Impact in social investment: a billion pound question

By Tris Lumley 14 September 2012

Last night a Who’s Who? of the social investment world gathered in the City of London to celebrate the first successes of Big Society Capital (BSC)—the social investment wholesale bank—and look to the future of social investment. We heard that the UK social investment marketplace could absorb a billion pounds of deals by 2016. And that mainstream investors had better get on board fast, because the market’s accelerating and they could miss out if they don’t move fast enough.

Nick O’Donohoe, Big Society Capital’s Chief Executive, was clearly relieved to be talking about its first £37 million of investments in practice, rather than in theory as he has been for some time. BSC, he said, is well on its way to meeting its first year investment targets of forty to fifty million pounds. For many, BSC’s success will be measured by the investments it makes.

The clear theme of last night’s event, however, was about growing the social investment market by drawing in mainstream investment. The bank announced its first investment in a social investment fund being launched by a mainstream financial provider. Ministers talked about making the link between the social sector and the capital markets.

But I have always had a different view of the success of Big Society Capital, and the nascent social investment market. Social investment is about fusing together financial returns and social impact. So while there will always be a focus on getting the money out the door, and drawing in the capital markets, my eye is fixed on the other side of the equation.

It would be possible for social investment to develop, as philanthropy often has, without social impact becoming an integral measure of its success. While most social investors seem more focused on social impact than their average philanthropic counterpart, they face real problems that could reduce their work on impact to window dressing.

There’s a yawning chasm between the evidence that’s available in the social sector and the claims that are made about impact. Few charities and social enterprises have mature enough approaches to impact to really back up their story with robust evidence. And even those that do can rarely, if ever, compare their impact to other approaches, because every organisation uses its own individual methodology.

For NPC, the success of the growing social investment market will not just be measured by the capital it invests, but also by how well it invests it. In interventions that work, and bring the maximum benefit to the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged people. In approaches that are based on robust theories of change, that reflect the complexity of the systems in which they operate. In collaborative programmes that allow multiple organisations to work towards shared goals and transforming dysfunctional systems.

That’s why I’m delighted that NPC is working at the heart of these complex challenges, with social investors, government, and the charity sector. We’re working with Big Society Capital to develop a map of the social sector, and start to drill down into subsectors to provide an overview of the key outcome areas, and the indicators and measurement approaches that exist in each. It won’t tell social investors or social enterprises what to measure, but it will provide a rough map of the territory that will start to help everyone work towards more common approaches. We’re working through the Inspiring Impact programme to produce a blueprint for developing common approaches to impact measurement, drawing on attempts that have already been made to do so. And we’re working in a number of areas actually to develop, and implement, these shared impact frameworks—from youth employability to prisoners’ family ties.

This work isn’t glamorous. It doesn’t grab the headlines in the same way that announcements of £10 million investments do. But it’s vital. It’s building the infrastructure that will help social investment to flourish, and to achieve success not only in financial terms, but in changing lives and society.