29 Jan

A Milestone for Social Impact Markets

Last week marked a milestone for social impact markets. Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to issue an RFR (Request for Response) for Social Impact Bonds or ‘Pay for Success’ contracts as dubbed in the RFR. While not as sexy a term as ‘Social Impact Bond’, ‘Pay for Success contract’ serves as a more appropriate title, as it orients government towards the need of allocating resources based on performance. This orientation towards linking resources to performance will in turn further solidify the infrastructure and tools for social impact markets. In the past few months, the concept of Social Impact Bonds or Pay for Success contracts has garnered an enormous amount of attention. While I have already written about Social Impact Bonds, and Root Cause has also hosted a forum featuring Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey Liebman – an advisor for the state – it is important to mark this milestone. It represents enormous change, and signifies the hope I have of being able to continue this momentum.

According to the RFR, Massachusetts will be exploring Pay for Success contracts in two social issues: chronic homelessness and juvenile justice. This statement represents a welcome shift in the way we approach social impact in two significant ways. First, it orients service providers towards understanding that in a particular social issue, it is a type of program model based on best practices that drives real change, not an individual organization. Second, focusing on common issues will allow the agreement between government and nonprofits working in that social issue area to use common indicators and common terminology related to outcomes. We at Root Cause, call this information alignment because focusing on an approach that works starts to align the terminology of all groups striving towards outcomes in that area. If we do not start calling the social issues by the same name – and realize that not individual organizations, but rather programs based on best practices produce a measureable outcome, how will we ever agree on what high performance is? We were also pleased to see chronic homelessness selected in the RFR, as it is one of the eight social issue reports we have produced. It is also an area where we believe there is a great deal of evidence of what approach works effectively.

Another aspect of the RFR I really liked was that it does not assume a need for intermediaries to implement Pay for Success contracts. Instead it looks to intermediaries as a potential supplementary to support the initial Pay for Success contracts model if needed. While I applaud the efforts of Social Finance, and am incredibly impressed by their laser focus on making sure this idea is successful, it is good to see an alternative experiment where government and nonprofit programs try to negotiate the terms of agreements without an intermediary. A huge concern in using the Social Impact Bond model was that it involved large levels of additional resources to even set up the payment structure. Thus, the absence of an intermediary might help the model be more scalable in an already resource-strapped environment.

Thus, with the RFR milestone comes a larger hill that we still have to climb: reallocating current government funds to social programs engaging in the pay for success model, without raising additional money from outside sources in a time of austerity. It will not be easy to renegotiate the terms of the billions of dollars being spent currently and to reallocate this money to programs in chronic homelessness and juvenile justice that engage in new Pay for Success contracts. However, if we are truly going to make progress, we need to head towards a performance-based allocation of resources. The announcement this past week is a step in the right direction. I am hoping we will now see more experiments that don’t just rely on increasing philanthropy, but instead focus on the assessment of how current government funds are being allocated to programs across different social issues.