Prioritising Impact: Nothing about us without us

We invest into enterprises that measure their impact – but how do we know we’ve got it right? Who owns ‘what good is’ anyway? And how can we make sure our investments leave end users more capable for their own future? This discussion explored ways to ensure the end users or beneficiaries of our investments get a say and get empowered.

The gulf between social impact investors and the communities in which they invest needs to be bridged to ensure that investments meet the real needs of the investees. 

“Nothing About Us Without Us” was the theme of one of the final breakout sessions of The Gathering. Co-host of the session, Cliff Prior, CEO of Big Society Capital, pointed out that the slogan had its roots in the 1505 constitution of Poland and was later taken up by  disability rights activists during the 1990s. 

The idea that no policy should be decided without the full and direct participation of members of the groups affected by that policy applied equally to social investment, Prior emphasised.

“We are a long way from the action,” he said, adding that it was important for social investors to hear the voice of beneficiaries.

In a wide-ranging discussion, participants explored the challenges that social investors faced in trying to understand more closely the needs of beneficiaries and how they could be overcome.

Sarah Forster, CEO of The Good Economy Partnership and co-host of the session, illustrated how large-scale, government-backed investment programmes can sometimes generate a lot of data, analysing performance against targets, but this, she said, was “tick-box accountability” with no data about actual outcomes. 

“There’s a difference between data and insights,” she said. She explained how one pilot programme had asked beneficiaries of a project in Ghana three simple questions about how their lives had changed as a result of the project to discover if social investment was actually doing good on the ground.

Investors, however, were sometimes too focused on metrics to value qualitative information, participants noted.

Another example raised during the discussion was a social investor that sent questionnaires out to members of a community to find out what difference the money was making. Few people, however, completed and returned the form. A breakthrough came when a vicar hosted a picnic and persuaded community members to chat about their experiences. 

Building these trusted relationships, participants emphasised, was important, but there was a cost to investors of time and money.

One participant highlighted that “good” was sometimes defined very remotely: in the case of social impact bonds, for example, the government decided what the outcomes should be. On the other hand, social investors might assume that grassroots social enterprises would do the right thing for their communities, but this high level of trust wasn’t necessarily justified.

In conclusion, Prior said: “There’s a strong view that this is important, but it’s difficult and there is a cost burden attached to it.”


Key actions:

Session host Cliff Prior of Big Society Capital suggested that collaboration between social investors could develop thinking on how to better reflect beneficiaries’ views and called for interested participants to pass their names to him at the close of the session.

Since The Gathering, Helen Goulden, CEO of The Young Foundation, who was one of the participants in the session, has committed to lead a working group on end-user engagement in partnership with Big Society Capital.