The Blog

Impact Investing - Leading By Example

It's now five years since the financial crisis, and still the old financial service providers are letting us down, even the alleged ethical ones.

It's now five years since the financial crisis, and still the old financial service providers are letting us down, even the alleged ethical ones.

We're also now four years into the age of austerity, and government's plans for public services reforms are being undermined by a serious fraud office investigation into the use of some outsourcers, and a lingering suspicion that services aren't being run for public benefit.

If ever there was a time for a new type of investing to be leading the way, bringing forward genuine innovations to address major social needs and growing them with money that is driven by social impact first, financial return second, then surely it is now?

Huge progress has been made with impact investing in the last five years, especially in the UK - public policy has been hugely supportive and institutions like Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Big Society Capital and Omidyar Network have done great work supporting the development of the infrastructure of an impact investment marketplace.

And yet many people I talk to are cynical. Too often I'm hearing a view that impact investment appears to be lots of hype, conferences and announcement of intentions, but little more. As someone who's been working in the field for a long time, I'm pleased that people are talking about what I do, but I'm worried that my field is in danger of being seen as a passing fad - hyped up today, but then taken round the back and deflated.

It shouldn't be like that. Not least because I would argue that rather than continuing the policy-research hype surrounding the field, the detail of actual impact investments shows this is a real, and genuinely different type of investing.

The four investments we are announcing today are addressing some of the big issues facing us in 2014 - an ageing population, preparing young people for life in a digital economy, ensuring everyone in our communities has access to essential services at fair prices. For example:

Oomph is an award winning social enterprise founded in 2011 that runs personal training and exercise classes, such as 'chair cheerleading', for older people in care homes. The founder, a fitness instructor, was appalled at the lack of both exercise and social interaction in care homes and has set about changing that. He's now in over 600 care homes. Our investment, made alongside funding from the Big Venture Challenge, will help grow the business across the UK.

Movellas provides a new online and mobile story writing community aimed at improving literacy skills amongst teenagers. The UK recently ranked only 16th in the OECD country rankings of reading attainment, and sector experts such as the National Literacy Trust cite the importance of reading for pleasure. Movellas already has 200,000 teenagers using it every month, and two teenagers have had publishing deals and one is a regular blogger on this site.

Ffrees Family Finance offers a unique type of current account that helps families to save as they spend. There's around 8m people in the country who are underbanked i.e. they either don't have a bank account, or don't regularly use one for fear of unfair penalties and hidden costs. These people are predominantly on the lowest incomes in society and pay the heaviest penalty for paying in cash. Ffrees' current account helps people to transact electronically without fear of fines, and to save up as they spend. Our investment, alongside both individual investors and two other institutions, will rapidly increase the number of families benefiting from the product.

Sherston Software develops innovative educational software designed to motivate children, boost their educational performance and improve the way teachers are able to assess work. Over the past decade, the standard of online gaming offered to the consumer market has far outclassed the digital equivalent in schools. Sherston aims to bring these standards into the classroom and the home by bringing together adaptive learning with quality gaming to engage and inspire children.

It may seem controversial that many are private companies - social investment has held dear to the idea that registration as a charity or a community interest company was the best indicator of impact. But these are private companies with a clear social mission driven by the entrepreneurs that run them and us as impact investors supporting them. Success will come through them having a greater impact (serving more people), and evaluating that impact to prove that their products and services are making a difference as well as making a profit.

But I believe these are the types of organisations that deserve to be running our public services. Now is the time for impact investing to lead by example, showing the UK and the world a vision of financial services that really do make a positive contribution to our society.