The 19th Round Table discussion continued the series of topics on the social impact sector and focused on recent developments in social impact investment and philanthropy. The underlying theme of the discussion was to understand how these can form part of blended finance supporting partnerships between investors and the public and third sectors addressing specific social needs.

Jonathan Flory (Director, Social Finance) started off by discussing the concept of social investment in the wider context of impact investing. Founded in 2007, Social Finance is a non-profit organisation working in the social impact arena, famously known for developing the first Social Impact Bond (SIB) in the UK. While the market for social investment is fluid, it forms part of a growing market of nearly USD 228 billion in impact assets and a larger movement in which governments, corporations, fund managers, investors and individuals are increasingly focusing their attention on achieving positive social outcomes by means of their investments. While social investment means different things to different people, unlike other investment approaches it focuses on addressing pressing social issues. As a UK term, it describes investments that intentionally target specific social objectives along with a financial return and measure the achievement of both.

While the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 clearly signalled the importance of social value in public procurement, a range of motivations continue to exist on the investor side. While international investment giants such as UBS support the “doing well by doing good” theory of impact investing, suggesting that financial returns do not have to be traded off against social objectives, they also recognise the need for softer, philanthropic capital. Given the spectrum of investors’ expectations, it is essential to align the interests of organisations with expectations of investors, but in many cases for a partnership to work there is a need for some element of soft capital in the overall funding structure.

Partnerships can play an important role in scaling up impact. A good example of this is the Positive Families Partnership, a London-based programme seeking to divert adolescents from entering the care system. The partnership brings together central government, local authorities, funders, and programme delivery partners. It applies the blended finance model and mixes grant and investment funding. Following a successful pilot by Essex County Council, the partnership model has been adopted by 5 other boroughs in London and now looks likely to be expanded to include all London boroughs.

The key challenge is putting the partnership together. For partnerships and blended finance to work, there must be a place where funders feel safe to partner. Potential solutions include building a new brand for the partnership, forming a joint venture or an innovative funding structure. The latter is particularly effective in bringing together investors with different financial needs and social objectives as the funding is often structured in tiers. An example is the Arts Impact Fund blending public, private and charitable funding in which the junior tier with first loss is provided by the Arts Council.

Social Finance is optimistic about future developments in social investment. It sees a lot of potential in improving financial inclusion by expanding affordable credit and social housing. In terms of partnership structures, more cross-developmental cooperation is on the way with funds pooled from separate budgets. There is a clear trend in themed funding, in which partners group around themes, which gives the partnership a clear focus.

Jonathan’s presentation was followed by a talk by Kenneth Ferguson, the Director of the Robertson Trust, and Christine Walker, their Head of Social Impact, who presented their innovative model of a public-third sector partnership. The Robertson Trust is a well-established organisation in Scotland with a 6o-year history of improving social outcomes for individuals and communities. It operates by means of providing grants to other charitable bodies and over the course of its history has awarded £250m to 467 organisations.

Back in 2012, the Robertson trust wrestled with the issues of sustainability and scalability of the impactful work charities were delivering. There were very few innovative financing models in Scotland. The Scottish government’s attempt to set up public-private partnerships (PPP) contained no obligation on the public sector to sustain a project while the Robertson Trust believed in the need for systemic change and moving away from high cost reactive services towards lower cost preventative models. They were eager to develop models that would expand impact to the national scale, achieving systems change on the one hand, and providing charities with much needed long-term funding on the other.

Their Social Bridging Finance concept aims to support this through the development of a contract with the public sector. The model has elements of both SIBs and PPPs, but is grant-funded. It is used to sustain projects that have already proved their effectiveness. The strength of its programme is its simplicity. The standard contract is only 10 pages long and contains a maximum of 3 success criteria. The crucial part of the process is defining the success criteria and making sure they are clear, measurable and meaningful. The success criteria are assessed at the outset by a third sector organisation in consultation with the public sector body, which creates a dynamic discussion between the two sides. The local authorities, in turn, are well-positioned to identify potential savings from an early intervention. Once the contract is signed, the Robertson Trust then fund the demonstration period, which usually lasts around 2 years. If the success criteria are met, the public body ensures the continuity of funding thereafter. This gives the charity the certainty of stable funding and for the public body it de-risks change. If the project is not successful, there is no obligation on anyone to pay back the funds. This way the Robertson Trust assumes the financial risk by providing the bridging finance to facilitate the switch to a low cost preventative model.

An example of the model is MCR Pathways, one of Scotland’s biggest PPP agreements, which aims to widen opportunities for Glasgow’s most disadvantaged young people by offering a school-based mentoring and employability programme. The Robertson Trust initially supported the project by funding the demonstration period, but the premature success of the programme allowed it to expand quickly to include 200 schools across Scotland. Importantly, the model has brought in systemic change. “This model has allowed us to create a new approach which is now business as usual”, said Maureen McKenna, Executive Director of Education Services, Glasgow City Council.

A lively question and answer session followed, in which participants shared their impressions of the results achieved by the Robertson Trust. It is important to have an organisation which takes the initiative and brokers the connection between the third sector and public bodies. There was a shared concern that some investors in the impact investment landscape have high expectations in terms of the financial return, which was thought to be inappropriate in the context of funding public services. It is believed to be of the reasons why the SIB model was not fully embraced in Scotland due to some of the ethical considerations involved. Jonathan stressed that social impact requires thinking about how to support vulnerable groups of people. Impact investing is about creating value as opposed to extracting value, and it does not always imply cashable savings; rather is about spending money better and in a more productive way.

However, given the genuine interest among mainstream banks increasingly seeking to put money where it is most impactful, how can we capitalise on institutional capital in attaining compliance with the SDGs? Kenneth believes that achieving scale is not possible for any one organisation and there is a spectrum, in which every organisation involved can contribute in its unique way. The Robertson Trust currently assumes the “risk bit” and their role is to participate in the early stages of a project to demonstrate its effectiveness while capital markets can bring the project to scale. For the model to work, though, there should be more discussion about making sure philanthropic funds are available.

While both organisations attempt to scale impact, there are some differences in their approaches. While the Robertson Trust suggests that scale should be achieved in cooperation with the public sector, Social Finance aims to do so by bringing in new capital and new players. However, both organisations continue to share common aspirations to achieve social change and there are already some early examples of their models converging.

EFRT on Social and Blended Finance Slides – June 2019