Courtney Robinson is the global head of financial inclusion for Block (formerly Square, Inc.) and Leslie Jackson is the head of policy for Block in Canada.
When it comes to social-impact investing, forget about the minutia of spreadsheet “metrics” and focus on getting the most important and truest measure right – trust.
In our opinion, trust is the most powerful and clarifying social-impact measure there is. This may seem like a naive, idealized statement, but prioritizing trust isn’t a leap of blind faith.
Finding trust in the context of social-impact investing requires grit, rigour and a level of diligence and discipline that transcends typical business metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). It can also be uncomfortable, frustrating and time-consuming.
Prioritizing trust in the context of metrics-obsessed corporate culture is not easy. But, in our experience administering a US$100-million racial equity and social-impact commitment over the past two years, trust is the most predictive measure of investing wisely for social good.
So, how do you build this new approach to assessing social investment opportunities and tracking impact and results?
Approach social-impact investments the way you’d consider an acquisition or a strategic joint venture. Deep, careful due diligence.
While every company is different, here are a few methodologies we use to assess social-impact investment opportunities on the basis of building a trusted partnership with external partners – and to build internal trust and faith with our colleagues.
Research and exploration
Before you jump into investing, research and explore a variety of social-impact investment models. This will help your team identify which methodologies and principles are most relevant to your company’s position and goals.
You can do this by reviewing various organizations’ charters and corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports – and we invite companies to check out Block’s social-impact investment memo, which details our company’s model and process.
Marshal a cross-functional team and document your vision
Whether you adopt any of our methodologies – or are inspired to create alternatives that better apply to your organization and values – we can’t overemphasize the power of engaging a cross-functional team in developing a guiding vision and blueprint as a first step.
A purposeful commitment requires careful and in-depth co-ordination across a company and with their proposed partners.
You can’t do it alone. Real change isn’t the sole domain of a single leader; rather, it’s driven through collaboration between leaders and teams from treasury, policy/community affairs, legal, tax, accounting, communications, inclusion and diversity, and ESG.
To drive meaningful change, you have to start with a cross-functional commitment to your values and a budget. The next step is to outline your working model, process and metrics in a pragmatic, detailed way. The final step is to find like-minded, trusted partners who are already putting your corporate values into action.
Documenting your vision and diligence process will pay dividends as your team evaluates and considers social investment opportunities. Sharing this document with prospective partners is also a powerful way to check alignment during the diligence phase.
Lead with purpose
In our experience, building partnerships on a foundation of trust starts with a shared purpose and goal. Our company’s purpose is economic empowerment, so any potential investment opportunity must clearly demonstrate they are already making tangible impact toward advancing that goal.
Having a shared purpose means that partners speak the same language and share the same values. In our experience, shared purpose also makes it easier to identify and evaluate the goals and impact of various initiatives.
A good example of a strong community organization that works toward a clear purpose is NACCA’s Indigenous Growth Fund (IGF), Canada’s largest Indigenous social-impact fund. Block became the first private investor in the now $153-million investment fund that makes loans available to more Indigenous entrepreneurs who require capital to start or expand their businesses through a growing number of Aboriginal Financial Institutions across Canada.
Invest time up front to ask the hard questions
Social-impact investments require long-term commitments, but the expectation is always that the capital will be repaid over time, so the funds can be reinvested in the future.
Being a good steward of your company’s social-investment funds requires significant investments of time, energy and people resources to evaluate the merits and risks of each potential investment.
- Securing the appropriate levels of approval should be considered within a company’s established corporate investment policies.
- Many companies mandate that all cash not needed for immediate operations be invested in a short-term security that receives at least a market rate of return without undue risk to the principle.
- Meanwhile, more risky funds, funds with lower expected yields, or funds with longer maturity terms may require a reassessment of the company’s investment policy – or the investment can be seen as a business decision that exists separately from the standard investment program, and therefore can deviate slightly if it’s in service of other goals, such as social and racial equity.
- It is also important to build in time for evaluation from colleagues who bring a multitude of perspectives, including the chief financial officer, inclusion and diversity, legal, investor relations and board review.
This in-depth process in collaboration with prospective investment partners tends to expose misalignment fairly quickly.
Walking this path with like-minded leaders builds the trust that forges mutual respect, clarifies expectations and sets tangible social goals that can’t be fostered through standard KPIs and metrics alone.
Once that kind of trust is in place, progress will follow.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.