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Social Impact Bonds: State of Play & Lessons Learnt

Author: OECD
Published Date: 11 May 2016

Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) have spread around the globe in the past five years. At a time of pressure on public budgets following the economic crisis, a financing mechanism for social policies that promises to mitigate the public sector risk, increase effectiveness and pay for services now while requiring public contributions later, is likely to attract attention. Few policy tools have been disseminated so far and so fast. Since the first one, which was launched in 2010, 43 SIBs have been set up in 11 countries representing an investment of over 200 million EUR. 


The backing for SIBs was illustrated by the launch of Social Impact Investing Task Force 2013 as part of the agenda of the G8 summit under the UK Presidency. The first meeting chaired by Sir Ronald Cohen took place in the White House the same year. In June of 2014, the Pope expressed his support for social impact investment saying: “It is urgent that governments throughout the world commit themselves to developing an international framework capable of promoting a market of high impact investments and thus to combating an economy which excludes and discards”.1 SIBs were the centrepiece of the final report2 of the Social Impact Investing Task Force because they combine three core elements in a single tool: entrepreneurship, innovation and investment. 


Public welfare expenditures seek to achieve social impact. For a variety of reasons, not all such expenditures succeed. The enduring nature of poverty, recidivism, homelessness, unemployment and other intractable social problems suggests that a greater variety of approaches might be helpful. In this regard, social impact investing seeks to marry social with financial returns (OECD, 2014a). Furthermore, social impact investing- exemplified by SIBs- opens up the world of social impact to private sector investors as well as other funders and offers the prospect for social enterprises and civil society organisations to become a more significant part of the delivery system. In practice, most SIBs have been developed in policy environments where ready cashable savings can be realised through improved performance of a non-statutory service. These are usually areas in which conventional approaches have not worked well. At the same time, they are often in areas that are complementary to existing statutory provision rather than as replacements for provision. 


A SIB can be defined as “a contract with the public sector or governing authority, whereby it pays for better social outcomes in certain areas and passes on part of the savings achieved to investors”.3 Brookings Institution in a major study of SIBs (Gustaffson-Wright et al., 2015) defines them as: “a mechanism that harnesses private capital for social services and encourages outcome achievement by making repayment contingent upon success”.


This paper sets out to explore the current state of play of SIBs. Section 2 presents their geography and thematic scope. Section 3 asks whether SIBs are scaling up social innovations and examines the roles of the different actors and in particular the role of commissioners, investors and service delivery organisations. Section 4 examines the focus SIBs place on outcomes and the use of evaluation, and comments on monitoring systems and where the risk is placed. It also discusses whether the reward mechanism of the contract is able to deepen the focus on results throughout the delivery chain. The final section brings together some main messages. 


The paper was written following an experts meeting organised by the OECD in Paris on April 15th 2015.4 This meeting included contributions from a number of SIBs such as the Junior Code Academy in Lisbon, London’s Street Impact and Rotterdam as well as contributions from evaluators and support organisations. We are grateful to all participants and speakers for these valuable contributions and exchanges from which this document benefited greatly. Other desk research was based on published materials, evaluations and websites of SIBs as well as of support organisations. 


Read the paper - Social Impact Bonds: State of Play & Lessons Learnt