Are European banks finally becoming interested in social impact?

 

Ruth Whateley

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Ruth Whateley

Ruth Whateley

Last week saw the launch of a new EVPA report Social Impact Strategies for Banks: Venture Philanthropy and Social Investment  by Dr Leonora Buckland supported by London Business School. This is the first report on how European banks are currently active in venture philanthropy, social investment and impact investment.

Why was I there?
I would like to say I attended this launch event with an open mind, but if I’m honest I’ve always been a bit sceptical of big banks and some of the ethically questionable practice taking place (to put it mildly).

However, I’m also sure the situation isn’t clear cut. What if I told you large investments from banks are being directed to essential lifesaving social and environmental projects? Would that make you think twice about the role banks play? Certainly I was intrigued by the title of the report, particularly given my work at the Social Impact Analysts Association (SIAA).

What are banks doing?
The total investment in social enterprise/social business by the mainstream banks surveyed in this report was €261 million (excluding microfinance funds).  These banks range from retail banks such as BBVA in Spain to investment banks such as JP Morgan and private banks such as UBS.

The banks in the report have made some significant steps towards integrating a social dimension within their core business model and not just their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. For example JP Morgan and the Gates Foundation launched the Global Health Investment Fund of $100 million in 2013 and BBVA’s Momentum social investment project has been investing €2.5 million in Spanish social enterprises since 2011.

The report outlined how the model of banking (retail, private or investment) can influence the type of involvement that banks can have in social impact investment as leaders/field builders, investors or intermediaries. The investor activity includes both internal venturing and external investing through direct or indirect funds and deals.

Why are banks involved?
Representatives from JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank on the panel identified with the variety of drivers for involvement in this field. These drivers include client demand, competitor advantage, personal belief, bank ethic and CSR interest.

For me this point was very interesting. I perceive a real fear in the social sector that a private investor’s financial mission will continue to trump the social mission of the investment. If we want to create significant positive social impact for the most at need in our society I think this should continue to be a worry.

From both the event and the report it appears that one of the significant barriers to this re-prioritization of social and financial mission is organizational culture. The report points out that banks have much to contribute in the way of human, financial and social capital. However, it hints that organizational culture must change for this work to be successful and I think it will change only by attracting more workers with social sector experience into the banking sector. This must happen alongside collaborations between banks and social sector organizations such as foundations.

Creating social impact
Another important point flagged up was that social impact investment is only one way banks can create social impact. Bank involvement in grantmaking and other forms of philanthropy is still hugely important and should remain so for interventions where social investment is not appropriate.

Furthermore, panellists mentioned that if banks are serious about social impact they need to start forecasting for, measuring and analysing social impact as an integrated part of the investment process, something with which I wholeheartedly agree. International network organizations such as SIAA, The SROI Network, Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and EVPA should also continue to ing and ing the impact measurement and analysis cause. Understanding impact and targeting investments to social causes is supposed to be at the heart of what social impact investment is about.

What does success look like?
At the event I heard mixed messages about what success looks like for social impact strategies in banks. For some, establishing a fund and convincing enough colleagues that it is worthwhile is success. For others, success is something that may happen beyond our lifetimes when banks truly take social and environmental impact into account during their work as well as financial returns. This second view of what success looks like sits well with me, however radical some people may feel it is.

I think it is still an open question as to whether European banks are truly moving towards considering social and environmental impact in their core business. I really hope they are.

Ruth Whateley is manager of the Social Impact Analysts Association.

Tagged in: Impact measurement Social Impact Analyst Association (SIAA)


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