In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Bill Shore. Bill is the founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America. He has served on the senatorial and presidential campaign staffs of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart and as chief of staff for former U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey. He is also the author of four books focused on social change, including, The Cathedral Within.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You’ve been on a (writing) kick lately encouraging nonprofits to make bigger, bolder goals. Which do you think comes first: bold goals or a sustainable financial model? And how are the two related?
Bill: Just as every journey aims toward a destination, every social change effort should start with a goal, bold or otherwise. A sustainable financial model, while critical, is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. We began Share Our Strength with a financial model based more on cause-related marketing and corporate partnerships than on traditional fundraising. By leveraging the assets we’d created and delivering measurable value back to our partners, we generated significant revenues in ways that felt more sustainable. We were a grant maker to other organizations, and proud of the good work they did, but ultimately it was unsatisfying not connected to a bold goal.
Nell: The stated bold goal of Share Our Strength is to eradicate childhood hunger in America by 2015. That’s 2 years away. Will you get there? And how has your experience working toward that bold goal affected your thinking about how realistic bold goals are?
Bill: It’s a great question because a bold goal is a double edged sword. If you achieve it the market will reward you. And if you don’t it may penalize you. That’s all as it should be. But the real reason to do it is not the market or fundraising or the media, but for oneself. When you devote a lot of your life tackling tough social problems, you deserve to know whether you are moving the needle. We’ve seen the market reward Share Our Strength for simply setting the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Our revenues have more than doubled, and that has fueled increased impact. We will not get all of the way to our goal by 2015. We will need more time. But we believe we will have earned it. In the states and regions where we have concentrated our resources we will have proven that childhood hunger can be eradicated. We believe that such compelling proof of concept will give us the support necessary to scale the strategy everywhere.
Nell: You have argued that nonprofits are not resource-constrained, rather that they “suffer a crisis of confidence” in investing in their own capacity. Some might argue that that’s easy for the head of a $40+ million nonprofit to say. How do you think the average nonprofit can move beyond the starvation cycle of never having enough resources?
Bill: It’s not that nonprofits are not resource constrained, it’s because almost all of them are that it is even more important to invest in their own capacity, to take a long view and be willing to trade off impact in the short-term if that impact can be multiplied dramatically in the long term. Imagine a maternal and child health clinic that serves 50 women a day and makes the decision to serve only 25 a day for 6 months so that it can invest in capacity that will enable it to serve 500 a day when the six months are up. The compelling nature of urgent human need makes that a tough decision to make, but it’s the right one if you have the confidence that more capacity will equal more impact.
Nell: Moving to bold goals necessitates a way to measure whether those goals have been achieved. Yet outcomes measurement is a very nascent practice in the nonprofit sector. How do we (or can we) get to a place where we are effectively measuring the results of both individual nonprofits and larger solutions? And who will pay for that work?
Bill: As your question suggests, measuring outcomes, and communicating what you’ve measured, comes at a price. Indeed it can be expensive, and that might mean less money devoted to program in the short-term. With few exceptions there won’t be third parties lined up to pay for it. Organizations will have to decide whether it adds to their long-term competitive strengths to invest in measuring outcomes and if it does, they should be willing to make that investment. A key task of organizational leadership is to marshal the will for these investments that don’t pay off until the long-term. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that measurement is a still nascent practice, there won’t be common measure that can be adopted in a one-size-fits-all manner, and so each organization must wrestle to the ground the metrics that are right for their work.
Nell: What about bold philanthropy and bold government? Is it possible for those two sectors to be more bold? What would that look like and how optimistic are you that those kinds of changes are possible?
Bill: I’m confident that bolder philanthropy can lead to bolder government. Our politics currently is so polarized and paralyzed that people need to see examples of programs that work. Philanthropy can do things that government can’t do: take risks, innovate, and be closer to the people we serve. And when that all adds up to a program or service that works, it creates an even greater moral obligation on the part of the public sector, i.e. government to take what works and help scale it. Resource constraints and failures of imagination have conditioned us to pursue incremental change. But big and complex problems demand transformational change to address those problems on the scale that they exist.
