Its kind of fun to do the impossible

St Giles Trust was involved in the world's first ever SIB (social impact bond) through using our peer-led model to help prison leavers from HMP Peterborough resettle into the community. Following the recent announcement on the SIB's successful results, our CEO Rob Owen OBE reflects on how it helped us deliver dividends for all - the SIB investors, wider society and, most importantly, the clients we supported through the service.

Walt Disney once said ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible’. It springs to mind when I reflect on our experience in helping to deliver the world’s first Social Impact Bond. There has been surprising negativity surrounding the bond, despite it being championed by the likes of Barack Obama, a man I greatly admire. Its complexities should not take away the fact that our society needs new solutions to age old problems. Re-offending costs society well over £13 billion a year. The prison population has risen 82% in the last 30 years and reoffending rates for those serving a sentence of less than 12 months are still a staggering 59%.

Why the impossible quote? Back in 2010 we were extremely lucky to benefit from a landmark evaluation by Frontier Economics supported by Lord Gus O’Donnell. It looked at our London Probation Trust funded service we delivered working with 1,500 medium to high risk prison leavers. The team comprised of a small army of highly motivated, highly skilled and extremely credible paid St Giles Trust former service users (Peer Advisor caseworkers) who delivered this support. The results of the evaluation were remarkable – they demonstrated that we reduced re-offending rates by an additional 40% and helped save the taxpayer £10 for every £1 invested in the service. When we discussed the findings with Government statisticians they said these results were impossible and that only low, very low, single digit reductions in offending rates are ever possible.

Fortunately, not everyone believed this. Peter Wheeler and the likes of the brilliant David Robinson, and the team from Social Finance, (Toby Eccles, David Hutchinson and founded by Sir Ronnie Cohen) were embarking on launching the world’s first Social Impact Bond. Finally they had some evidence that it really could work and a win –win situation could be engineered for all stakeholders involved.

We felt like pioneers at the very start. Our first two staff – former service users who had through St Giles Trust’s Peer Advisor model - had to base themselves out of the local McDonalds as they could get Wi-Fi there. They certainly shook things up a bit. I don’t think the local housing officers had ever been challenged on points of law, or had caseworkers working so diligently for the clients we strived to serve. But we started to get some great early indicators that proved the value of using former service users in helping other people to make positive changes to their lives. It grew in size and complexity.

The second and final cohort results were terrific. A 9.7% reduction in reoffending – an impossibility to some meant that the initial investors were fully repaid with a substantial compound interest rate that means that they can reinvest again into the charity sector (we hope) to yet again make a meaningful difference to thousands more lives. The tax payer also benefitted as it effectively saved them £10 for every £1 invested. Large numbers of clients had a caring and meaningful service that helped address their key rehabilitation needs –jobs and homes. But maybe the biggest benefactors don’t even know who they are – those who would have otherwise been future victims of crime. Thousands of members of society whose lives weren’t shattered by crime. Surely this in itself makes these Social Impact Bonds a success for all – and at the same time as Walt Disney famously said ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible’.

Rob Owen OBE