An Intern’s Perspective: My Summer at Social Finance

This summer, I had the privilege of serving as the first [Harvard University Institute of Politics] Director’s Intern at Social Finance (SF), a Boston-based nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing investment capital to drive social progress.

Central to SF’s work is an innovative financing tool called the Social Impact Bond (SIB), a public-private-nonprofit partnership that has the potential to scale evidence-based social interventions, create taxpayer efficiencies, and generate financial returns for investors. SF structures and manages SIB transactions, and also helps governments and service providers develop the capacity to become stakeholders in these initiatives.

Today, there are four SIBs operating in the United States—directing $50 million in capital to the social sector—and over two dozen additional states and counties actively pursuing SIBs in their respective jurisdictions. These projects are aimed at addressing a diverse array of issues in areas such as health, education, homelessness, criminal justice, and workforce development.

The work I was assigned at SF was engaging and informative, providing me the opportunity to gain real insight into the emerging field of Pay for Success and Social Innovation Financing. In my role as a communications intern, I updated SF’s social networking outlets, marketing materials, and website on a regular basis and took on ad hoc responsibilities as they materialized. The most challenging and rewarding projects I worked on this summer involved constructing a comprehensive database of SIBs in operation and development around the world and writing a post for the SF blog that was later picked up and circulated by the global daily SIB Newsletter.

When I first walked into the office, I was surprised (as most visitors are) by the conspicuous absence of cubicles or partitions. Everyone—from Associates to the Vice President, Managing Director, and CEO— sits side by side at adjoining desks. As I bounced between temporarily available seats over the course of the summer, developing a deeper understanding of different projects and closer relationships with my fellow coworkers, I quickly realized the value of the open floor plan. This unique layout facilitates a collaborative work environment and speaks to the firm’s people-centric culture.

Throughout the summer, I received constant guidance and support from my supervisors, who were just as willing to answer questions in my seventh week as they had been on my first day. The team members, universally inspiring in their knowledge and passion, were always open to sharing their experiences and offering advice. Bonding occasions ranging from impromptu coffee breaks to newly instituted “Food Truck Fridays” were highlights of the internship.

I am incredibly grateful to the SF staff for taking a genuine interest in my development and making me feel like part of the team. I would also like to thank the IOP for coordinating what was truly a fantastic internship experience.

This summer marked a particularly exciting period of growth for this nascent sector with the introduction of bipartisan federal Pay for Success legislation in Congress (the Social Impact Bond Act in the House of Representatives and the Pay-For-Performance Act in the Senate), the publication of the United States National Advisory Board on Impact Investing’s recommendations for supercharging the industry, and the launch of the Social Innovation Fund’s $11.2 million Pay for Success grants competition.

Though I will no longer be held accountable for remaining informed of such advances in the field, I fully anticipate following the evolution of this exciting space to a mature and established industry trusted to tackle society’s most complex challenges.

Entry by Maddie Sewani, Harvard University ’16

This post was also published by Harvard University Institute of Politics here.

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First Official Results Demonstrate Positive Outcomes at Peterborough

Today, Social Finance UK released the first official results on the Peterborough Social Impact Bond (SIB)—the groundbreaking transaction that inspired numerous projects around the world.  An independent evaluator found that the SIB-financed program, One Service, reduced reoffending among the first cohort of 1,000 ex-prisoners by 8.4 percent compared to the national experience.  If this trend continues, investors in the transaction will recoup their principal and earn a positive return when the project concludes in 2016, as this reduction exceeds the performance threshold of 7.5 percent.[1]

Beyond remaining on track to deliver social and financial returns to investors, the project at Peterborough is also demonstrating some of the core benefits of SIBs.  The project catalyzed a policy conversation throughout the United Kingdom about how to better rehabilitate short-term offenders, and the Ministry of Justice recently announced a nationwide program to deliver services to this population.  This underscores the potential for SIBs to spur government reform.

Additionally, the program illustrates substantial operational improvement over time, reflecting the power of data-informed project management and flexibility that are core to the SIB model.  Engagement and uptake of services in prison increased from 74 to 86 percent since services began, and from 37 to 71 percent post-release as One Service adjusted its operations.

As the world’s first SIB, Peterborough has become an iconic program, and in that context we are pleased and encouraged by these results – both as a sign of progress for the Peterborough project itself, and for the evolution of the entire sector.  They indicate that active performance management is critical, that investors are indeed taking on risks, and that the deal was well-structured to benefit all stakeholders in a fair and reasonable manner.  As clear-eyed practitioners in the field, we are well aware of the challenges inherent in launching a new financial instrument, and are mindful of the need for continual learning.  In that sense, early data points like these are valuable to all of us seeking to advance and build a strong field.

Perhaps most important, however, today’s announcement reminds us that the real value of SIBs lies in their ability to improve lives for vulnerable and underserved populations; the financial instrument is a means to an end.  As rigorous evaluation now reveals that the Peterborough project is delivering a meaningful improvement in life outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals, which translates into fewer crimes, fewer families divided by the return of a father or son to prison, and increased numbers of ex-offenders who find gainful employment. This is the real bottom line, conveying the promise and power of the SIB model.


[1] There was a provision for early outcome payments in August 2014 had the program outperformed and delivered a 10 percent reduction in recidivism for the first cohort.  Investors will not be receiving these early payments, but are well on track to receive outcome payments for both cohorts as scheduled in 2016.

Entry by Jane Hughes, Director of Knowledge Management 

Guest Blog from SFUK Director of Peterborough Project: The One Service Delivers Results for Peterborough Prisoners

Finally we can answer the question about how things are going in Peterborough. All the indicators so far had been positive but it’s great to hear that reconvictions are down by over 8%. If we keep up our hard work, our investors look likely to make a return in 2016.

