Impact Investing: make a difference whilst having a career in banking and finance

By Courtney Mathew

01 Jun 2020

The reputation of banking and bankers is at an all-time low. At the same time, we are seeing the emergence of a new market called impact investing. Sandy Blackburn, an impact expert working at the intersection of impact and finance joined us for the latest instalment of our Brand You webinar series. She gave us an overview of what impact investing really means with some fascinating case studies. They showed us how asking the right questions can have incredible, mutually beneficial outcomes for all investment stakeholders.  

After 15 years working for social change in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa, Sandy returned home to Australia, working for PwC initially and then at Westpac. Her last role after almost a decade at the bank was Head of Social Innovation. Sandy was part of the team that built one of Australia’s two first social impact bonds and has gone on to design numerous social impact bonds, including a development impact bond in PNG. She has been a leader in the development of the impact investing sector in the region and plays a key role in growing social enterprises in Australia and the Pacific. She serves on the Australian Advisory Board of the Global Steering Committee for Impact Investing, the Advisory Board of the Australian Centre for NFP and philanthropic studies and is a Non-Executive Director of Queensland’s largest philanthropic foundation, Hand Heart Pocket. 

In 2014, Sandy established one of Australia’s leading impact organisations: Social Outcomes that specialises in researching, designing, costing, implementing, measuring and financing impact. Social Outcomes uses a gender lens investing approach to understand the risk and return on any impact investment opportunity they develop. Sandy shared with us two case studies in order to demonstrate the outcomes that impact investing can deliver. 

The RNA Project  

RNA is a large development just north of the Brisbane CBDwhich was being redeveloped in 2016 by Lend LeaseThey helped rebuild the convention centre and are now creating a new residential and retail space called The Green. Across the road lies Brisbane’s Herston Health Precinct, which contains numerous organisations including the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH). Sandy visited these grounds that, together with the neighbouring University of Queensland and other research centres, total over 11,000 workers and students per day. The administration staff at the RBWH told Sandy that the main issue has been getting their staff and visiting professionals nearby accommodation. As they are close to the CBD, the costs of living are high and have been causing issues in staff retention. They needed a solution that allows their location to be part of their value proposition rather than deterrence 

Nearby from the precinct, the Leukaemia Foundation actively supports families being treated at the RBWH by providing hotel accommodation. The issue is that this delivers significant costs to a not-for-profit whose clients are vulnerable to financial stress. If families aren’t supported with accommodation during what is routinely between 6 months to 2 years of treatment, research has shown that they will most likely lose the family home and be on welfare for the rest of their lives. As such, the Leukaemia Foundation also needed to find a way to reduce costs while maintaining a pristine level of hygiene standards for their immuno-comprised clients. 

Lend Lease, as part of their contract to redevelop the RNA, had made contractual commitments to support community development and affordable housing. This is where the intersection of clients emerges, and the value of impact investing comes into place. Sandy, who was Head of Social Innovation at Westpac at the time, helped to devise a solution that would provide a multitude of benefits to all parties: 

From this, a plethora of positive outcomes were created as a result of impact investing efforts from Sandy’s work: 

PNG Cocoa Farming 

Social outcomes and their partners have been working with the DFAT funded Pacific RISE initiative in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to examine how investing into local cocoa farmers – the majority of whom are women – can help benefit their communities. As with all impact investing efforts, you begin with the end goal in mind. Sandy and her team began to interview the women and ask what the challenges have been to increase their livelihoods and wellbeing.  

The answer was that the well-developed roads were not made to support the activities of local women. For instance, the roads that tend to benefit from large infrastructure projects are almost always major highways, which small scale women farmers rarely use. Instead, these women use the smaller “feeder paths” to get to their farm plots, the local schools, clinics and road-ride market stalls. In contrast, these paths are rarely maintained as they are the responsibility of impoverished local councils. Women told of horror stories of having to give birth alone by the side of the road on their way to hospital, as ambulances could not travel down those feeder roads due to their state of disrepair. 

Sandy went back to the experts in Australia, men with decades of investing knowledge and familiarity with the infrastructure of PNG. When asked “do women and men use roads differently”, they responded that they did not know. The question was never considered. It is not because women in PNG are not economically active. Rather, women make up 70% of the agricultural workforce, working in activities ensuring farm productivity and quality coffee and cocoa. They are also often self-employed through selling produce at independent markets, accessible by feeder tracks, to receive the most stable source of income. 

Moreover, private transport could not solve this issue either. While they exist, they are costly because the road repairs needed could not be offset by the fares charged. Instead, the Social Impact Team hypothesised the following: if feeder roads were graded and maintained as part of an infrastructure investment package, the people movers can restart their service and allow women to travel further and to more markets. When asked, women farmers unanimously reported that the cost of the people mover could be easily born by the additional sales that could be generated by taking larger volumes of produce to market than is possible by foot. Women were also unanimous in their opinion that the feeder roads need only be gravel, requiring inexpensive six-monthly regrading after the wet season, in order to meet their transport needs. 

Therefore, if someone were to practice impact investing in PNG’s infrastructure, the most cost effective and socially beneficial would be investing in these small feeder roads. Upgrading highways, by comparison, is extremely costly yet often funded by donors and in development finance spheres.  For the same investment in a small stretch of highway, a real difference could be made in the lives of these women and their children; better access to healthcare, education and increase in wealth to bring these communities out of poverty. One would see a significant financial and social return on investment. 

On reflecting why these questions to the women were not asked initially, Sandy concluded that it was a lack of fiscal and social inclusivity. That is, if we wish to build an economy to benefit as many people as possible, then a shift in thinking needs to occur. This includes moving away from solely formal economic practices and consideration of the gendered nature of work and life in developing nations. As such, the ability to ask challenging and insightful questions allow prosperity to grow can stem from considering the most basic of concepts; how do we use roads? 

Thank you very much, Sandy for your enlightening case studies. If you would like to find out more about how you can have an impact in your career, please contact Sandy at or visit their website: 

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