Exploring Social Investment: an interview with Mark Lovell
13 Oct 2020, 2:15 p.m.
Social impact investing
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Mark Lovell has been involved in the development of the social investment sector since 2007. He has worked with Big Issue Invest, investors, intermediaries as well as central and local government to explore scaling social businesses, creating new investment opportunities for social ventures and driving innovation in service design and delivery.
Big Issue Invest and GO Lab are collaborating on a Social Investment / Fund Manager Extension Prototype, to attempt to visualise the role of the investor in impact bonds. BII is just one investor and different investors will have different approaches, but this is a helpful starting point for prototyping. Sample BII data and some open source prototype visualisations were published at the GO Lab Social Outcomes Conference in September. We asked Mark about the lessons that have emerged so far from his social investor perspective.
Can you tell us about Big Issue Invest (BII)? How is BII similar or different to other social investors?
BII was set up reflecting the Big Issue Magazine’s own experience as a social enterprise – growing, needing to secure investment support, and facing many of the challenges voluntary, charitable and social sector organisations have to endure – by offering a hand up not a hand out. It offers a wide range of socially orientated financial products and services, as well investments from the fund management business. This social sector heritage coupled with social investment expertise is a unique combination. It sits at the heart of our approach to venture, lending and fund management investments.
BII and GO Lab are collaborating on this project to explore the role of social investors and fund managers in impact bonds and outcome-based contracts. From your perspective what were the most important outputs so far?
The mutual learning and reflections from the GO Lab and BII teams on the project are really helpful. Different stakeholders often have contrasting knowledge and understanding of one another’s organisation, interests and approach. An important output is increasing that shared understanding of what different stakeholders ‘bring to the table’ in the design and delivery of partnerships.
There are other areas in which the outputs are important starting points: developing the shared vocabulary that simplifies the description of SIBs and SOCs and opens up the sector, and beginning a ‘journey’ to a more consistent and standardised data sharing (as well as understanding it takes time and investment to utilise, aggregate and dissect that information). Finally, I think it’s really important to shine a light on the fact that most social investors often provide ‘more than capital’, working with investees on a much broader basis
Our collaboration includes a focus on “non-financial technical assistance.” What is this and why do you think it is important?
The Outcome Investment Fund has been set up to work collaboratively with commissioners and service delivery partners to co-develop interventions and service models. The nature of work in each project varies and is much wider than just the financial aspects of the social investment. BII, like many social investors, dedicates significant time and resource working with partners on a wide range of activities: strategy development; service user engagement and co-design; project and operational management; governance models and reporting. The outputs from this project enable partners in the sector to contribute and expand the visibility of the work involved in developing SIBs and SOCs. Hopefully this will enable more stakeholders to embrace this type of social outcome approach when beneficial for service users, providers and commissioners.
BII shared some very detailed structured financial information on a few prototype projects and these data are now open data in public prototypes visualisations and spreadsheets on the GO Lab website. Why are you putting these data in the public domain?
In each investment, BII are transparent with commissioners and providers to make sure they are sighted on, and comfortable with, the financial mechanics of the outcome metrics, as well as the investor returns. More importantly, we want to help all parties have as much clarity as possible on all the links between operating model/service interventions and the financial model – to the level of detail that they are comfortable with.
Sharing this information, from our perspective, helps create an alignment of interest between all parties to deliver a successful project. And, critically, it helps them work together in the event that a project is not working to find a way forward given all parties understand one another’s perspective. Sharing this data helps support transparency, understanding and informed discussion in the sector. Finally, by enabling more stakeholders to see the structure of a social outcome contract, we hope this will contribute to the growth of the social investment market across a wider range of challenging social issues at increased scale.
Do you see barriers to you or other social investors sharing this type of information more regularly? What would you say to others thinking of sharing this information in this way?
There are lots of considerations for social investors on how to share different types of information, including financial information. The investors into a fund need to be consulted and engaged, as do commissioning and provider partners. All will have their own views (as well as procedures) to navigate in support of this type of information sharing. There can be a lot of stakeholders to bring together! My suggestion would be to start with the simple premise that being open and sharing data will lead to better services for the cohorts we work with, and increased use of these approaches by commissioners and providers, resulting in increased growth and impact within the sector.
It’s also important to recognise that investors don’t hold all the data. As well as promoting transparency on the information investors share, we can support and encourage commissioners and delivery partners to promote transparency in their engagement with social outcomes contracts.
What advice would you give to others considering a similar project?
My advice would be to start! Continue to simplify, focusing on data that informs future design and makes the work accessible to a wider audience. Most importantly, don’t lose sight that the data is emerging out of finding new and better ways to support vulnerable people and communities. That’s why we want to share the data.