Jim Clifford OBEI spent part of last week at the ISTR (International Society for Third-Sector Research) conference in Münster. As part of a panel looking at how social delivery is getting helped or hindered by its involvement with the financial community, I was presenting a paper I had co-written with Dr Tobias Jung of St Andrew’s developing a typology of social impact bonds: more of that at a later juncture. In planning how best to present our findings, Tobias suggested I should start by explaining where I stood on a scale of social focus to financial focus.

He was right. In a SIB the public sector and others pay an amount for success in public services which embraces the cost of delivery, the cost of innovation, and something for risk. Some heard me as someone who has a deep belief in the ability of the voluntary sector to innovate and deliver value. Some heard an advocate for profiteering out of public services. It struck me that it is so important to put what people say in context. Who is saying this? What do we believe they mean? Are they supporting, or challenging me?

The financialisation debate is running hot at the moment, and our ISTR panel didn’t duck the challenge of that issue. On the one hand we have the idea that expressing social and other impacts in financial terms makes communicating them easier. Money is a common language. On the other hand the social outcome itself is the purpose, and there is the risk that expressing it in financial terms de-values it. Those of my generation may recall the insistence of Patrick McGoohan in the 60’s series the Prisoner: “...I am not a number….”

Stimulated by research papers from Ekkehard Thümler (Heidelberg), Angela Eikenberry (Nebraska), and Florentine Maier (Vienna), as well as ours, the panel and audience dived into a lively debate, possibly one of the liveliest many of us had experienced at similar conferences, reflecting the passion with which many address this area. Does financialisation increase the influence of funders over the delivery of social services? Does that make them more likely to be driven to and focused upon delivery successful outcomes, or will the desire for a financial return become the main driver? Does the knowledge and vision of the social provider get enveloped in a quagmire of financial drivers and measurement?

The debate continued in one of Münster’s wonderful hostelries (always helpful to thought…). The common view was that, provided all parties remain focused on the social objectives, and let them speak for themselves through the measurement, neither funding from outside the social sector, nor financial measurement need necessarily compromise effective social delivery. However we need to be careful, and honest with ourselves about the risks. I look forward to our further work with Ekkehard, Angela, Florentine and others in this area, but what do you think…?

Jim Clifford OBE

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