Social Impact Bonds: An Exciting New Way to Invest

By Markets Fool.com

Most of us would agree that helping a young, scared, low-income mother navigate her pregnancy and the first two years of her child's life -- through financial support and otherwise -- is a truly good thing to do. However, what if such assistance wasn't considered a cost, but rather an investment, and one that could yield a good financial return on top of good works? More modern investors want to allocate their money in alignment with their hearts on issues like this one -- and there's an exciting new way to do so.

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A Nurse-Family Partnership nurse home visitor arrives at the home of a new mom and her baby enrolled in the program in New York. (Photo Courtesy of Nurse-Family Partnership)

Increasing numbers of individuals and organizations are seeing the power of market-oriented solutions for major world problems. It's all about recognizing that doing well financially and doing good for others aren't mutually exclusive, and in fact, joining both motivations can result in a better, stronger economic future. Consider a newcomer on the investment landscape, the social impact bond, SIB.

SIBs allow private investors to invest their capital in public projects aimed at improving vulnerable citizens' lots in life, with the long-term goal of cutting government spending. According to the "Pay for Success" model, private investors front the money and will receive a return on these good-hearted investments -- but only if the programs are deemed successful according to a standard measurement, allowing the government to pay the investors using money that's saved through the programs.

Given bipartisan support for the idea, it seems that there's something to like for just about everyone, and that includes some of the biggest financial firms such as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America's Merrill Lynch, both of which have been among the vanguard by offering social impact bond offerings.

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This week, we learned about a new social impact bond that will support an organization that's close to our hearts here at The Motley Fool.

A track record of success
The Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) -- the worthy organization we at The Motley Fool supported in last year's Foolanthropy campaign -- is driving ahead in this nascent area with its own SIB. Earlier this week, NFP announced (opens PDF)its Pay for Success offering in connection to its commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative America.

This social impact bond offering -- the first U.S. maternal and childhood health Pay for Success project in New York -- will fund NFP's work in that area starting in 2016. The nonprofit Social Finance will manage the offering, and NFP is currently seeking philanthropic support for start-up costs ahead of the impending SIB.

NFP is a perfect candidate. The organization has a performance-based model and a real track record of success helping low-income mothers and their children survive and thrive. Over decades' time, it has been able to show there is a real long-term return on investment in offering help to those who need it most.

The organization provides in-home, visiting nurses for low-income, first-time expecting mothers. These nurses offer guidance and advice from pre-natal care to actual mothering tips for two years after birth. They also work on other areas such as forming strong attachments between mothers and their babies, and even assisting them in navigating their lives and transforming them for the better. Check out the stories on NFP's website to see specific examples of how its nurses have brought positive change to many lives.

It's easy to see why helping mothers in the most challenging of circumstances raise healthy, happy babies is a kind thing to do, but there's a major big-picture impact. After all, social ills are costly, and altering life paths for the better not only reduces human suffering, but it also reduces public spending.

One of the most interesting things about Nurse-Family Partnership is that it has compiled decades of data showing its efforts work. In 2005, the RAND Corporation performed an analysis showing a $34,148 net benefit to society per higher-risk family served, generating a $5.70 return for every dollar invested in the organization.

Last year, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation's Dr. Ted Miller analyzed data from 30 NFP evaluation studies, including randomized, controlled trials, and predicted some pretty amazing outcomes when NFP achieves scale.

According to his model, at an average cost per family of $8,580, NFP's benefits to society will be $52,327, a $6.10 return on investment for every dollar invested in the organization. His model includes resource cost savings such as cost offsets to government, insurers, and out-of-pocket savings, as well as less tangible economic impacts such as work, wages, and quality of life. Much of the savings is related to government expenditures.

When you think in terms of just a few of the striking positive outcomes Miller cites -- such as better maternal health, lower infant mortality, reduced kids' emergency room visits, less child abuse and neglect, and reductions in juvenile crime -- you can see how this is not only good for individual families, but also helps whittle away negative economic impacts for everyone.

Unlocking human potential
Social impact bonds offer a heck of a lot of bang for the buck for those who believe generating positive societal returns is just as important as generating financial ones. Granted, social impact bond investors are taking on the risk that the programs they support might not succeed, which means they lose their investment, but there still will be a non-financial bottom line: funding real positive impact in the world through programs that take a market-based, performance-based approach to building strong foundations for at-risk people.

In NFP's case, the Big Idea we can all embrace is to reduce costs to government and society at large by nipping big problems in the bud. Meanwhile, raising healthy children with more positive family relationships and a better toolbox of life skills at the very beginning unlocks a heck of a lot of future human potential, economically and otherwise. That's a win for all of us.

To learn more, visit NFP's website, and for foundations and individuals who are interested in offering philanthropic support for the start-up costs to help the exciting new social impact bond rapidly scale, contact NFP'sMichelle Stapleton.

Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

The article Social Impact Bonds: An Exciting New Way to Invest originally appeared on Fool.com.

Alyce Lomax has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.