How do you keep improving people’s lives in a lockdown?

In our ‘Meet the Impact Manager’ guest blog series, we hear how some fund managers in our portfolio have been responding to COVID-19. This week, Mila Lukic, Partner of Bridges Fund Management, talks about how the flexibility and partnership-based approach of social outcomes contracts have helped delivery teams adapt to the unique challenges of COVID-19.


Written by

Mila Lukic, Partner, Bridges Fund Management

The Bridges Social Outcomes team, throughout the last 10 years, has worked with over 95 social sector organisations to deliver social projects commissioned by over 60 different local and central Government departments. We’ve done this in close partnership with 22 other impact-focused social investment organisations, who have made 38 direct co-investments alongside the Bridges Funds, into these projects.

These projects are on the front-line of the Covid-19 crisis, since almost all of them work with groups of people who are particularly susceptible to the virus or its associated containment measures. Our delivery partners support people with chronic health conditions, who are particularly at-risk from the virus; with the homeless, who were least able to self-isolate; and with vulnerable families, for whom lockdown can be extremely challenging. In almost every case, we have seen the crisis either exacerbate existing challenges or create entirely new ones (sometimes both).

For example, a number of projects which we and our partner social investment organisations support, are designed to tackle the social components of long-term health conditions; but people can’t attend exercise classes or social events when they’re confined to their homes. Our delivery partners also work with people who sleep rough, for whom social distancing is almost impossible – and while many have been given temporary housing by the Government over the last 12 weeks, which has been very effective, there is an urgent immediate need to ensure that individuals are now supported into more permanent arrangements. Equally, care leavers who are already facing an incredibly difficult transition into independent living are likely to feel even more isolated.

So, the last few months have tested our partnerships in totally new and unexpected ways. But these projects are different from traditionally commissioned services, in that they’ve have been launched as “outcomes contracts”.

(a form of public sector contracting where the Government’s payment is tied to progress metrics that reflect measurable improvements in people’s lives, with social investors providing the up-front funding needed to launch the projects, and make continuous improvements to their effectiveness)

And there a few features of this approach that have made life easier for the delivery teams during the crisis.

First, many of these projects do not have a pre-defined ‘service specification’. Instead, the teams operate using a flexible delivery model, which gives them the freedom to react to changing circumstances, learn and test out new approaches to see what works best for each individual. The social investment model gives them the flexible funding they need to do that.

Second, all of these projects involve close and frequent collaboration between the delivery organisations and the commissioner.

And third, the delivery partners are used to being accountable for helping people to improve their lives, not for delivering a set of pre-agreed activities.

When the crisis hit, this set-up meant it was relatively easy for them to identify problems and make rapid changes to their services. For instance, many were able to switch to online or remote delivery almost immediately; in some cases, this has actually allowed them to increase the frequency of their contact and improve engagement. For example, West London Zone, which normally works with struggling children in schools, has moved to a virtual support model; and increased the frequency of contact. The Link Workers are now interacting with children on average four times a week, up from once or twice previously. (WLZ also raised £35,000 to buy these families food and household essentials, plus IT equipment and educational materials to help the children learn at home). Read our recent impact innovation document for more examples of 'Beyond crisis management'.

Many of our VCSE partners have also offered additional support to the people they work with – from helping them access essentials like food and medication, to crisis response services (e.g. for self-harming or domestic abuse), to language support or advice on official guidelines. Others have come to the aid of their commissioning partners by extending their service to other vulnerable people outside the project.

From a financial point of view, these social sector delivery organisations are typically paid by these partnerships on a revenue funding basis (so there are no loans to repay or interest to service), which covers day-to-day delivery plus new delivery pilots. This has continued as usual during lockdown. So, whereas some in this sector have unfortunately seen their funding dry up, our partners have benefited from secure funding throughout, allowing them to maintain consistent service delivery. In fact, because the delivery is backed by social investment (via the Bridges Social Outcomes Funds and the 22 other social investment funds, housing associations, and impact focused organisations that we have co-invested alongside), several have actually been able to access extra funding if they’ve needed it to pilot and/or launch additional services.

So what have we learned? Most importantly: that we are lucky enough to work with some extraordinary organisations. Their commitment, tenacity, and determination to improve lives during this crisis has been nothing short of inspirational.

But the evidence of the last few months also suggests that it’s much easier to get good results if delivery teams have the flexibility (and the funding) to adjust their delivery model dynamically; if commissioner and delivery organisations work together in true partnership; and if all parties have shared accountability for genuinely improving the lives of vulnerable people.

Back in 2012, Big Society Capital catalysed this first fund in the world dedicated to supporting social outcomes contracts – precisely because we believed that these contracts had the potential to deliver this kind of flexibility, innovation and collaboration, without losing that vital accountability for improving lives. On the evidence of this crisis, that certainly seems to be the case. But we think there’s no reason why these features can’t be incorporated into a wide range of public services, regardless of contract type.