Photo Credit: Share Our Strength
A couple of years ago I recognized that there was a real need in the nonprofit sector for tools to help nonprofit staffs, board members and donors make their organizations more strategic and sustainable.
So I began developing e-books, guides and webinars to explain new concepts (like Financing Not Fundraising), demonstrate how to use new models (like a theory of change) and guide nonprofit leaders to a better way (like better engaging their board).
Today, I am really excited to announce, as promised, the launch of the expanded and streamlined Tools store at Social Velocity.
I have spent the last several months revising and expanding many of the e-books, step-by-step guides and on-demand webinars available for download at the Social Velocity Tools page. And we’ve completely revamped the shopping cart experience to make it easier to find the tools you need and to offer additional payment options.
There are four categories of Tools available to you.
- On-Demand Webinars
These can be viewed whenever and however many times you’d like. Some of the webinar topics include:
- Step-by-Step Guides
These take a complex concept (like a theory of change) and show you step-by-step how to create one for your organization and how to use it to garner more support, chart a strategic direction, and much more. Some of the Step-by-Step Guides include:
These explain new approaches, the theory behind them, and how to start implementing a changed approach in your nonprofit. Like the:
- Tool Bundles
I’m most excited about these bundles where I’ve grouped e-books, webinars and guides around a particular goal a nonprofit leader wants to achieve, saving you 15% off the individual tool prices. For example:
But there are many more e-books, guides, webinars, and bundles available on the Tools page, so I invite you to check it out.
I hope these Tools are helpful to you as you work to move your nonprofit forward. Please let me know if you have questions as you explore.
And as always, please let me know what other tools would be helpful to you.
It was really hard to narrow down to 10 great reads this month. People wrote some really compelling (even more than usual) things in October. And some longer pieces in particular were quite thought-provoking. Some asked searing questions like “Is arts innovation really innovative?” and “Is increasing income disparity making us less empathetic?” and “Can philanthropy fix our broken democracy?” And that’s just a start. Lots to think about.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in October. But please add what I missed in the comments.
- The conversation about the overhead myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should be evaluated based on how much they spend on overhead (fundraising and administrative expenses), still rages on. First Paul Hogan from the John R. Oishei Foundation reframes the argument to include general operating and program support. Then Heather Peeler from GEO reports on a panel at a recent gathering of Social Innovation Fund grantees and grantors discussing what funders can do to build more sustainable organizations. And Julie Brandt writes a ringing endorsement of the overhead myth movement arguing that “Donors need to focus on evaluating charities based on leadership, transparency, governance, and results.”
- But lest you think that everyone agrees, Tiziana Dearing raises some good points about nonprofits not yet having the necessary resources or tools to boil outcomes down to short term ratios or ratings. As she says, “Everyone has more work to do.”
- There were some great examples of nonprofits using social media in interesting ways. From the Social Media BirdBrain blog comes 4 Best Examples of Nonprofit Video Storytelling and from the HubSpot blog, 10 Nonprofits That Are Totally Nailing Pinterest Marketing.
- And speaking of innovatively using media to move social change forward, this infographic on America’s school dropout problem demonstrates a concise and compelling way to explain a complex problem.
- Part of the potential solution to America’s education problems might lie in new science. An interesting new school within Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Las Vegas Downtown Project is using neuroscience to teach children in new ways.
- If you really want to unpack the buzz around “innovation,” particularly in the arts, take a look at this really interesting, thought-provoking 6-essay series at Culturebot questioning innovation and the arts, what’s working and what isn’t. It is well worth your time and is guaranteed to make you think.
- On the Idealist blog, April Greene wisely counsels those entering the social change space, that if you want to pursue your dreams, don’t tell your mother. Such good advice, ha!
- Richard Eisenberg provides some really interesting analysis of recent data and what it tells us about how generations approach giving differently.
- Writing in the New York Times, Daniel Goleman worries that the widening income gap may be creating a widening empathy gap because “social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.” Very scary.
