable social investment isn’t ever going to be the solution.  Community and social entrepreneurs need to get the right support and the right money at the right time to help them to address the enormous challenges they face.  We can’t expect enterprises to deliver sustainable impact in marginal markets, in disadvantaged areas with commercial(ish) models of finance.  We need to build a broader range of tools (including more patient products), but this also includes grants, and lots of them.  We need to work together to make this case. 

Three: Relationships are key – and we can build better together.

Trading is difficult and repayable investment is often scary to community and social entrepreneurs - particularly those from marginalised or disadvantaged communities, where it is sometimes seen as a failure if you have to take a loan.  The only way to get around this is to build relationships of trust, working alongside organisations, building understanding and a shared vision of the future for their organisations, developing plans together.   Too often this is about us helping them, but it needs to go both ways.  We need to open up our funds, building them with community and social entrepreneurs so that they are truly fit for purpose and focussed on the real challenges.  I want to see more commissioning with community and social entrepreneurs to deliver our services, but also more of them on our investment panels and boards.    

Four: We need to do better to reach marginalised and disadvantaged communities.  

So many funds do amazing things, investing in people working in disadvantaged areas.  Here at Key Fund, 80% of our investments are in organisations that are in the top 30 most deprived communities, but people are still being left behind, and whilst ever this is happening, we can never achieve our vision of ‘successful communities’.  I truly believe that the more unequal a society is, the worse it is for everyone.  So, I believe that we must look at the way we work and who we work with to increase the flow of money and support to those places and people who don’t usually get it.

Five:  We need to work together better to achieve more.

One positive that came out of the pandemic is that funds and support organisations worked together with real collaboration and a focus on how our sum was greater than our parts. They left any competitive drive at the door and collaborated for a common cause. The challenges our society now faces are huge, and our clients square up to them head-on. So, we need to work together to rise to that. It demands all of our efforts, our learning and talents.  We also need to be honest about what works when, leaving self-interest behind and resisting the temptation to present our organisations or products as the solution. 

Many of the points I’ve outlined above are well known to many people in the sector and are certainly not original – in fact many have been challenges for a long time.  We’ve made good progress over the last two decades, but we need to reflect the excellence of our investees and do much, much better.  

Myself and the team will be picking up some of the points above in subsequent blogs over the coming months, and I hope that others will join in. The recent Adebowale Commission provides some momentum for this conversation, which we must continue together to address inequality.   

Fairness is still the driving force.