Moderator Isabelle BARRÈS welcomed the participants by mentioning that the session, co-organised with European Microfinance Network, would give them an opportunity to hear state of the art experiences from the panellists in universal best standards, as well as specific tools and practices in social performance of the microfinance industry.
Marcella CORSI, member of the EMN Ideas lab on Social Performance, referred to the current situation and size of microfinance in Europe, which is characterised by growth and diversity, the major part of members claiming to work for employment creation. A recent sample survey among EMN members revealed steady growth of the value of microloans disbursed between 2011 and 2013, while the number of loans increased by 20% in 2011/12, to decline by 3% in 2012/13. Availability of appropriate data remains a critical issue, though she mentions some 250 thousands jobs to be impacted, and referred to the report for further details. The survey also revealed that there are five main constraints for improving social performance management: limited staff time; financial constraints; technical constraints; complexity, and (lack of) external support. Some 50% of the respondents have plans for a social assessment in the coming year.
Laura FOOSE, representing the Social Performance Task Force, presented lessons learned in developing and implementing the Universal Standards for Social Performance Management (SPM). The Task Force aims to provide a framework for developing and defining concepts in social performance management, and has now some 2,200 members around the world. The SPM framework works as a comprehensive manual of good practices, drawing upon leading industry initiatives and best practices of MFIs. It is a voluntary resource, not a rating of regulatory or certification system. The Universal Standards count six areas of Social Performance Management, all of which are implemented through strategies for the four profiles of users as defined in the EMN survey above. Of the four profiles, implementers have clear social objectives and target clients, as well as a clear SPM strategy, though bolstering staff capacity is still needed. SPI4 was developed for assessing current state of practice, with free tools and templates (as well as a downloadable implementation guide and Technical Assistance platform) for improving business practice. The system is relevant for every type of business, from NGOs to Coca Cola. The Task Force is working with rating agencies to improve the Standards. Foose briefly showed the results of an October 2014 implementation survey, and concluded that almost 50% of the respondents said they had plans for a social assessment in the coming year, as an important first step to identify gaps and develop an action plan.
Marie-Anna BÉNARD of CERISE reflected on their working areas (governance, rural/agricultural finance and social business) and on the history of their initiatives on social performance issues since 2001, resulting in the first Social Performance Indicators (SPI) tool in 2004. Since 2008, they broadened the scope to include investors (social audit for MIIs/MFIs) and networks (decision tree for networks with MFC/Imp-Act). SPI4 was launched in 2014 as a universal social assessment tool with the aim to reduce the reporting burden of financial institutions, generate multiple reports for the diversity of actors, and is backed by a technical committee representing the different stakeholders from industry and users. Rationale was the multiplication of social performance initiatives and stakeholders leading to a need to harmonise and simplify the reporting framework. It is not only a self-assessment tool for MFIs, but also serves as a learning and management reporting tool: ‘measure, manage and improve to better serve clients’. The SPI4 tool is built on the main sector initiatives on social performance (SPTF Universal Standards, Smart Campaign Client Protection Principles, and offers optional additional modules (on poverty, gender and environment, investors’ scorecards) which can be added for particular reporting purposes), all to enhance the quality of social performance data and benchmarks. The tool includes a Social Dashboard which can be used to monitor key performance indicators of the MFI’s operations.
The discussion was kicked off by a question from an EIF representative as to why the response to the survey had been rather low, and whether that meant that the tool is difficult to implement for different institutions. Corsi replied that these constraints reflect the state of European microfinance practice, and that the work on this is in fact quite recent. By providing more practical tools (referring again to the idea-lab), she hopes that the realities on the ground will become clearer.
With respect to questions about the transparency of the SPI tool, and if it could also be applied for technical assistance and consultancies (questions posed by an EMN member), and whether there was already feedback from practitioners on the SPI4 version (Danida), Bénard responded that indeed the tool can be used in many different ways, either by an MFI as a self-assessment or by a TA provider/network as an accompanied self-assessment. They are now testing and inviting feedback in order to create awareness and improve the tool. It is expected that SPI4 can help to improve decision-making, as well as to improve the structuring of data. Over 50 MFIs have used the tool since its launch early 2014. SPI4 is a free and public tool available online. CERISE encourages users to share their results on a confidential basis in order to improve research to get a better picture of the microfinance sector, and facilitate reporting and benchmarking.
Foose added that in Peru the national members sit together as a discussion platform to provide feedback to the rating agencies. It is important how you define SP and how to collect the right data. Barrès asked Foose what lessons SPTF could share in terms of the process to develop the USSPM and update the SPI4. Was there anything that she would have done differently, with hindsight? Foose responded that ‘from the scrambling to a common way of thinking and talking’, there have been dramatic improvements in concepts and due diligence. There are now clearer definitions, marked by creative inputs from both north and south. They look forward to next steps in measuring outputs and correlating indicators. Barrès concluded that, given similar goals collaboration (between EMN and SPTF) can prevent the duplication of efforts and reinventing the wheel, and that the framework developed by the SPTF should be considered for the European context.