- President of the MacArthur Foundation, Robert Gallucci writes a passionate plea that philanthropy help fix a quite broken (as particularly evidenced in October’s federal government shutdown) American political system.
Photo Credit: ekelley89
I’m out of the office this week, so in my place I am offering you two interviews this month. Tuesday was my video interview with Hope Neighbor.
And today I’m talking with Geeta Goel, Director of Mission Investing at Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. In addition to traditional philanthropy, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation makes program-related investments across its India-based microfinance, health and education initiatives, and its US-based education initiatives. Prior to the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Geeta spent more than 12 years with the Corporate Finance Group of PricewaterhouseCoopers in India, advising large Indian and multinational clients on joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, business plans, and valuations.
Nell: Why has Michael & Susan Dell Foundation decided to put an emphasis on program-related investments (PRIs)? How exactly does that particular financial vehicle further your mission?
Geeta: Our mission is to transform the lives of children living in urban poverty through better health and education. There are 2.4 billion people living below the World Bank’s poverty line of $2 a day, and more than 160 million children are suffering from malnutrition. To tackle those numbers and address deep-rooted complex problems, we need solutions that are both scalable and sustainable. And for that we need to tap into different and larger sources of funds – government and private. Program Related Investments (PRIs) are just one of several financial tools we use to further our mission.
The foundation has always sought to concentrate its limited philanthropic dollars to achieve direct, measurable, replicable and lasting systemic change. Early on we realized the power of markets as one lever for creating a more inclusive society. Free markets definitely increase access where it’s most needed. They can also help raise the bar for quality in terms of what customers expect and what they will pay for.
A great example is the microfinance sector in India. Today there are more than 30 million microfinance clients in India. These clients are accessing some $4 billion in credit to invest in income-generating assets such as trading businesses, tea/food stalls and livestock. We played a catalytic role in the Indian microfinance sector by influencing a market shift from rural to urban environments. Beginning in 2006 and continuing through 2009, we provided seed funding to some eight urban-focused MFIs. The success of these institutions helped prove that microfinance is a sustainable, scalable and investible asset class. There are now more than 25 MFIs active in urban India.
This scale has been achieved only because microfinance offers a market-based, sustainable solution that attracted private capital.
Nell: What methods do you use to find projects that make sense for a PRI, rather than a traditional philanthropic, investment?
Geeta: I love your question. It places things in perspective and in the correct sequence.
Our approach has been to first identify projects that can help achieve our desired mission (fighting urban poverty in order to improve children’s lifetime outcomes), and then decide an appropriate funding structure. This is in contrast to other organizations that have de-linked grants and investments; their grant strategy is distinct from their PRI strategy.
We view grants and investments, including PRIs, as part of the same toolset. When we are selecting any projects to fund, the main criteria are the level of their social impact, scale and sustainability. On sustainability, we ask a variety of questions pertaining to the project. Is there a strong business model, and has the product/service been tested? Can it generate revenue and remain true to the original intent? Will other funders—government, investors, and grant-makers, step in to help establish sustainability and scale? Are there adequate quality safeguards or do they need to be created?
The structure of our support is a complex decision emerging from these deliberations. The funding structure can be in the form of a grant, loan, equity or a combination. For instance we made an equity investment in Janalakshmi Financial Services when it was a start-up microfinance institution. We also offered grant support to their non-profit arm Jana Urban Foundation to conduct a detailed analysis of their client base. This helped Janalakshmi Financial Services to better understand the financial needs of their customers and offer additional products tailored to those needs, thus strengthening the company.
An example of a straight PRI is our support for Waterlife, a for profit company offering clean drinking water to low income customers in rural areas, to test the market in urban areas through a concessional investment structure. The goal of the project was to help Waterlife develop and scale an urban business model that would replicate its rural success, given the different challenges within an urban setting.
Nell: Only 1% of U.S. foundations make PRIs. What do you think holds other foundations back from experimenting with mission-related investing?
