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Profile: Access Foundation’s Elsworth on ‘unblocking’ finance to boost charities’ resilience

Published: 20 May 2022

Seb Elsworth, CEO of Access – The Foundation for Social Investment, is on a mission to help charities and social enterprises increase and sustain their impact by becoming more financially resilient and self-reliant

Seb Elsworth, Access: We are looking for partners who are deeply embedded in the communities they serve | Photo by Access


  • CEO, Access, 2015-present
  • Deputy CEO & Director of Partnerships and Communications, Social Investment Business,  2012-15
  • Director of Strategy, Acevo, 2006-11
  • Executive Officer, Leeds University Union, 2004-06
  • History & Philosophy, University of Leeds, 2001-04

Access, the foundation for social investment, declares that its mission is “to make charities and social enterprises in England more financially resilient and self-reliant, so that they can sustain or increase their impact”.  

Seb Elsworth tells Impact Investor he was recruited as CEO right from inception, because of his extensive experience in the world of social investment and public policy. “All my career has been in these areas which I first became interested in when I was an official at Leeds University Student Union.”  

Access was created as a sister organisation to Big Society Capital (BSC). “While BSC is essentially a wholesaler of funds, we are a grant organisation providing subsidies and grant support for social investment organisations. But we also have the added intention to be a catalyst for blended finance. To make sure more capital is available for organisations having social impact,” he says. 

Like BSC, Access has benefited from the UK government’s Dormant Assets programme. This applies to cash in UK bank and building society accounts that has been dormant for 15 years and provides a system to distribute those assets to good causes. It has so far distributed around £800m (€939m). 

According to Elsworth, this has enabled Access to build a range of what he calls “flexible and patient finance”. He adds: “Of course, we can’t make an equity investment in a charity. But what we can do is to ensure that debt behaves like equity. As such we are an ‘unblocker’ of finance for charities.”

In explaining how Access works, Elsworth says: “Our grants allow social investment fund managers to attract other financing. We are an enabler of further financing by providing the key to removing barriers. The grants we give effectively absorb any potential losses and allow finance to flow. Too often a small social enterprise wants to access investment but is unable to offer security. With our grants, lenders have more confidence in them and they can therefore obtain loans.” 

Blending grants and loans 

Access’s biggest programme has been the Growth Fund, in collaboration with BSC, where investments are capped at £150,000 each. Launched in 2006, the programme has provided loans to over 600 different organisations, totalling some £40m. 

Elsworth says that the programme “has had a profound impact on the whole UK social investment sector as it has triggered a surge in blended financing. Now, one in four loans in the sector uses blended finance”.  

In addition to the Growth Fund programme, Elsworth highlights four other blended finance initiatives.  

In May 2020, Access received £30m of grant funding from dormant accounts to create new blended finance programmes in the social investment market.  

The ‘COVID-19 Emergency Support Programme’ offered emergency lending to charities and social enterprises in the early stages of the pandemic. While the ‘Flexible Finance for the Recovery’ was set up with a blended finance programme to “provide patient and flexible social investment” for organisations post-Covid. 

‘Local Access’ is a joint funding programme, established by Access and BSC, that aims to support the development of “stronger, more resilient, and sustainable social economies in disadvantaged places”, including Bristol in Western England, four places in the North – Bradford, Gainsborough, Greater Manchester, Hartlepool – and the London borough of Southwark. 

“We are looking for partners who are deeply embedded in the communities they serve.” An example of the latter is Access’s work with the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations. “We were keen to work with an organisation which has been very successful in reaching ethnic minority-led organisations.”  

The fourth programme is a successor to the Growth Fund. Launched in April 2022, the ‘Enterprise Growth for Communities (EGC)’  programme aims to “strengthen communities through building resilience in charities and social enterprises”. The programme also hopes to expand the reach of social investment to smaller organisations or those based in disadvantaged areas.

Elsworth says Access is reaching far smaller organisations now “often half the size previously, or even a tenth of the size”. He adds that half of the organisations they support are based in the 30% most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, and 25% are reaching the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods. 

With £20m from the Dormant Assets scheme, the programme will combine grant funding with repayable finance – leveraging over £60m for charities and social enterprises through co-investment and recycling 

Enterprise development

Apart from its mission to expand blended finance, Access has a role in encouraging enterprise in the charity sector. The ‘Enterprise Development Programme’ is a five-year programme which aims to “help charities and social enterprises become more financially resilient by developing new enterprise models, or by growing existing ones.” 

Elsworth says: “We are looking for organisations that have a track record and understand the business models that are now available in the social sector.”  

From this perspective, Elsworth cites the work that Access has done with the Homeless Link, an umbrella organisation for homeless charities. “We were very keen to understand the role that enterprise could play in the homeless sectors and proud to offer a way forwards.” 

The big challenge for Ellsworth in the future is ensuring that more of the social charity space understands the role that enterprise models can play in the mix. “We increasingly seek to identify which parts of a charity’s work could actually generate income in the future and to show charities how important enterprise can be in helping them fulfil their objectives.” 

“Otherwise, the biggest challenge for us going forwards is to ensure that the flow of blended finance continues.” Access was originally intended to have a ten-year lifespan. “We’ve shown that our model has enabled multiple charities to gain access to finance. Will it be able to continue?” 

The big issue for the whole social investment sector in the UK is the government’s consultations over the coming summer regarding their dormant assets strategy. Elsworth notes: “We’re working with a series of social investment partners to ensure that grants for blended finance are maintained overtime.”  

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