Social Impact Investment: are we nearly there yet?

Yesterday morning, the final report of the snappily titled “UK National Advisory Board to The Social Impact Investment Taskforce Established Under the UK’s Presidency of the G8” has been published. You are forgiven if you haven’t read it yet; but if you are interested in Social Impact Investment you probably should find time to give it the once over.

The two line synopsis is this: (i) it charts the development of social impact investment in the UK over the past 15 years; (ii) it makes some recommendations for next developments. It is similar in style and approach to the Social Investment Taskforce, also chaired by Sir Ronald Cohen, which set the direction for the field of social investment in the UK in the early 2000s.

Social impact investment is a field I’ve worked in for ten of those 15 years, and reading the report I felt the story it tells is an interesting example of how long it takes for radical systemic innovations to take hold, and some of the features that lead to progress (not yet success, it is still a field in its infancy!)

When I stumbled into social impact investing in 2005, none of my friends or family could get their head around what on earth it was I was doing. They generally assumed I was some sort of fundraiser for charities. Frankly, we still struggle to explain to the general public what social impact investment is all about (the first question to Sir Ronald Cohen on the Today programme this morning was ‘what is it?’). But look harder at Social Impact Investing in 2014 and you’ll see activities and innovations at all levels necessary to change the way organisations delivering social impact are financed:

  • a range of new organisations have entered field with innovative approaches (for example Bridges Ventures, Big Issue Invest, Venturesome, Social Finance, Bethnal Green Ventures)
  • product innovation has also been highly significant: e.g. from social venture capital funds, social incubators, charity bond issues, and the misnamed but smart social impact ‘bond’ 
  • process innovation has also been necessary: significant developments in approaches to the use of evidence (what works) and impact measurement approaches (NPC, SROI Network)
  • regulatory and legal model changes have been necessary: from Community Interest Company, the Social Value Act, to the recent Social Investment Tax Relief
  • and in my opinion, most vitally, the field has benefitted from a high degree of committed leadership and entrepreneurialism. I’m not just talking about big cheeses here (although high level representation, lobbying etc, has been important) but the field has been advanced by some genuine and passionate entrepreneurs who have taken risks with their careers, livelihoods and sanity (Jonathan Jenkins, Geoff Burnand, Caroline Mason, John Kingston, James Perry, Rod Schwartz, Daniel Brewer to name just a few).

Finally, a brief moment of personal indulgence. I’ve had the privilege to work in the industry for a long time, and with two organisations that I consider to have been the most radical and risk taking in their contribution to the field over 15 years – Venturesome and Nesta.

At Venturesome we saw it as our mission to test new approaches, to learn and to publish our learning – good and bad – in order to develop the field; our approach was always to try and be humble, seeing development of the field as a whole as the measure of our success, not what was attributed to us.

For the last four years I’ve seen first-hand how Nesta has fulfilled its risk-taking role, championing innovation in social impact investment. Many of the organisations and individuals I’ve mentioned have benefited from Nesta’s support. Nesta has often been one of the first to commit to the key initiatives cited in the G8 report from Bridges Social Entrepreneurs Fund, to pioneering work on investment readiness with Unltd, to the prototypes and early research that framed the plan for Big Society Capital.

For Nesta, and for me, the focus of our interest in social impact investment is now on delivering direct impact by investing in ventures like Oomph!, Ffrees, Ai-Media. we’re using the strong system of social impact investment that now exists in the UK to help new ventures take social innovations to people who need them. So, we’ve only just begun…..


By Joe Ludlow - Nesta Impact Investments