Geeta: You’re right. Our legal counsel often find themselves in an odd spot at foundation conferences, as we are in a minority group that does PRIs, and an even smaller minority that does direct PRI equity investments internationally. I can’t speak on behalf of other foundations, but based on my discussions over the last few years, I’ve witnessed that investing in market-based solutions is unfamiliar territory for most foundations. They are pushed outside their comfort zone.
Moreover, PRIs are more complex to design and structure than grants. We’re really looking at a culture shift in terms of staffing. PRIs require financial and investment skills that traditional grant teams might not necessarily possess.
Another possible reason is that for many philanthropists making a profit is viewed negatively. Anything that is grant based or in the non-profit space is seen as delivering a positive impact. Anything that is in the market-space is viewed as uncontrollable and exploitative. Lastly, I think it’s the risk of failure that holds back many foundations. Not only are PRIs more risky, their success or failure is transparent and easy to measure in more objective terms. At the foundation, we have seen the ways that PRIs and markets can support social progress. By setting up guardrails and standards, we have managed to contain the inherent risks of PRIs.
Nell: It seems like there is an enormous opportunity to connect impact investors and philanthropists, but that really hasn’t happened yet. How do we better pool philanthropic and impact investment capital for more social change?
Geeta: Traditionally, development efforts and markets have been viewed as two parallel tracks that are unlikely to converge. This has resulted in limited interaction between philanthropists (focusing on non-profits) and impact investors (focusing on for profits).
However, as we move towards recognizing that markets can bridge some of the existing inequalities in access and outreach, there is a definite need for increased connections between philanthropists and impact investors. A few organizations are now consciously working towards this end, especially the ones that are championing a sector based approach to creating and catalyzing markets, like FSG, Monitor Inclusive Markets, and Mission Investors Exchange.
And with impact investments set to reach between $400 billion to $1 trillion over the next decade (JP Morgan Global Research) there should definitely be greater collaboration between the two worlds. This needs to begin with defining “common ground” amongst the two stakeholders.
Today, we do not have an agreed definition of impact and how to measure it. This is a good starting point. Once we have this common terminology and performance assessment framework, appropriate forums and a structured approach to sector level change will go a long way in increased collaboration amongst donors and impact investors.
Nell: Michael & Susan Dell Foundation is obviously at the forefront of program-related investing, but what about other innovative financial vehicles? What is the foundation’s view on philanthropic equity investments (investing in growing or strengthening nonprofit solutions)? Is there promise in those kinds of investments?
Geeta: As I said earlier, we are very focused on our mission and the guiding principles of impact, scale and sustainability. We are open to adopting different tools and approaches that help advance the mission. Right now we are focusing our energies on traditional grants and PRIs.
Philanthropic equity investment is a fairly new concept that definitely holds promise. They are a one-time grant to nonprofits that help strengthen the capacity of the organizations and make them more sustainable. We do not rule out such investments. For the foundation, the key factors to evaluate the option of philanthropic equity are measurable and comparable outcomes and in-built mechanisms for quality and cost efficiencies. In non-profits, these are difficult metrics to achieve, but not impossible, especially as the development world ups the ante on measurement, transparency, and pay for success. We believe that strong governance, transparent reporting and incentives for achieving greater impact at lower costs will go a long way in building the field for philanthropic equity investments.
There were some really great articles and discussions in the social change space this past month. From new attempts to put philanthropy under the microscope, to analyses of Silicon Valley’s contributions to social change, to the difference between market innovations and social innovations, to Millennial giving, there was a lot to think about.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in September. But please add what I missed in the comments.
The 10 Great Reads lists from past months are here.
- Silicon Valley has been getting into the social change game, but some aren’t impressed with their contributions so far. David Henderson takes Silicon Valley to task for focusing their technology “innovations” only on broken nonprofit fundraising models (Google’s announcement in September of a new fundraising app, One Today, is an example of what he’s talking about). And Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur seem equally unimpressed arguing that Silicon Valley’s view that technology can end global poverty is “wildly overoptimistic.”
