We’ve covered the pioneering work done by Abhilash Mudaliar at the Paul Ramsay Foundation (PRF) in the past. It’s one of Australia’s largest grant-giving organisations, and a pre-eminent impact investor. But it’s also leaning-in to the catalytic role it plays in seeding fund managers and building capacity in the sector.
To expand this impact, and to further the foundation’s central mission of ‘breaking cycles of disadvantage’, they’ve imported some A-grade impact investing talent from the UK, namely Ben Smith.
Ben took over the day-to-day management of PRF’s impact investing work from Abhilash in April this year, as lead on Impact Investing. He was previously Head of Social and Impact Investment at the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, one of the UK’s largest social impact investors. He’s also been a founder himself, established impact investment funds at an intermediary, and even been a lecturer at University of Westminster.
OnImpact spoke with Ben about the updated PRF investment strategy, lessons Australia can learn from the UK, as well as the next stage of growth and evolution for the local impact industry.
The PRF Impact Strategy
Abhilash defined the core of the PRF impact investment approach, but as he moves to take on the broader role of managing the foundation’s entire portfolio, Ben Smith is building the structures and scaffolding to expand the reach of the organisation.
“The initial strategy, which was approved in February 2020, was very much exploratory. It was focussed on the supply and the demand side of things, to understand the environment, and understand what was potentially going to work within the space.” Ben says.
“I arrived when the team was getting towards the end of the two year exploratory cycle. And so I began to explore what’s next?”
The next stage of PRF’s impact investment strategy has three parts.
“The first area is making program related investments (PRI), these are impact first investments which focus on our three programmatic areas. The majority are direct investments, but not necessarily all of them. And they’re relatively small at sub $10 million.” Ben says.
“We don’t have an explicit return expectation across those investments in the same way a traditional PRI might in the States, and it’s different to some of the thinking in Australia. A big part of this strategic pillar is thinking about the role and the use of blended finance.”
That’s the first bucket of capital that PRF commits to impact: smaller deals and impact first.
The second pool of capital has return expectations explicitly focussed on ensuring the foundation can exist in perpetuity, whilst providing sufficient capital for both grants and the PRI deals.
“The second area is through an explicit 10% carve-out from our corpus. It’s about making investments which are consistent with our charitable objectives, while also meeting our financial goals, which is CPI plus three and a half percent. And there’s an explicit focus to invest in first time funds and first time for managers. So we’re seeking to play a catalytic role in that sense.” Ben says.
“A third piece that we’re just beginning to explore is how we can apply a responsible lens to our entire corpus. There are, of course, a number of strategies, and in the coming months we are going to explore options with our Investment Committee and our advisors, so we can drive towards aligning our assets with our mission more broadly,” Ben says.
Ben has only been in the seat for 6 months but he’s already inked a couple of deals, with a third on the way that he couldn’t yet disclose.
“The first investment we’ve made since the new strategy was launched, was into an environment-focussed fund, the Palisade Impact Fund. It’s a bit of a step change for us as an organisation.” Ben says.
“The second deal falls into our program-related funding bucket. The organisation is called The Bread and Butter Project. We’ve approved an impact linked facility. It offers the enterprise a long term loan, with the capital being repaid based on the performance of the organisation, tied to their profitability. We hope that this will, essentially, be a 0% loan, provided they hit their impact targets.”
UK Lessons for Australia
The local sector has made huge progress in the past few decades, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn lessons from areas such as the UK, which have been practicing impact investing for much longer.
Such is the determined focus of PRF to play a catalytic role in growing the sector that it has imported high-caliber talent, like Ben.
“I most recently worked at a foundation called Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. They’d started impact investing in 1997, and a key value there is the maturity of the talent. People have grown up within their professional careers knowing precisely what impact investing is all about.” Ben says.
“As a result there’s greater awareness. Some of the work that Big Society Capital and Access Foundation has been doing is great, but actually, there was a significant history before that as well. Foundations and organisations like the National Lottery have done so much fundamental work, but they don’t get the same kind of good press as well known groups like Big Society Capital.”
The unique lottery system in the UK offers a unique source of funding to support social enterprises. In Australia, the market is both younger, and lacks the flow of funding from the government or community. You need to walk before you can run.
“When I arrived here I noticed there’s a lot of focus on the supply of capital, it’s all about accessing allocators like the super funds, and big banks. While I think that’s important, within a less mature market like Australia, there’s also a fundamental requirement to focus on the market infrastructure.” Ben says.
“How can you get foundations deploying catalytic capital and working together? How can you reduce some of the transaction costs for those in the early stages? How can you support some of these organisations to get to a position where they can have informed conversations with investors? And then how do you make sure there’s the supply of early stage capital which has got the appropriate kind of wholesale risk tolerance baked into it? That certainly wasn’t always the case in the UK.”
PRF recognises the role they can play in helping to nurture the sector, but in terms of that next iteration, to push into the next stage of growth, there will certainly be a requirement for patient and risk-tolerant capital.
“That’s been a big learning from Big Society Capital and Access Foundation. If you’re going to have early stage intermediaries, which are looking at the high risk space, they need to be effectively and appropriately capitalised, and they need access to patient, tolerant and flexible, wholesale capital in order to be able to create the funds. In turn, they then go on to provide the capital that early stage organisations really need.” Ben says.