An interview with Emma Tomkinson – April 2014

LIS logoEmma and Joana - LIS interview(First published in Portuguese in the April Newsletter of the Social Investment Lab.)

In New York  on 21 April, Joana Cruz Ferreira, a researcher at the Portuguese Social Investment Lab, interviewed Emma Tomkinson, an Australian social impact analyst, about her work, current projects and industry experience.

Emma helped creating the Social Impact Bond Knowledge Box for the UK Cabinet Office Social Investment and Finance Team.

Lab of Social Investment (LIS): Emma, your LinkedIn page and your blog say you are a social impact analyst. Can you explain to us what that means?

Emma Tomkinson (ET): One of the reasons for saying I’m a social impact analyst relates to being a member of the Social Impact Analysts Association in the United Kingdom. As analysis of impact in the social investment sector is a new practice, I use my title as a way of introducing people to the topic. It leads us to discuss emerging ideas, making every conversation about sharing and disseminating knowledge (which also seems to be a focus of your work in the Laboratory).

LIS: One of your current projects is – a stream of social consciousness – a personal blog you created recently. What is blogging and why did you create it?

ET: I started the blog to create a diary of interesting websites and bits of information – a register of links and ideas I wanted to find again or work on later. Over time, as I was having conversations with different people in the field, I began to hear the same questions repeated, questions for which no work or appropriate information was available. In response, I began to use the blog to provide information or answers on these topics.

LIS: Through the posts on your blog, you make an effort to clarify ideas and translate “buzzwords” or industry-specific jargon that may not be accessible to the general public. Why is this important to you?

ET: Yes, the blog is also a way of clarifying things that have been miscommunicated. A challenge in the social investment sector is that many of the conversations are led by investors – they often have the resources to publish documents or hold launch events. They use the language of commercial finance, which doesn’t always translate well to other sectors. For example, when we talk about supply and demand in a financial context, we are referring to the supply of and demand for money. If we talk about supply and demand with social purpose organisations, we are usually referring to the supply of and demand for services… we need to us language that communicates our meaning to all audiences.

LIS: Building a shared language of the sector is also one of the focus of the Lab. In what situations might we notice difficulties relating to language?

ET: One of the most interesting aspects of social investment is that it brings together non-profit organizations, social enterprises, investors and the public sector. However, this means it is essential to pay close attention to the way we communicate and clarify anything we don’t understand.

For example, it is uncomfortable, but important in a meeting to interrupt someone who is using jargon or acronyms and ask them what they mean. If we say ‘BSC’ instead of ‘Big Society Capital, the UK social investment bank’, we want to be absolutely sure that everybody in the audience knows what ‘BSC’ means. One of the recurring mistakes in the sector – because it is emerging– is to assume everybody has heard of every organisation, every report and every government initiative. It’s easier to sit a meeting, assuming everybody understands and to nod in agreement, than to ask somebody to explain what they mean. I call this ‘nodding in mutual misunderstanding’. But it’s a huge waste of everybody’s time. When a deal or contract is made, it is necessary that all parties understand the final terms. It makes me very happy to know that your series of research notes addressed this issue by beginning with the glossary for converging economy.

 LIS: Do you have any suggestions for work the L could do to harmonise language in the industry?

ET: It is important not to assume that people know what we are talking about, but it is also important to continuously revise and update the concepts we have defined. Establishing a field is a process of evolution and constant revision – an idea is not perfect and finalised just because some expert or authority has said so – all stakeholders must be involved in creating a shared language. Involvement of all the actors in the sector is an important step in building their confidence.

LIS: In addition to the blog, you participate independently in other projects – why have you decided to participate in multiple initiatives simultaneously?

ET: At this time in Australia, there is a range of organisations I am interested in collaborating with, across more than one sector.  So I’m working on several different projects.

LIS: What are these projects?

ET: I’m preparing an academic research paper on the social outcomes of performance-based contracts for welfare services – contracts with payments dependent on some result or indicator of success. Some use a control group – a group of people that do not receive services – and compare the changes experienced by these people in comparison to those that receive a service, the treatment group.

Worldwide, there is an increasing use of these contracts across the social/welfare/human services (services for people in need). However, there is no strong evidence base for these decisions. This research aims to summarise the evidence on the outcomes of these contracts and paint a picture that will help us make better decisions with this type of contracting.

LIS: What other projects are you involved in?

ET: I’m working with governments and other stakeholders from different countries in order to help them assess the applicability of social impact bonds (SIBs) as a means to achieve their objectives. Sometimes, governments think that doing a SIB is their ultimate goal. I believe SIBs are not an objective in themselves, but a tool that can help to achieve other policy objectives, which will be different in every context. I present information and facilitate interactive workshops. I hear what people have to say, what worries them and what their biggest challenges are. I help people build their own solutions, providing them with ideas and evidence from case studies around the globe.