- And speaking of social change and business, Daniel Goldberg makes a very interesting (and helpful) distinction between “market innovations” (“an opportunity for profit that also happens to help people…and [is] effective precisely because [it] so cleverly ride[s] the market wave”) and “social innovations” (which “produce value by filling gaps left by the market…a business opportunity in the classic sense, but a systematic market failure that required a social purpose to address”). Much of impact investing, he argues, falls into the first camp, whereas social impact bonds fall into the second.
- It is crazy (and terrifying) how the wealth of America is increasingly concentrated in a small group of people at the top. The rate at which it is happening is mind blowing. The 400 richest Americans are worth $2 trillion, which is a $300 billion increase from last year and double what it was a decade ago. And in 2012 the top 10% of earners brought home more than 50% of the total U.S. income, which is the highest level ever recorded. Kind of depressing, isn’t it?
- But there is hope. Clara Miller, formerly head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund and now head of the F.B. Heron Foundation, is one of the leading visionaries in the social finance space. Her recent article is a must read and explains the dangers of nonprofit growth without adequate capital and what funders can do to prevent it.
- Paul T. Hogan, VP of the John R. Oishei Foundation, argues that funders should focus on building nonprofit organizations: “The development of the nonprofit organization provides plenty of factors to evaluate and many outcomes to strive for. It can also satisfy the funder’s obligation to effectively steward resources insofar as an organization is being helped to last for the long term and have a much greater chance of effectively achieving its, and therefore the funders’, goals.” Oh, if only more foundation leaders thought that way!
- Pablo Eisenberg writes a fairly vehement rant against philanthropy for being an increasingly closed loop. He argues that their insularity “keeps philanthropy from solving serious problems” and that we need “foundations and big donors to realize they don’t have all the answers. Nonprofits should have a greater role in driving the agenda.”
- September saw the annual Social Capital Markets Conference and one of the interesting things to come out of it was a new Community Capital Symposium that immediately preceded SoCap this year. CoCap brought non-accredited investors (with a net worth below $1 million) and social entrepreneurs together to talk about community-focused investing. It’s an interesting financial innovation to watch.
- Over the month of September, GrantCraft, a project of the Foundation Center, ran a 4-episode podcast series talking about and with Millennial philanthropists as a complement to the Johnson Center NextGen Donor Report about Millennial giving that came out earlier this year. Fascinating stuff.
- And then on the tactical side, HubSpot offers some great insight on What Millennials Really Want From Your Nonprofit’s Website.
- I always love urban food innovations, perhaps it’s because they are addressing several social problems at the same time (urban decay, obesity, economic decline, environmental degradation). And so I was interested to see that urban rooftop farming is a new trend.
Photo Credit: UWW ResNet
ArtsFwd, an interactive online platform where arts leaders can learn from each other about the power of adaptive change and the practice of innovation, is holding a first-ever National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture October 20th-23rd in Denver and online. (I interviewed the head of ArtsFwd, Karina Mangu-Ward, on the blog in 2012 and co-led a Chronicle of Philanthropy Live Chat about connecting money and mission with her last spring.)
The National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture will bring together arts leaders from around the world to explore the challenges, discoveries, and achievements of daring to depart from traditional approaches. Although the Summit will take place in Denver there is also a robust virtual component. The on-site conference will bring together 250 pioneering arts leaders and funders from 14 communities who were selected based on their track record of innovation and well-developed adaptive capacities.
But the Virtual Summit is open to everyone. All 27 powerful Summit Talks will be available via livestream. The dynamic series of thematically linked 12-minute talks by bold leaders from across the country will highlight the remarkable and mostly untold stories of innovative projects unfolding in arts and culture organizations.
The themes are:
- Taking Collective Action (6p ET on 10/20)
- Co-Creating with the Public (11a ET on 10/21)
- Artists as Agents of Change (1p ET on 10/21)
- Animating Neighborhoods (5:30p ET on 10/21)
- Citizenship and the Arts (11a ET on 10/22)
- Transforming Organizational Structure (5:30p ET on 10/22)
I will be leading an online discussion in the Transforming Organizational Structure theme. In this theme, six speakers will each spend 12 minutes talking about their stories of radical restructuring inside their organizations, including new staffing structures, the creation of innovation capital, embracing risk, and redefining the meaning of success in order to support innovation. Some of the speakers include Susan Medak, Managing Director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre; Steven Matijcio, Curator of Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati; and Lori Fogarty, Director and CEO of Oakland Museum of California.
