‘Let’s do it – people’s lives depend on it.’ That was the opening line from Big Society Capital founder Sir Ronald Cohen, by video to the Global Impact Investment Plenary in Lisbon: a gathering of 250 people from many countries.
There is no doubt that the Social Impact Investment Taskforce, which launched three years ago when the UK hosted the G8, has kickstarted a global movement. As Nick O’Donohoe noted, it brought consistency and clarity, and now it’s moving from rhetoric to reality.
Today we have many more actual investments, much more real experience to draw on, a more diverse system and new ideas from more countries joining what is now the Global Steering Group (GSG). And it’s come at a critical time, a time of continued economic and political uncertainty, a time of major social challenges like the refugee crisis and growing inequality.
But what is impact investment? How does it relate to the concept more common in the UK of social investment?
For me, social investment is working through social purpose organisations whereas impact investment is investing in any means to achieve the impact. But that’s just my take, the language is not yet clear. Both are valuable, but they are different. By focusing on the impact, we may miss the importance of building the capacity of social organisations. By focusing on the social organisations, we might miss other ways to improve the situation for people who desperately need help.
And then there are the different expectations of where the capital comes from.
Most impact investors assumed that with enough of a kick start, institutional finance would come in. That is real, not a myth – but it’s largely limited to the four big fields of clean energy, microfinance, social property, and job creation in very poor countries. Most social investors assume the capital will come from foundations, wealth advisers, family offices, individuals from high net worth to the community at large. Until recently this was seen as a limited pool, but with growing interest in the wider public perhaps not so limited in the future.
Which story will work in the UK? Or will it be both – with different stories for different sectors?
As Uli Grabenwarter of the European Investment Fund said, impact investing is not one thing, it’s all of it. We should accept the diversity of actors, be serious about impact, but embrace innovation as an opportunity not as a threat.
This diversity was certainly evident in Lisbon. Amit Bhatia of the Impact Investors Council of India talked of a social enterprise sector committed to supporting customers at the bottom of the pyramid, rather than legal form or restriction of profit distribution: companies now reaching hundreds of millions USD turnover with three recent IPOs.
Blanche Segrestin from MINES_ParisTech had a distinct French take on profit with purpose companies – much more focus on the social mission. And Marcello Palazzi of B Corps Europe talked about their 360 degree model expanding across the world.
Country after country talked through the initiatives they were developing – permissions to operate, permissions for foundations to do impact investment, developing wholesale investors like Big Society Capital, outcome funds for public service delivery, innovation funds, social issue themes, research and data observatories. Host country Portugal demonstrated exceptional progress, thanks to support from Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian, social economy actors and Government.
The Taskforce, now the GSG, is giving a really significant boost to 13 countries with more joining soon. But although it has opened out, in many ways it remains inward looking. As Paul Streets of the Lloyds Bank Foundation said, where are the real experts – the charities and social enterprises who are close to social need? Why is this so top down without engaging the people it’s for? And from my own perspective, why is this still so US/Europe focused, when Asia and the global south are doing so much? We are, surely, beyond being solely a model of white privilege helping black poor.
Yet there was a real attention to the important issues we face today. A session on the refugee crisis in Europe had more of a social issue focus and some different perspectives, including a powerful commentary from Yasemin Sirali of FiBA Group in Turkey – a country which has accepted 3 million refugees in the last few years. Jane Newman of Social Finance is coordinating a network of social investors to work out how they can help in this major challenge.
We are beyond a few pioneers. The impact investment movement has broken out of its founding group. It is going wild across the world. We have created the platform. It is a structured impact finance project. But it is also now a true movement, where many actors will innovate many approaches and engage people with many different motivations, using funds from all kinds of people and organisations.
I don’t know quite where the path is going, but I know that paths are made by walking. Let’s do it, people’s lives depend on it.
Cliff Prior is CEO of Big Society capital.
Read our interview with Cliff Prior here>