The Social Impact Bond (SIB) market has recently gained tremendous momentum. Today, there are four SIBs operating in the United States—channeling $50 million in capital to the social sector—and at least two dozen additional states and counties actively pursuing SIBs in their respective jurisdictions. SIBs are also garnering significant attention in the international arena. However, despite the progress achieved to date and media buzz generated by this innovative financing mechanism—there is even a daily global online SIB newsletter—SIBs have yet to achieve proof of concept.
On June 4, the Stanford Social Innovation Review hosted a webinar titled “Social Impact Bonds: From Concept to Reality” to identify what steps will likely need to be taken in order for SIBs to become a well-established, widely-accepted option for funding social interventions at scale. The session featured Social Finance CEO Tracy Palandjian and Sam Schaeffer, the CEO and Executive Director of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO).
Tracy delivered an overview regarding the state of the domestic SIB marketplace, focusing particularly on the nation’s first state-payor SIB, a transaction focusing on reducing recidivism and increasing employment in New York. However, she warned that this is not the only appropriate SIB model because at this still-nascent market stage, each deal is unique. “If you’ve seen one SIB,” she said, “you’ve only seen one SIB.”
Sam then shared CEO’s firsthand experience partnering with Social Finance on the New York State SIB. He also presented a framework in order to assist providers in assessing risks and opportunities across six major components of SIB transactions: capital source, investment stake, payment type, performance threshold, geography, and evaluation measures. He explained that in CEO’s first SIB transaction, his team believed it was important to: unlock new private capital without diverting a high proportion of existing philanthropy to the SIB; have zero skin in the game so CEO’s staff could concentrate on executing well; receive unrestricted, upfront funding so they could pay for service delivery as it happened; commit to a performance threshold within the confines of results CEO had previously produced; scale the program in jurisdictions where CEO had proven impact; and focus on measures for reducing recidivism for which CEO had demonstrated effectiveness.
Below are a few key takeaways from Tracy’s and Sam’s presentations regarding the transformative potential of SIBs and the future of this young market:
- SIBs have the potential to fill a critical gap in the broader continuum of capital available to providers: Tracy explained that foundations in their capacity as grant-makers are in the business of “incubating great social innovations.” In an ideal world, government—as the largest funder of social services—would eventually “take out” philanthropy and “use its strong policy lever to allocate funds” for proven programs run by high performing organizations. The current state of affairs doesn’t reflect this “nirvana,” however. SIBs can fill this critical gap in the continuum by increasing the flow of “1) upfront, 2) multi-year, 3) highly flexible” capital to evidence-based providers in order to “accelerate that link to government uptake.”
- SIBs represent a model for provider-friendly, performance-based contracting: Sam commented that if all government contracts could be structured like SIBs, “where the marginal costs are paid for, where the full overhead rate is paid for, we would be a much different organization vis-à-vis scaling. This is a great model for how I think performance-based contracting can work for providers.”
- More experimentation must be done: Tracy stated that more deals need to be launched in order for the industry to fully take flight. “There’s got to be a great degree of experimentation still, because we want to continue to learn…. Standardizing too early could threaten the market if we’re not standardizing the right thing.”
- SIBs promote much-needed sustained engagement by all parties: Tracy emphasized that “True societal change at scale requires [a] sustained effort over long periods of time.” SIBs are meant to address “gnarly, multidimensional, complex problems that can’t be solved overnight.” The hope is that SIBs “can promote sustained engagement by all parties—the provider, the clients on the ground, [and the] government.”
Both Sam and Tracy remarked on the collaborative nature of the industry. Sam conceded that entering into the transaction was a risk, but explained that the risk was mitigated by the SIB partnership structure. “Based on the commitment we saw from Social Finance, the commitment we saw from New York State—[CEO] knew this was a very good road to pursue.”
All stakeholder groups have contributed to the development of the market so far—“government in catalyzing the space, foundations in providing technical support, and providers in executing the work that improves people’s lives,” according to Tracy. This collaboration must continue. Tracy asserted that whether we can realize “the promise of [SIBs] being a multibillion dollar market to finance significant social change at scale” will be up to all players in the market and whether they can collectively continue doing the on-the-ground work that generates results in the coming years.
Entry by Maddie Sewani, Harvard Director’s Intern