Instead of asking the question, “How do we survive?” these arts leaders asked the question “What do we want to accomplish and how can we rethink our work to get there?”
The Transforming Organizational Structures theme is all about breaking free from small thinking. Small thinking handcuffs organizations to the ways things have always been done, the staffing structures that have worked before, financial models that once were profitable, programs that used to draw an audience. In order to stay relevant and continue to make an impact in our communities, arts organizations increasingly need to scrap the old structures and reinvent themselves.
This is not easy work, by a long shot.
So I am eager to hear these arts leaders talk about how they stayed true to larger, longer-term goals while throwing out old structures. How they found consensus around an ultimate goal and then began to build structure around it. And how they found funding for this transformational work. Arts organizations are notoriously resource constrained, which often breeds an aversion to risk. So I look forward to hearing how these organizations broke free from that risk aversion and found a way to innovate forward.
At the end of the six talks, I will lead an online discussion among the group. My questions will include:
- What elements need to be in place in order to completely rethink organizational structure and purpose?
- How can organizations move away from thinking about structure and instead think about the ultimate end goal of the work?
- How do we move beyond the inherent risk-aversion of a financially strapped sector in order to embrace innovation?
- How do we convince funders that risk and innovation are worth funding?
The National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture promises to open our minds to new possibilities and ways forward. To participate in the Virtual Summit, register here.
I hope to see you there!
It used to be that a nonprofit leader receiving a check from a donor would smile politely, say a big “Thank You” and go on her way. But just as (seemingly) every aspect of the world as we know it is changing, so too is philanthropy. We are starting to question long-held assumptions about how money is given and how it should be spent.
As a nonprofit leader, if you want to start securing and using money in a more strategic way, if you want to move from fundraising to financing, you need to bring your donors along with you.
It is up to you to enlighten your major donors about how they can use money more effectively. So that instead of being merely the recipient of your donors’ largesse, you become a true partner in putting their money to work for real social change, which is today’s topic in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising blog series.
The Financing Not Fundraising blog series encourages nonprofits to move from the exhausting hamster wheel of fundraising to a long-term, sustainable financing strategy for their work. You can read the entire series here.
We simply can’t sit around and wait for philanthropists to suddenly understand the hurdles nonprofits face. So the next time you meet with a major donor (an individual, foundation or corporate donor with whom you have a one-on-one relationship), make time to have a deeper, different conversation aimed at enlightening them about the realities you face.
Here are some ways to start that conversation with your donors:
“Overhead Isn’t a Dirty Word Anymore.”
The notion that “overhead” expenses, like administrative and fundraising costs, are unseemly in the nonprofit sector is becoming antiquated. Instead there is a growing effort to evaluate nonprofits based on the results they achieve, not the way they spend their money. And effective nonprofits need strong organizations behind their work. Take some time to educate your closest donors about this growing movement to support all aspects (including staffing, systems, technology) of a nonprofit organization.
“These Are The Hurdles Standing In Our Way.”
Let’s face it, most nonprofits struggle with some key organizational challenges. Perhaps you struggle to secure sustainable funding; or you can’t recruit and engage an effective board; or you want to grow, but lack an effective growth plan. Whatever your challenges are, start being more open with your funders about those challenges. It is a risky conversation, to be sure. But I bet that your long-term funders have probably already recognized some of those roadblocks, and your open and honest approach to facing them might start a new conversation about solutions.
“Here Are Some Solutions to Those Hurdles.”
You don’t want simply to tell your donors a laundry list of woes. As my mother always said “Don’t come to me with your problems, come to me with your solutions.” So before you tell your close donors what is holding you back, do your research about how you might overcome those hurdles. If you struggle to bring enough money in the door, perhaps a Financial Model Assessment could help. If you can’t effectively track and communicate with donors, you may need new technology and systems. If you don’t have enough staff to grow your programs, analyze the additional expertise you need and calculate how much it would cost. Put together a thoughtful plan for how you can overcome the obstacles you face.