I am also working with the Social Impact Analyst Association to prepare an international survey on measuring social impact. Australia is leading the project. The survey will be conducted in several different countries and the goal is to eventually replicate it in Australia, Canada, England, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, and other members of SIAA’s Country Impact Groups program. The survey will be disseminated by local networks to their members and associates. In Portugal, this work is being done in conjunction with Stone Soup.

LIS: You helped creating the SIB Knowledge Box, an online platform for information on SIBs. Can you tell us about this tool?

ET: This project was to address the lack of objective information about Social Impact Bonds worldwide. If someone wants to know more about a specific aspect, they can refer to the Knowledge Box and read a short article on the topic – it functions as a kind of encyclopaedia that collates relevant information and case studies. The Knowledge Box was released in May 2013 and includes case studies for all Social Impact Bonds issued to that date. It is intended to serve the range of stakeholders in social investment worldwide.

LIS: Is there any other important project you would like to mention?

ET: Yes, I am developing a Social Impact “Measure Chest” – a collection of information about methods of measuring impact, easy to access and understand. It will include different scales used to assess psychological states and change, for example, depression, confidence and well-being. The goal is to help people, who are starting to measure their impact, easily navigate the information and metrics available. The Measure Chest will help stakeholders in the sector to find useful information to help quantify their impact.

LIS: Governments have been part of social investment projects for different reasons. In addition to the importance of clarification of language and the provision of simple information, how do we encourage government involvement?

ET: Governments have very hierarchical structures and first, we must first understand who is making decisions and what is important to them. We need to listen to what politicians say when they are elected, how they define their duty and strategy. If a social investment project furthers their objectives, it might catch their interest. It is very important to work closely with them to ensure they understand the project and ensure it delivers their vision.

On the other hand, it is also important to work with people at the opposite end of the decision-making chain; those at the very beginning, those who do the work. These people are usually the most junior in the government, but also people who construct the details of big decisions. It is the most junior officers who write and produce the evidence for decisions, and whose efforts drive policy changes through government until they are agreed. They need to have a good understanding of the project and believe in it. Even when they are trying to be objective, their opinion will be evident in the documents that support the most high-level decisions.

LIS: Does that mean we have to find public sector champions to work with?

ET: Yes, for any project you need someone who feels responsible for moving it through all layers of the decision-making process. Typically for a project to be agreed, a decision must go through at least 6 stages of sign-off. These champions might even go as far as knocking on the door of each office, getting the person inside to sign the document and physically taking it to the next person in the chain. If a decision is not seen as important, it can stay at the bottom of someone’s pile for months.

It is also necessary to work with each government decision maker through all levels of the hierarchy. It is important to ask them what they are trying achieve, what their concerns are and what information they need in order to make a decision. As intermediaries, we must ensure that these interests are aligned and reflected in the final contract.

LIS: The Social Investment Lab research note this month is about social investment readiness – what a social purpose organisation needs to do in order to attract, receive and apply social investment. What do you think about this?

ET: It’s a fantastic idea! The creation of the Investment and Contract Readiness Fund was a UK Government social investment initiative that was very well received by the sector and made a big difference. This is because social purpose organisations were not prepared to receive investment – a situation we also see in Portugal and in Australia. But if you think from the perspective of a social purpose organisation, you might ask “what does investment readiness mean?” Funders looking to invest need to clearly state what they are looking for in an ‘investment ready’ organisation. If I were an organisation and wanted to become ready to receive investment, I would have no idea what I needed to do! So if we recognise a problem, we need to provide very clear information of what we’re looking for and how an organisation might get there.

LIS: The Social Investment Lab recognised this lack of information. In our research note we describe the development trajectory of social enterprises and what the focus of the organisation should be at each stage, what sort of investors they should be approaching and what the appropriate investment type might be.

ET: Will it be translated into English? Not only for me to read, but for everyone! Even if it’s just short, four pages, it would make a huge difference to this information gap if you were able to translate it. If it’s first in Portuguese, then in English, perhaps other languages could follow…? I hope it inspires organisations to understand investor expectations. Even if they don’t fit exactly within the trajectory set out, they will be prompted to think about what is different for their situation and what approaches might be relevant to them. Communicating the funder’s perspective is a vital part of enabling social purpose organisations to engage with social investment.

The Social Investment Lab thanks Emma Tomkinson for her willingness to be interviewed and her interest in working with us in the creation and dissemination of knowledge about Social Investment in Portugal.

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