3 Shakespearean reality checks for social investors

3 Shakespearean reality checks for social investors

The brave new world of social investment gets a tempestuous wake up call

As 2014 gets underway, the busy season of social investment conferences (very temporarily!) ends – and it’s worth reflecting on the stand out conference of the year in the UK: the 2013 Good Deals event in London, entitled ‘A Brave New World’.

The phrase originally comes from one of Shakespeare’s final plays, The Tempest. The story is set on an island inhabited by an exiled magician, Prospero, his daughter Miranda, his slave Caliban, and some spirits.

Miranda is naïve, loving, and the only people she has ever met are Prospero and Caliban. When she is 15 she meets a shipwrecked prince with whom she promptly falls in love.

Towards the end of the play, she sees a group of the prince’s fellow sailors and exclaims:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.

And what is Prospero’s pithy retort? ‘Tis new to thee.’ It turns out, contrary to Miranda’s rhapsody, that these ‘beauteous’ people are not much more than a sorry rabble of shipwrecked, drunk sailors.

As we behold the wave of social entrepreneurs and social enterprise, social investment and social investors, is it the hopeless naïvity of Miranda that leads some to invoke a ‘Brave New World’ of social investment? Or do we see a band of drunk sailors? Either way there are three good reasons for a Shakespearean reality check:

1. Prospective investees should not mistake social investment for ‘easy money.’

On the contrary, it requires hard work to secure, and involves a regime of managing finance and impact that arguably requires more stamina and sustained discipline than the demands of traditional grant funding.

2. Potential investors must acknowledge the trade-off between financial sustainability and the areas of deepest social need.  

Areas of deep social need are at the margins of society, which are relatively overlooked by government spending and aren’t exactly home to private individuals with much disposable income.  In other words, financially sustainable social investment will likely not address society’s most deep-seated issues precisely because it inevitably involves financial loss rather than profit.

3. Commissioners and politicians can and do outsource service delivery…
…but they inevitably need to re-regulate, underwrite or bail out examples of failed outsourcing for which the ‘market’ simply doesn’t work.  Witness the financial crisis and calls for increased regulation of the domestic energy and transport industries. There is no reason to think that extensive outsourcing of services through the vehicle of social investment will be any different. This was raised in a plenary session at the Good Deals conference, when the incoming CEO of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation Caroline Mason queried the link between social investment and social risk. In other words, social investment may not actually offer government a sustainable way to deal with the social problems it needs to solve.

If these are the sorts of lessons so far, what are the prospects for social investment in future?

In the final plenary of the Good Deals 2013 conference, the outgoing and incoming Chairmen of Big Society Capital (Sir Ronald Cohen and Harvey McGrath respectively), both pointed to the immense potential of social investment to deliver innovative solutions to solve social and environmental issues. Both, for example, made much of the series of social impact bonds underway or in development in the UK, which are trialing new approaches to deliver superior ‘social returns.’

Viewed strategically, social investment of this type typically deploys private funds to experiment with an innovation that has not yet proved itself successful, and is too risky for government to fund directly. However, when a sufficient track record is developed, government should be in a position to pay for the innovation, leaving social investors to move onto the next segment of social need.

Herein lie the future prospects for social investment. It will indeed operate at the edges of the ‘brave new world’, in that it will attempt to find a bridge between two poles. On the one hand, social investment attempts to intervene and earn a profit through contracts from government and private payors. On the other, it seeks to fuel activities that address the deepest of society’s ills through net financial loss, grant-based mechanisms.

The idea of activity ‘at the edges’ does not belittle social investment. Actually, social investors and investees need to remain focused on the truly innovative. They have the freedom to move onto new challenges, as ‘social innovation’ successes are proven and embraced in the mainstream. They can ensure that social investment operates not at the fringes but at the cutting edge of innovation to sustainably address society’s most deep-seated needs.


Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted on Pioneer’s Post. It has been posted here with their permission.

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