“Here is How You Can Help.”
Which brings me to the key conversation you need to have to enlighten your donors. You cannot execute on a change plan if you don’t have the resources to do so. That’s where your key donors come in. If you’ve spent the time educating them about organization-building, the key obstacles in your way, and your plan for overcoming those obstacles, then the next logical step is to ask them for help. If you have invested them in the need and direction for change, you are ready to ask them to invest in the solution.
I know it’s difficult for nonprofits and their major donors to have open and honest conversations. But we will never move forward if nonprofit leaders don’t start initiating some difficult, but potentially game-changing conversations with their donors. Indeed, effective social change depends on it.
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Ted Levinson. Ted is the Director of Lending at RSF Social Finance, a San Francisco-based financial services non-profit dedicated to transforming the way the world works with money. Levinson manages RSF’s flagship $75 million Social Investment Fund which provides debt capital to US and Canadian social enterprises.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: RSF Social Finance is really the leader in the social finance market, you’ve been doing this long before anyone started talking about a “social capital marketplace.” Given that long history, how do you view the current state of the social capital market? Are we where we need to be to funnel enough and the right kinds of capital to social change efforts? And if not, how do we get there?
Ted: RSF has a twenty-nine year operating history, but it’s still early days for the field of social finance. The industry is at the same stage of development as natural food stores were thirty years ago – we’re established, we’re growing, we’re doing good work, and yet we’re still considered a fringe movement. I believe we are on the cusp of mainstream acceptance which will mean a much broader audience of impact investors (especially young people and unaccredited investors) and far greater demand for social capital from the growing number of social enterprises that are just now becoming investment-ready.
There’s been a shift in society’s view of natural food stores – we’ve overcome our fear of the bulk bins and now all grocery stores look more like natural food stores. I expect the same thing to happen with our conventional financial institutions which are just now beginning to pay attention to social finance.
What the field really needs is to expand the financial products available to social enterprises and address some of the existing gaps. Frustrated social entrepreneurs may disagree, but I think the angel capital and large-scale venture capital spaces are meeting the needs of for-profits. Incubators, business plan competitions and seed funds are providing modest amounts of funding to emerging non-profits and for-profits. RSF and some of our friends including Nonprofit Finance Fund, Calvert and New Resource Bank are addressing the middle market market.
The big voids in social finance include:
- True “risk capital” for non-profit social enterprises. We need more foundations willing to place bets on high-potential organizations.
- Bigger finance players or (better yet) a more robust consortium of social finance organizations that can band together to meet the $5 million + needs of high growth social enterprises such as Evergreen Lodge, Playworks and other organizations that are reaching scale.
I believe the field will get there but we’re playing “catch-up” now and social entrepreneurs are an impatient bunch.
Nell: RSF does something pretty revolutionary in that you combine philanthropic giving with impact investing, whereas these two sides of the social capital marketplace have not yet really found a way to work together in any large scale or significant way. Why do you think that is? And what needs to change in order to encourage foundations and impact investors to work more closely together?
Ted: We call our approach of combining debt and philanthropic dollars “integrated capital,” and we think it’s going to have a profound effect on impact investors, philanthropists and the social enterprises it serves.
Most non-profit social enterprises rely on a combination of earned revenue and gift money. There’s no reason why a single transaction can’t bridge these two forms of capital. With integrated capital we can leverage philanthropic grants or loan guarantees to push high-impact loan prospects from the “just barely declined” category into the “approved” category. In fact, even some for-profit social enterprises are eligible for this. Our loan to EcoScraps – a fast-growing, national, composting business was made possible by a foundation that shared in some of RSF’s risk.
Integrated capital is possible because RSF works with individuals and foundations that have overcome the prevailing view that how you invest your money and how you give are distinct activities. We’re also fortunate to work with an enlightened bunch of people who recognize that philanthropic support for social enterprises isn’t a crutch or a sign of a failed enterprise.
