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The Next Generation of Philanthropy: An Interview with Jessamyn Lau

By Nell Edgington



In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jessamyn Lau. As Program Leader of the innovative Peery Foundation, Jessamyn helps shape the foundation’s strategy, develops programs, strengthens the foundation’s portfolio, and supports existing grantees. Jessamyn’s MBA from Brigham Young University and time spent with Ashoka U have given her the perspective and skill-set to help the foundation develop new methods to support and build the field of social entrepreneurship. Jessamyn is currently working with BYU’s Ballard Center to create the Peery Social Entrepreneurship Program (PSEP), a cross campus initiative providing opportunities for students and faculty to engage with social entrepreneurship through curriculum, experiential learning, and research.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: At the Peery Foundation you have done some really interesting experiments with social media, even adding an element of crowd-sourcing via Twitter to your strategic planning process. But recently you have gone back and forth about whether you want to continue your PFWhiteboard blog. What has your thinking been about how social media fits into the overall work of the Peery Foundation?

Jessamyn: One thing we know about social media is that it’s a good tool for is spreading the word about our partners and their work. 90% of what we post/tweet is about our portfolio partners. Every now and then we try to figure out how else to deliberately use social media. We’ve tried stuff that hasn’t worked (so we stopped doing it), and we’ve tried stuff that did seem to yield value for us and others. In general it’s still throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks. Intuitively we think social media is a good thing for our creativity, learning, and listening, however, we don’t feel tied to it as a core part of our strategy or practice. When it makes sense we use it, when it doesn’t we don’t.

Nell: What do you think holds foundations back from using social media and embracing greater transparency? What do you think will make that change?

Jessamyn: The tricky thing with social media is it’s really hard to link it to outcomes. Even when tangible examples of outcomes are illustrated it’s often a first-mover advantage and not something that will produce the same results if everyone did the same thing. If foundations could see how social media directly led to more impact it would be an easier sell. It’s a similar story with transparency. Being transparent requires change, time, dedication and a certain amount of risk. Without a clear and strong argument for how that leads to more impact it’s easier not to take the risk and stay quiet.

Another issue is strategic planning, which, at times, can become more of a bane than a boon to foundations. When it comes to social media many foundations think they need a strategy and a full blown plan before they will start using it. As with many things it’s hard to know exactly how Twitter or Facebook will be useful until you give it a go and play around a
little.

For the most part I think the change will only come with an increase of millennial philanthropists, foundation ED’s and program officers who come with a share-as-default mentality and bias towards creative experimentation in public.

Nell: You recently did a fascinating blog post about how the social entrepreneurship movement is encouraging young people to think they can solve the world’s problems, without much real world experience. How do we balance Generation Y’s zeal to find solutions with their youth and lack of experience?

Jessamyn: I don’t think I know the full answer to that, yet. My opinions on this point are still developing as the Peery Foundation works closely with BYU to build a cross-campus social entrepreneurship program. I’m not sure the overall problem is too much zeal or youth, or even too little experience -all of these things provide incredible value in the right context. I think what’s lacking are clearer expectations and support for students to build self-awareness and deliberate preparation in their development as social innovators. As I said, I’m still figuring it out -watch the PF Whiteboard over the coming months for more on this.

Nell: The Peery Foundation is one of few foundations that do mission-related investments. How did you decide to move into that realm and what do you think holds other foundation back from MRIs?

Jessamyn: Our primary function is to support and serve the social entrepreneurs we work with. We try to keep our funding as flexible as possible. Peery Foundation funding is generally unrestricted and the structure of a grant is often co-crafted with the entrepreneur. We have come to realize that entrepreneurs with differing business models, or at differing life-cycle stages, need different types of capital. Once we believe in a SE and their model for addressing poverty we want to always be open to providing the type of capital that they need at the time they need it.

We’re still at an early stage in developing our capacity to provide debt and other funding outside of philanthropy. In our philanthropic funding we’re not paper heavy and our agreements are very trust-based. It was definitely daunting to explore this new realm of traditional investment due diligence and contractual agreements. So far we’ve found the kind of support we need to help us make the leap fairly painlessly through the Toniic Network, and from sources such as Silicon Valley Community Foundation and University Impact Fund, and still feel like we’re able to retain our low-paper, trust based partnership approach to the extent that makes sense.

Nell: In some ways philanthropy has been a bit left behind by the impact investing movement. Why do you think that is and do you think philanthropic giving and impact investing will become more integrated?

Jessamyn: The potential of impact investing is huge, though I’m not sure I agree with the statement that impact investing (ii) has left behind philanthropy (charitable giving from individuals, corporations and foundations totaled over $290B in the US alone for 2010, impact investing is estimated at $50-100B in 2011). Though there is a lot of attention and discussion surrounding impact investing, there are still relatively few organizations actively channeling dollars to ii. Even in the future (when I think ii will absolutely eclipse philanthropy by the numbers), I see ii and philanthropy as very complimentary. In many cases philanthropic capital prepares the way for ii dollars, or continues to fund pieces of a model (overhead or continuing innovation) that ii capital can not.

Indeed, there are many incredibly efficient and effective models of social entrepreneurship with models not conducive to impact investment capital – they will probably always rely on philanthropic dollars. There will always be an important role for philanthropy to play. Philanthropy is the ultimate risk-taking capital. We should not lose sight of this or think that ii is here to replace philanthropy.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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