Third Sector | Does profit with purpose offer something unique?
I have been involved in the area of impact investment since 1999, and during that time there have always been passionate debates about philosophy, politics and money. One of the most recent of these is the debate over the “profit-with-purpose” business and its growing relevance.
For the uninitiated, PWP companies operate like normal businesses, except, crucially, they are values driven. This can be a function of a “mission-lock”, statements a company’s constitutional document, or its more informal mission statement – something that means the business is not just about profit-maximisation. Various bodies have differing views regarding how firm and explicit such statements need to be, but they are distinct from the regulated “social enterprises” which, for example, receive favourable tax treatment under Social Investment Tax Relief.
I am not sure exactly why PWP businesses are suddenly in fashion, but I have several theories. First, I think the pool of capital available for investing in organisations which are destined to deliver sub-market returns is limited. This constrains the growth of impact investment overall. In the US far more deals are transacted and these are in the PWP space. There is also the growth of BCorps – private companies that meet social, transparency and accountability standards – globally, which is very American in its origins and this mentality is spreading. Big Society Capital’s investment criteria are partly set by its founding Act of Parliament, which restricts its capacity to back intermediaries that support PWP businesses. I sense BSC straining against these limitations, which threaten to hamper one of its key goals: the overall growth of impact investment in the UK.
In the interest of transparency, I should note that ClearlySo and its predecessor, Catalyst, have supported PWP businesses since 1999 and have never seen much point in arbitrary restrictions – for example, a maximum permitted dividend pay-out ratio – as the arbiter of what is and is not impact investment.
But opposition to the drift into PWP businesses has some sound philosophical bases. There is a deep-seated fear that the “values of the market” will encroach on the more values-driven impact investment world and change its nature. This view has been well-articulated by commentators such as Dan Gregory and David Floyd. The three-dimensional investment world that ClearlySo regularly advocates – where investors consider risk, return and impact – is still different from the existing mainstream where only risk and return matter. If we lose that difference, the movement for values-driven investing has lost.
I think the debate is also about money. Traditional third sector organisations, especially charities and the more tightly-controlled social enterprises, fear that PWP businesses will crowd them out in terms of investment. This is especially true with regard to the £600m which is under the control of BSC. The third sector sees that money as very much theirs – seeing any encroachment by PWP firms as a threat. I see their point – to see this BSC pot seep away into what are perceived as more mainstream businesses feels threatening.
While I can understand their position, on balance I support the expansion of PWPs. Despite some market values creeping in to impact investing, I believe that the only way to address the scale of social problems we confront is by encouraging mainstream capital into impact investing; seeing the investment world from the 3D perspective mentioned above. Many new innovative models will be supported and tremendous social, ethical and environmental impact will be generated. Traditional charities may indeed lose some of the BSC-backed investment that would have been headed their way, but the £600m, even when combined with matched funding, was never going to be enough to offset the effect of austerity.
This blog first appeared here in Third Sector magazine on 28/10/16.