It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly when in Trust for London’s 125-year history that we first made investments where social impact was the primary driver. However, like other endowed charities that have asked themselves this question, the answer is often surprising. As far back as the 1920s, our trustees were recognising that our assets could be made to work towards our mission in different ways and, in the years between the First and Second World Wars, they bought and equipped 350 acres of land for recreational outdoor activity. At a cost equivalent to well over £5 million today, the land acquired was initially to support London’s emerging Polytechnics (providing them with playing fields) but the lack of green spaces for London’s poor meant the strategy was soon widened to include all Londoners. This forward-thinking approach was arguably where our commitment to social investment began.
Jumping ahead to the early 1990s and inspired by ideas and thinking from the US (notably Jed Emerson), the Trust made another significant social investment when we launched the Resource for London in Holloway. By refurbishing a disused department store we created fair and flexible office spaces for third sector organisations that, whilst enabling them to thrive, also provided a realistic financial return on our investment. This same model, albeit expanded and developed, subsequently saw the creation of the Foundry Human Rights and Social Justice Centre in Vauxhall - realised in partnership with other social investors (and the Ethical Property Company). This highly successful initiative is now proving that social impact and realistic financial returns can go hand in hand.
Today, we have cemented our commitment to social investment by allocating 5% of our total endowment to it. We have appointed a dedicated committee to oversee these investments. We have a dual investment approach focusing on making capital available directly to front-line organisations and an allocation of £3 million that we have invested in funds (managed by Bridges, Impact Ventures UK and Big Issue Invest) where we obtained an agreement from the fund managers to share with us potential investments which fit our core mission related investment criteria. This enables us to consider additional co-investment alongside them in these opportunities. Working in this way has already proven fruitful with an investment of £250,000 in London based apprenticeship firm K10. Day to day, our social investment work is delivered as a strand of our grant-making and is managed by our Grants Managers as part of their face-to-face work with funded organisations. Whilst the number of investable opportunities emerging has been slow the Trust now has approximately £9 million of direct social investments.
Looking ahead, we are currently working on some strategic social investment opportunities, one of which is focused on affordable housing and specifically on how this can be done by using London’s land assets effectively and sustainably. Indeed, if successful, this approach may even see us build affordable homes for vulnerable Londoners on the same land we purchased in the 1920s at the start of this journey!
By Peter Baxter, Trustee and Douglas Gunn, Grants Manager, Trust for London