Social investments should not be reserved for the rich

It should be easier for ordinary people to get involved in social investing, says Rod Schwartz of ClearlySo

Rodney Schwartz
Rodney Schwartz

The government has chosen to renew its emphasis on the big society, with a direct attempt to encourage greater charitable giving.

Several ideas have been floated, including an innovative idea to offer people the chance to give at cashpoints. As laudable as this is, we must ask the question: why are governments so keen to encourage donations, but less so social investing?

The reliance of the third sector on charitable giving is well documented. Last year, total donations reached £10.6bn, according to figures from the National Council For Voluntary Organisations. The government rightly wishes to encourage this. It already provides many fiscal advantages, and these latest announcements represent a determination to do even more.

Such advantages are clearly important and most experts agree that without them there would be much less philanthropic activity. In the US, permissible tax deductions are even more important in fostering a culture of philanthropy. The motives of nations to encourage greater giving are clear: if they did not do it, charitable giving would decline, leaving governments to plug the gap.

One thing those who give do not expect is to get their money back - and certainly not to receive any financial return. Such contributions could be said, therefore, to have a certain financial return of negative 100 per cent. Governments offer no protection against this. The nature of the transaction is known and understood.

Now, let's take the case of social investment. Here, social investors seek to create a positive social impact but, in addition, might get their money back and perhaps even a financial return as well.

Becoming involved in this new and growing sphere presents no problem if you are wealthy: you are considered a high net worth individual - a sophisticated and knowledgeable investor - and permitted to engage in this activity. Firms including ClearlySo might offer you a chance to make investments into exciting, high-impact social businesses and enterprises.

However, if you are not in this small group, you have no chance. Financial Services Authority regulations tightly limit the financial propositions that companies can offer to the general public, often known as retail investors. Firms are forbidden to offer any of these opportunities to people in this category. In essence, if you are not rich, you are free to give away all your money, but if there is any chance you might get some or all of your money back, or some return, then you are blocked from doing so. This is clearly perverse on many levels.

I understand the importance of investor protection, especially when it concerns those of more moderate means - my first career was in finance. But somehow this government must devise a means to encourage social investments, which are newer and potentially offer an exciting complement to charitable giving. They should not just be the preserve of the wealthy. Moreover, a government seeking ways to fund the big society cannot exclude retail investors. It should rather seek the means to unlock this powerful potential source of funds.

Rodney Schwartz is chief executive of social venture capital website

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