Launching the Living Learning program
5 May 2021 at 7:42 am
The Living Learning program is important, writes Dale Renner, not just because of its social impact on young people, but also because of the way the impact investment is structured. It provides a new way to partner for the delivery of social outcomes.
The Living Learning program was launched last week at the Hester Hornbrook Academy (HHA) in Sunshine in Melbourne’s west. HHA is an independent school run by Melbourne City Mission for young people disengaged from the traditional school system. The program is funded as an impact investment under the Victorian government’s $30 million Partnerships Addressing Disadvantage (or PAD) program (also known as social impact bonds, or SIBs).
The service innovation which will be tested through the program is a more integrated mental health and flexible secondary school education program for young people whose educational and long-term employment prospects are being affected by ongoing mental health challenges.
The program is important not just because of the social impact on young people, but also because of the way this impact investment is structured. We have worked on a variety of social impact investments in the last few years and have encountered a range of barriers to a wider takeup of social financing mechanisms such as SIBs. They are complex to negotiate given the three parties involved (government, social organisation and investors) and their need to balance a range of risks as well as target measurable financial and social outcomes. SIBs were originally designed to allow socially-minded investors to help fund the upfront costs of social programs where their investment was “at risk”, meaning they would lose some of their investment if the program did not deliver the target outcomes. They were specifically designed with private investors, not philanthropic trusts, in mind.
Philanthropic trusts operate differently to a traditional impact investor.
Philanthropic trusts and foundations usually have a corpus of funds built from an original or historic donation invested in “safe” market investments so that the interest earned on those investments can be given away as grants. For an overly simplified example, if your corpus is $10 million and you earn 5 per cent per annum from your investments, you can give away $500,000 (less expenses) per year and keep the trust going “in perpetuity”’. A more modern way of thinking about the granting side is that, it too is an investment but the return is in social outcomes rather than in financial returns. This means each alternative use of grant money should be compared to the level of outcome it achieves compared with the next best use of that money.
As a result, the amount of money that philanthropic trusts and foundations give away each year is tiny compared with the amount that is locked away in their corpus. People in the social impact space have been thinking for years about how to unlock this corpus for investing in impact directly. The social finance innovation that enables the Living Learning project represents one way we can now unlock that corpus to be used for specific types of social impact investment projects. This is a “philanthropic impact investment” (PII) model, as distinct from the more common impact investing model which tends to focus on investors that may not be philanthropic trusts.
Why is it difficult for some philanthropic trusts to use the corpus for social impact investing?
The problem is that social investments are competing against asset classes that are very well known – whether listed companies, property or, increasingly, renewable energy investments. Social impact investments are newer and far more variable (a SIB service model and program logic is usually an innovation that is unique or new to the sector), so it is harder for an investor to assess the risk of an investment in such a project compared to those in well-known assets. As a result, the understandably conservative investment strategies employed by trusts and foundations mean these newer and more complex social investments are passed over.
The new PII approach developed for the Living Learning program enables a trust or foundation to combine both its corpus and its grant funding in the same investment through a “split tranche” structure. The investment generates a return if the project achieves its social outcome goals while the grant portion is called upon to cover the loss if the program fails to achieve the target social outcomes.
Latitude Network with Social Enterprise Finance Australia (Sefa) and Melbourne City Mission worked together with the Victorian government to ensure this model suited the program and complied with all legal and government requirements. This approach has the potential to make it easier for social service organisations to develop high impact social programs that attract impact investment from their philanthropic partners.
Benefits of the new split tranche structure
One of the benefits of this new structure is that it leverages and deepens the natural relationship between philanthropy and the social sector and allows philanthropists to use part of their large capital base to help unlock funding from the government for worthy programs. Philanthropic trusts can use their dual ability to invest capital, but also to provide grants that enable them to reduce the internal risk of these investments and provide the working capital that outcomes based contracts require.
This is useful because outcomes-based contracts are powerful tools to drive higher accountability for social impact. One of the core public benefits that we at Latitude Network have witnessed in organisations that undertake outcomes contracts (such as SIBs or PII projects) is that the focus on outcomes and the rigour of the contracting and financial structure create strong incentives to achieve social outcomes. This in turn leads to stronger use of data and performance systems that drive continuous improvement in programs. Well-designed outcomes contracts align financial and mission-based incentives to deliver high performing social programs.
While SIBs have been important vehicles for helping the social sector develop new tools and skills for achieving outcomes, they are very complex to develop and negotiate and are not suitable for all forms of social service funding. Government, philanthropy and the social sector need to continue to find new and lower-cost ways of contracting for the delivery of social outcomes. The PII structure developed for Living Learning is an example of a new way to partner for delivery of social outcomes.