This project oozes innovation and it has been so exciting to be part of it. The team of staff and volunteers are incredible, as are our local partners, so it is no surprise to find that we have had a positive impact. You often hear people talk about multi agency working but I’ve never experienced it quite like this before. The fact that we had seven years, a flexible budget and one outcome, to reduce crime, resonates with agencies across the spectrum and their buy-in has been fantastic.

It’s been hard to get an accurate sense of performance up until now as the control group hadn’t been created. We do know that clients and stakeholders have been reporting that crime is down and people are changing habits of a lifetime but it is so good to see it in black and white. (It’s official!)

Our clients face multiple barriers and often have entrenched behaviour patterns so this journey hasn’t been an easy one. I am so proud of the way they have embraced the opportunities and made efforts to change their lives. It has been really exciting to see them open up and engage with the service. Some take time to build trust, and progress has been slow and steady over the last three years. This reinforces my view that projects like this need to be long term, so we can establish meaningful relationships and integrate fully into the local landscape. It’s been really hard work and at times immensely frustrating but it’s great to know that it is working.

The One Service was set up to be a seven year project and that is what we all signed up for, so it could evolve and improve further over time. It is a big personal disappointment that it was brought to a close two years early and it is a decision that clients and stakeholders are also struggling to accept. The team will however do our best for the remainder of Cohort 2 and use the learning to date to continue to improve. Thanks for everyone’s support!!

Entry by Janette Powell, Social Finance UK Director of the One Service and the Peterborough Social Impact Bond

Peterborough SIB developments underline its flexibility and innovation

As you probably know by now, the prison recidivism project at Peterborough that was developed by our colleagues at Social Finance UK – the world’s first SIB — is winding down. The UK government has introduced a wide-ranging policy initiative to reform the entire probation system; as a result, support services will be offered to all short-term ex-offenders like those served through the Peterborough project. This means that the third and final cohort of the SIB will have access to services funded directly by the government rather than the SIB.

We see this new development as an opportunity to pause and reflect on its meaning for the entire SIB sector. Our colleague Toby Eccles, who pioneered the SIB concept at Social Finance UK, wrote the following analysis; we can do no better than to reproduce his words:

To understand this a little better, it is worth going back to why we developed the SIB model and set up the Peterborough pilot in the first place.

  • Enable innovation: It was felt that government struggled to try out new models or areas of public service delivery for fear of failure and the perception that if they spent money on something that didn’t work they would be accused of wasting it.
  • Enable flexibility and focus on outcomes: Organisations were frustrated that they were being procured to provide a series of defined inputs and processes, and then held to account to deliver exactly and only that. This produced two problems: firstly, for those providing a more holistic service they were often more expensive than another organisation that bid simply to provide the limited brief that they were asked for; and secondly programmes provided little room for learning. Success was to deliver what was pre-agreed, regardless of what was discovered during delivery.
  • Bring rigour to prevention: Preventative work was commissioned but often only for short periods of time, or unsustainably. Preventative services were perceived as a good idea, but usually weren’t being measured effectively. So they were at risk on the low end of the budget cycle, when money was tight, as they hadn’t built the evidence of their effectiveness.
  • Better alignment: Foundations often had quite a negative view of government. They fund things in the belief that if successful government will take them on, only to find that too often that is not the case and they are left with a dependent organisation on their hands. The SIB was designed to give each of government and foundations or social investors clear roles in the structure, allowing them to work together.
  • Investment in social change: We felt that creating positive social change at scale needed more than grant money. We thought that creating a structure that enabled investment in positive social change could, if successful, create an engine for further change and improvement to society.

When first considering the SIB model we looked at a range of areas, including reducing reoffending. When analysing reoffending it quickly became apparent that the lack of support for short sentence offenders, the lack of attempt to move people onto a different path, was simply wrong. So we gained a new objective, to demonstrate that we, as a country, should be working with short sentence offenders, rather than simply watching them going round and round the system creating more and more damage to themselves and others.

So how is Peterborough doing against those objectives?

  • Enabling innovationSuccess, the model was implemented, when without the SIB structure the project would not have been put in place.
  • Enable flexibility and focus on outcomesSuccess, as can be read in the RAND report, there are numerous citations from stakeholders that the model has enabled indeed required the service to adapt to the needs of service users and improve over time.
  • Bring rigour to preventionSuccess, what other prevention pilot do we know of that has had detailed figures published while it was ongoing? Admittedly, actual results according to the payment metric aren’t out yet, but this level of rigour simply isn’t normally seen.
  • Better alignmentSuccess, investors in the pilot were keen, and investors in further SIBs have also been keener to fund the programme than they would have been had it been a traditional grant funded project with no connection to government.
  • Investment in social change: Still building… We need more SIBs before we can claim that we have created a new investment community, though Bank of America Merrill Lynch distributing Social Finance’s New York State SIB to their wealthy clients is a significant step in this direction.

And finally, most importantly, have we made a difference to short sentence offenders? YES!!! There is a new statutory obligation to work with short sentence offenders across the country. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the wider… agenda, this is a very significant change on which many have been campaigning for a long time. Obviously it wasn’t just the Peterborough SIB that caused this change, but it clearly played a significant role…[Note: Final data using the SIB’s outcome metrics are not yet available, but early data indicate that while reoffending among short-term prisoners rose 10% nationally in 2013, at Peterborough it fell by 11%.].

Peterborough was not designed to be a test case for a national payment-by-results programme, but to enable innovation, to demonstrate the value of flexibility and focusing on outcomes, to bring greater rigour, and most importantly to shine a light on the woeful situation this country has with short sentence offenders. Against these objectives it has been and remains an iconic success, and a cause for celebration.

Entry by Jane Hughes, Director of Knowledge Management