Nick O’Donohoe moved from big finance to a big society bank when he realized that investment meant more than just money in the bank.
If you have a U.K. bank account that has been lying dormant for longer than 15 years, there’s a good chance Big Society Capital (BSC) now has your money. O’Donohoe is former CEO of Big Society Capital (BSC); a U.K. based social investment company and the world’s first social investment bank. He is now Senior Advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and spoke to Real Leaders about the innovative, world-first approach adopted by BSC.
“These unclaimed assets, alongside the private sector investment that are leveraged, will mean that the big society bank will – over time – make available hundreds of millions of pounds of new finance to some of our most dynamic social organizations’,” Cameron said at the time. Brown had been forced to back down from critics who warned of administrative chaos and questions around whether the government had the right to seize the funds. Legislation was passed in 2008 finally paved the way for Cameron’s announcement two years later and the Dormant bank and Building Society Act was passed, giving the government the right to collect and distribute money from dormant accounts after 15 years.
O’Donohoe explains that the Dormant Accounts Act gave three choices at the time, around what to do with the money. One was to capitalize a social investment wholesaler (us), a second was to support youth activities and a third was for financial education. The government ended up liking the idea of a social investment bank so much that they decided to dedicate all the funds to BSC. O’Donohoe’s personal journey, into what become social finance, began around five years ago when he worked for JP Morgan Chase. Born in England, raised in Ireland and educated at Wharton in the U.S.A., he initially worked for 12 years at Goldman Sachs and then spent the next 15 years at JP Morgan Chase, running the European Equity division and then Global Head of Research.
In 2008 JP Morgan Chase identified a need for a social finance group. It was the brainchild of CEO Jamie Diamond, who felt the company could provide leadership and development in the relatively new areas of social finance, impact investing and social investing. “It was a really new idea at that time,” says O’Donohoe. “He wanted the bank to provide some leadership and someone at the bank to do it.
He wanted someone from the management committee to oversee it, and I got asked.” O’Donohoe was only supposed to spend a small amount of his time supervising this uncertain venture, but he soon got deeply involved in the new social finance group and produced an early research paper on impact investing.
At the end of 2010 a report they produced on impact investing as an emerging asset class became quite influential and that brought him into contact with some influential, like-minded people in the UK. “I met Sir Ronald Cohen, a founding partner of large private equity firm Apax, that had been developing a social investment agenda in the U.K. for more than a decade,” says O’Donohoe.
They also had a list of values that listed integrity, responsibility, sustainability and community among the core pillars of their business, something lacking among the bull-run approach of many other financial institutions at the time. Nick Hurd, a minister in the U.K. government was, at the same time, also looking for someone to set up the Big Society Bank, as government officials had coined it.
“It was intended to be a financial institution that developed a world of social investment, that helped to connect charities and social organizations with capital markets and helped them to raise and borrow money more easily,” says O’Donohoe. “It also aimed to develop social impact bonds, another way of funding charities.” Even though Ronnie Cohen was more closely associated with the government, they asked O’Donohoe to help, because of his experience with social investment at JP Morgan Chase.
“I’d been in banking for 28 years, but was at a stage in my life where I wanted to do something different, something that would make a contribution to the community and society.
“BSC is not really a bank,” says O’Donohoe. They don’t take deposits, other than the dormant account money and another £200 million pounds of investment from the four major U.K. banks. The significant political support in the beginning certainly helped, even though the original brand became slightly tarnished because of its political roots.
As witnessed with many idealistic government programs around the world, private enterprise involvement usually offers a better chance of success, but the high level political support BSC received at the outset has certainly helped get them to where they are today. O’Donohoe has always had a social conscience. His father was a doctor and his mother a social worker. “When your father’s a doctor you’re constantly aware of the fact that he’s out there every day, making a material difference to people’s lives,” says O’Donohoe. “Regardless of people’s wealth or ethnicity, that’s what doctor’s do.
I was given that awareness from an early age and even though I never regretted becoming a banker there was always that thought in the back of my mind asking, ‘Is this my purpose in life, helping rich people get richer?’
