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Understanding what social investment is

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The old challenge is, can you explain your job in a way that your otherwise highly capable elderly relatives would understand?  Most of my esteemed elders are dead, so I admit, that is a bit of a barrier to communication, but let’s not have reality stand in the way of a good metaphor in social investment.
 

I have been hanging around this sector for two decades or more now, from the early CDFI days at Aston Reinvestment Trust and the UK Social, now Sustainable, Investment Forum, looking at social investment across Europe with INAISE, in Investors in Society and Charity Bank, managing social investments for Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and am now at Big Society Capital.  

How can something as simple as putting money to good use, end up so contested?

There are a number of reasons for this, I would say.  

First, we tend to think of social investment as a recent thing, defined by what it is doing most of now, which is finance for social enterprises and charities.  Inconveniently, we then find all kinds of things that look rather like social investment, that have been going on a fair while. 

If we put our work into a historical context, recognise the wide diversity of social investment, and understand clearly what the different components are, we will have a much better chance of explaining what we do to our elderly and much respect elders.  

The second is we think of social investment as one thing – investment, when it is in fact many things, a financial service, finance, and risk transfer, as well as investment.  All of those things might well be needed, to apply money to social and environmental good. 

Third, we lose perspective and fail to contextualise social investment within the wider voluntary sector, state and private sector.  There is a lot of stuff going on out there.

Finally, we are mono-cultural in our outlooks.  Social investment is what we believe it is and we find it difficult to accept that there might be numerous equally valid perspectives.  By denying others their view we miss out on their perspective of reality.  If you stand by the side of the Thames, and stand on the top of the Shard, you are still looking at the same river.  It just looks different.  Both views can be simultaneously correct.

To be a social investor is to be like an atheist priest, capable of simultaneously believing in the multiple deities of Hinduism, the sole god of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, while living like a Buddhist yet embracing every day the western scientific method. As we prepare for the festive season, over the next four days I am going to write four blogs that set out a way of thinking about social investment might be, from a number of viewpoints.

Take it as you will. 

Read Part 2: A historical context to social investment or the problem with history is no one ever learns anything from it

Last updated | 
18 December 2014

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