Building the market: Preaching to the unconverted: Moving beyond the guardian reader

How do we improve public messaging on social investment? To become mainstream, maybe we also need to speak to those who will only invest because there will be serious consequences for their own self-interest if they don’t. Evita Zanuso of Big Society Capital chaired this ‘Conversation for Change’ – a more informal discussion – at the Gathering with Amir Rizwan of Comic Relief and Rod Schwartz of ClearlySo

The investors outside our immediate circle can be turned off by the language we use to talk about social investment. Should we adapt it to convince them?

The term “social justice”, for example, can be off-putting to some: it implies there’s been an injustice which some may disagree with. Instead, we should use terms like “fairness”. Or, for example, follow the lead of Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) CEO Amit Bouri, who has written in the Financial Times about the ‘time value of impact’ and the financial cost of inaction – clearly adopting a language that speaks to FT readers.

But are there risks to simply dropping references to core values like social justice? Will they lose weight as a result? Indeed, as Rizwan put it: “If our language is putting them off, then what is their motivation anyway?”

There’s a danger of others “co-opting social cause agendas”, he argued, by jumping on the easy-to-grasp, bite-size ideas that can be easily funded – but don’t lead to systematic change. Short term, that might mean more money coming in, “but if [those investors] are not radically changing their approach, that’s a problem.” And dropping these core values would be “doing a disservice to all those who’ve spent decades trying to change a deep-seated issue.”

Social justice is a particularly tricky one, since it’s about understanding your own privilege first and then acting, said Rizwan. Investors who aren’t prepared to acknowledge that may not be the kind of organisations we want involved.

And, as others argued: if we’re adapting to the mainstream, who then plays the role of outliers or challengers?

But if we refuse to speak the language of the mainstream, will social investment ever succeed? 

Some time ago, ClearlySo made a decision to target mainstream investors because there simply aren’t enough social investors, realising that impact investment won’t be taken seriously until “we can see it from the moon”. Gradually, the organisation developed a reputation as the home of for-profit investors – and had to adapt its language accordingly.  

This is logical, said Schwartz, just as you can’t “just shout louder in English” to a foreigner. Even within one group of investors, you’ll adapt your language from one to another.

“The world right now is one full of capitalists with certain values – if we want to create impact need to talk their language or we’ll fail,” argued Schwartz. That’s not only about short-term wins: it’s also about communicating effectively now, and taking responsibility for educating and explaining to others, and bringing them gradually round to our way of thinking.

Key actions:

How should we tackle this issue? Some suggestions that arose in the conversation included:

Talk about social justice/equality in a way that means something to someone working in finance: find other ways to articulate it rather than rejecting the whole concept. For example, make it personal (your kids are growing up in a polluted city; or income inequality drives up levels of violence in your own neighbourhood, etc.).  

Bring newcomers on board with something accessible – get them onto the “first rung” of the ladder – and then help them move up, even if it takes a long time, by continuing to challenge them to think deeper; for example, about whole system change (while accepting that some people will never be interested in this way of thinking). 

Recognise that when it comes to ethical/responsible investing, some audiences respond with the heart, others with the head – and you’ll probably always have to adapt your language to speak to one or the other. Trying to do both at the same time may not work.

Use compelling metaphors to better explain what you do in a way that people can relate to. ClearlySo sometimes explains itself as “a way of creating 100 JustGivings”.

Changing your language is just pragmatism if you want to raise money, argue some,  but what’s important is having internal checks and balances in place so that the core mission is clear to all staff.  

Finally, some argued that given the scale of social problems we face, such as homelessness in the UK, social investment alone will never be enough. Bringing others on board is therefore essential.