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Field Notes

What Social Impact Bonds Mean for Nonprofits and Performance Measurement

Andrew Wolk
October 24, 2011

Starting with the Obama administration including Social Impact Bonds in the FY12 budget to the Rockefeller Foundation’s recent $500,000 grant to Social Finance US, Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) have become the newest frontier of public innovation and an excellent way to further build social impact markets. To better understand SIBs as a form of public financing, I sat down with Harvard Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey Liebman, Social Finance US CEO Tracy Palandjian, MHSA President Joe Finn and MLMC Director Lisa Goldblatt-Grace for a panel discussion last month hosted by Root Cause’s Social Innovation Forum. What is so promising about this approach is not the SIB itself, which as you will read is going to take quite a while to pilot and see results and may be very difficult to scale. Rather the emphasis being put on allocating resources based on performance could be a game changer to the relationship between government and nonprofit service providers. This relationship accounts for billions of taxpayer dollars.

A Social Impact Bond or a Pay-for-Success bond is an investment model where the government enters into a contracting position with an intermediary that raises private funds to finance the operations of nonprofits driving social impact. It is at this intersection where performance measurement becomes relevant. The government will pay the investment back with returns ONLY if the nonprofit in question delivers the pre-defined objectives (as judged by an independent evaluator). Therefore the government’s biggest incentives in engaging in this model are the limited liability it takes on and the fact that no tax dollars are wasted on programs that don’t generate government savings. Thus, the government is accelerating the adoption of new approaches while shifting the burden of risk on to private investors. As Jeff mentioned in the panel, this system also builds “evaluation into the DNA” of the government because funding can now be directed to those organizations that have proven to be successful.

On the other hand, philanthropy through SIBs is taking the form of a private sector instrument because these bonds are now seen as investments, with a tax treatment that is no longer under charitable contribution. In this model it is private philanthropists who are the investors providing funds to finance the operations of collaborating nonprofits and who can expect to see real capital gain or loss depending on the performance of the nonprofit. What do these returns look like? According to Tracy, although it’s too early in the US model to be able to throw out a concrete number, the UK recidivism model saw returns in the range of 2 – 13% net IRR after recidivism was lowered to a certain pre-defined threshold. As expected, the investors were mostly philanthropically motivated private foundations using a portfolio outside its grant-making corpus.

In simplest terms, the SIB or “pay for success” model rewards proven innovations while simultaneously allowing investors to get more social impact out of every dollar. However, the discussion raised a few clarifying questions and potential caveats about the implementation of this model. For example, what kind of nonprofit organizations are suitable to use this tool and what challenges will they face? Additionally, given how much resources will be required for the implementation is this the best way to utilize our already limited resources?

In talking to Jeff and Tracy about how SIBs will impact nonprofits, I understood that the organization ideal to work within this model will have an organizational structure with proven success, experience with measuring impact and the ability to scale. However more importantly, the SIB model would require not one single nonprofit but rather a network of nonprofits providing a multitude services. For example in the UK SIB model working to reduce recidivism, there was a team of NGOs providing a range of services starting from finding jobs for the prisoners to working with their families. The objective is not to provide one service better but to stabilize lives, which in turn requires collaboration. Therefore, this is not an easy model to pilot, let alone scale.

Additionally, Jeff noted that SIBs are not ideal for services with a high cost-benefit ratio. This model is not the right way to fund a majority of social services and is instead more suitable for services where the benefit-cost ratio is 2 and that deliver a high return on investments while having outcomes that are measurable. Finally, these programs should also be supplementary to a larger program or have safeguards against failure so that there would be no huge impact if the program fails.

The SIB model presents certain challenges to nonprofits themselves. Lisa from My Life My Choice raised the question of validity in impact assessment and performance measurement. With the amount of ambiguity shrouding the progress in social impact, who decides which results are valid and what do good outcomes look like for organizations like MLMC? Furthermore, since the effectiveness of the SIB model depends on the amount of government savings the proven nonprofit can generate, there needs to be better definition as to how existing efficiencies are being recaptured. Using the example of Medicaid, Joe Finn from the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance asked when a program is proven to have created certain efficiencies, how willing were people going to be to provide a financial return to philanthropic investors and how much?

Another growing concern among nonprofits is whether the SIB would cannibalize current grant making activities and further limit the already scarce resources available and where does the idea of reduced risk becomes reduced responsibility on the part of the government? Tracy responded by saying that both foundations and individuals are looking at SIBs as investments. Positive returns on SIBs will constitute long-term capital gain and is a different tax treatment from a charitable deduction. Hence, SIBs are no longer a segment of philanthropy and belong to a different source of money. In fact from the evidence gathered from the UK model, it seems that foundations have been leveraging a pool of money that is outside the grant portfolio; thus introducing a new pathway for NGOs to access capital to fund and scale their work while generating future recoverable government savings.

Given all this, I wondered whether this was a good allocation of resources to get government in a better contracting position with nonprofits? The answer, so far, is yes – because the incentives are in the right places. Firstly, it provides an incentive to government to allocate social service dollars through performance measurement checks with minimal risk. Secondly, it creates an incentive for organizations to measure outcomes because in a few years there will be evidence that program evaluation can in fact attract significant funding. Lastly, it creates an incentive for private investors to allocate their resources and now receive a nominal return.

SIB’s are creating conversations between government and nonprofits that in the past have been difficult to get going. Despite the uphill battle to get SIB’s off the ground, this tool has many positive implications beyond just the goal of doing more with less.

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