Our work at RSF is driven by a belief that money ought to serve the highest intentions of the human spirit. Conscientiously investing money, giving money and spending money can all further this goal.
Nell: What do you make of the emerging social impact bond movement? Is this a social finance vehicle that you think will work?
Ted: I’m deeply hopeful and deeply skeptical of the future of social impact bonds. I’m hopeful because our government is notoriously risk-adverse and slow to adopt new ways of improving education, reducing recidivism, or curbing our runaway health care costs. I think spending money on early interventions could go a long ways towards improving these fields societal challenges, but paying now to save in the future is at loggerheads with the short-term view which prevails in politics. Social impact bonds are a clever way to push the risk on to investors who are willing to take a longer view for the potential of a big upside.
I’m also a fan because social impact bonds are an alternative to the financial engineering which brought us collateralized debt obligations. They demonstrate that Wall Street doesn’t have a monopoly on financial innovation.
That being said, I’m skeptical that this market can ever reach a stage where transactions costs can drop enough to make it economically viable. Bringing together the multiple parties that are required for such a transaction (the government, the investor, the non-profit, a monitoring entity, a social finance organization, an attorney and possibly a foundation) just seems unaffordable to me.
Nell: What sets the nonprofits and social enterprises you invest in apart? What characteristics do you look for in the investments you make?
Ted: All of our borrowers fall into one or more of three focus areas – sustainable food systems, the environment and education & the arts. These borrowers all have capable, committed management who recognize that financial sustainability is a prerequisite for lasting change. Our best borrowers have strong communities supporting them whether it is donors, customers or suppliers.
Evaluating these stakeholders is a key component of our underwriting process at RSF.
Our experience demonstrates that performance improves when social enterprises engage all of their stakeholders. RSF’s long-standing support of fair trade is an example of this commitment. We also regularly expect borrowers to solicit their community members to join RSF’s investor community as a precondition to approval. We take community seriously at RSF!
Our borrowers are all addressing major social or environmental problems such as a lack of adequate housing for developmentally disabled adults (Foundation for the Challenged), inefficiencies in the wind industry (FrontierPro) and poverty and environmental degradation from rice farming (Lotus Foods.) As social enterprises, they’re primary activities are DIRECTLY making the world a better place. We believe our borrowers have the potential to scale their organizations and make a real dent in these problems, or become a model for others to do the same.
For example, we were one of the first lenders to Revolution Foods when they were operating out of a defunct fast food restaurant in Alameda, CA. Today they deliver over 200,000 healthy meals a day to public school children.
Similarly, we think DC Central Kitchen’s model of combining culinary training for adults with barriers to employment with a robust meals business (they deliver 5,000 meals a day to schools and homeless shelters) is a winning approach that can be replicated throughout the country.
Nell: Some have argued that nonprofit leaders lack a level of sophistication when it comes to financial strategy and use of financial tools. Obviously you find nonprofits and social enterprises that are able to effectively employ sophisticated financial vehicles, so how do you respond to that argument?
Ted: Rather than argue I prefer to let the results of our borrowers speak for themselves. DePaul Industries, for example, is a $30 million non-profit that employs over a thousand disabled Oregonians. The Portland Business Journal ranked them one of the most admired companies in the state and they did this all with 98% earned revenue. Network for Good processes over $150 million of online donations every year while Digital Divide Data has a decade of year over year revenue growth in the field of impact outsourcing.
I see no lack of financial sophistication in the non-profit sector. I do, however, see a lack of risk-taking, which can sometimes be misinterpreted as unsophistication when compared with the for-profit world. It’s a shame this mentality is so pervasive because of the importance and urgency of the work that so many non-profits do. Many icons of industry have biographies filled with risky expansion, leverage, false starts and failures. We need to de-stigmatize failure in the non-profit sector and adopt that same boldness which has led to so many of the biggest successes in the commercial world.
- Download a free Financing
Not Fundraising e-book
when you sign up for email
updates from Social Velocity.
Sign Up Here
- Do You Want to Attract Major
Donors to Your Nonprofit?
Find Out How in the
Attract Major Donors