“Banks do fulfill a vitally important role in any sort of market economy, and the fact that we’ve had problems in the banking sector over the last few years seem to have created a bad impression around financial services. I was very lucky at JP Morgan Chase who were a safe port in the storm and weren’t implicated the way other banks were.
My journey to BSC was less about running away from something, and more about making a broader contribution to the world. I knew this would earn me a lot less money, but it would have a better defined purpose for my ideas,” explains O’Donohoe. Looking back, O’Donohoe sees the credit crisis as the catalyst for the development in the current social investment industry, and a signal to those with alternative solutions to step forward.
The nature of capitalism seems to be changing fast, yet won’t fundamentally affect the core financial markets for a while yet, according to O’Donohoe.
“It’s like turning a supertanker; it’s going to take a long time for a new direction to materially change our institutions. What we’re seeing now, even beyond the world of investment, are companies and banks becoming much more aware of their role in the community. It’s changing the way they behave, making them more sensitive and aware towards environmental and social and governance issues.
Change is evident if you look back 10 years and compare. There now exists a whole impact and social investing movement, driven by individuals and institutions that want their money to do more than only deliver a financial return.
You’ll increasingly see companies doing more to furnish their environmental, social and governance criteria, and you’ll see an increasing number of investment opportunities, that offer more than financial return. In the future we’d like to see every investment being an impact investment.
In addition, companies and organizations will need to be doing good in order to attract investment and become much more transparent about how they conduct their business,” says O’Donohoe.
An immediate question might be why anyone would choose investments that are not social one’s. Why do people still invest in mainstream, ‘traditional’ funds when there is now clearly an alternative? O’Donohoe thinks we’re at the beginning of a long journey and looks to history to put things into perspective.
“It might take decades for this to play out. We’re presently trying to encourage social investing, which means investing that delivers impact as well as actual monetary return. For this to be effective, we have to measure impact. How do we do that? There’s no consistency around how social impact can be measured, graded or evaluated. It took around 200 years for accounting principles to develop, so unlearning old ways of seeing the world can take time.”
Most funds have track records to prove to investors that they’re worth investing in. The impact investment industry has almost no such track record, and there’s no shortcut to creating a five or ten year track record. Data has to be generated, captured and analyzed, by tracking real investments and loans, for this market to grow. “Much of what has been developed for the impact investment market is very risky,” says O’Donohoe.
“You’ll find a lot of this investing is done with very small companies, often in deprived parts of the world, and it’s risky. There are many people who want to invest in companies that are developing education for the poor in Africa, or portable housing in India, and also many local U.K. investors who prefer very low risk, secure, reasonable yielding bond funds that channel money to charities or to other social enterprises. Regardless, the low-risk end of the impact investment market needs to be developed.”
“Today’s young entrepreneur wants to start a company with a dual purpose. Yet a big barrier to social enterprise, evident in most countries, are the two legal formats that exist for business. One form is a charity, where you give away your money and the other is a for-profit company, seeking to maximize profits. The idea of a dual-purpose company is not embedded in any clear legal form yet and there’s a growing demand for it. When I speak at business schools, you hear that voice very clearly.”
Within the current crop of global business leaders, O’Donohoe sees a lack of knowledge around social investment. “If you asked a leading CEO whether they would consider making a social investment, they would probably say yes. If you asked whether they already had, they’d probably say no. If you asked why they hadn’t they’d reply, ‘We don’t know what they look like, we don’t know who does this type of investing or, our advisors don’t know anything about them,’” says O’Donohoe.
“A short-term goal, over the next three to five years is to simply educate everyone to know what a social investment product looks like. That they’re available across a range of products and services, and that they’re available from mainstream as well as specialist organisations.”
“Ten years ago no-one had heard of corporate social responsibility,” says O’Donohoe. “A lot of people like to criticize it, but the fact is, at least we’re conscious of it now. Many large, global companies like Unilever are really at the cutting-edge of using their financial and human resources and global footprint to make a difference to important social issues. More transparency around this, and a desire to be rewarded will ultimately change big business, because change will happen more quickly if consumers are willing to reward companies for how they run their business.