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.
I am out of town this week, so in my place I am offering you two interviews this month in my ongoing interview series.
First, as promised, is my video interview with Hope Neighbor, CEO of Hope Consulting and author of the Money for Good reports exposing a $15 billion opportunity to direct more private money to high performing nonprofits.
This is the first video interview I’ve done, and I am very grateful to Hope for being the guinea pig. You’ll notice that unfortunately there is no video of Hope, only her voice and a picture of her with her fiance. That’s because we couldn’t get her computer’s camera to cooperate (you’ve gotta love technology!). But the interview is still well worth a watch because Hope has really interesting insights about how donors approach giving and how we might be able to change some of that.
So take a look:
I’m really excited to announce that, as promised, I’m starting to move the Social Velocity Interview Series to video interviews, via Google Hangouts (for those interviewees who are willing). I launch next week with an interview, on the Social Velocity Google+ page, with Hope Neighbor, CEO of Hope Consulting and author of the Money for Good reports exposing an $15 billion opportunity to direct more private money to high performing nonprofits.
In 2010 and 2011 Hope, and her team of partners (like GuideStar and Charity Navigator) and funders (like The Gates Foundation and The Hewlett Foundation), conducted comprehensive studies of donor behavior, motivations, and preferences for charitable giving in order to understand how to effectively influence giving behaviors.
Money for Good I found that 90% of donors say how well a nonprofit performs is important, but only 30% of donors actively try to fund the highest performing nonprofits. So there is a disconnect.
In Money for Good II, Hope and her team set out to figure out what it would take to change donor behavior and direct more money to high performing nonprofits. What they found is that more information about performance and more “Consumer Reports” style reporting could encourage more donors to switch their giving to higher performing nonprofits.
This is all fascinating and helps inform the on-going question, “How do we funnel more money to social change?” Needless to say I have lots of questions for Hope.
Here is my list of questions for Hope, but I imagine since it’s a conversation the questions will evolve:
- With Money for Good you are hopeful that we can change donor behavior and shift more money to high performing nonprofits. But what will it take beyond providing more (and better information) to donors? How do we create incentives for donors to change?
- Money for Good estimates that $15 billion could shift to high performing nonprofits, but that is only 5% of the total private money flowing to nonprofits. And only 12% of all money flowing to the nonprofit sector comes from the private sector, so we are really only talking about shifting 0.6% of all the money in the sector to high performing nonprofits. Is that piece of the pie worth the kind of donor behavior change effort required? What about expanding the overall pie (only 2% of the annual Gross Domestic Product has historically gone to the nonprofit sector)? Is there any hope of growing the 2%?
- Where does impact investing fit in all of this? Typically only 5% of a foundation’s money is directed to social change efforts. What about the opportunity to encourage foundations to tap into their corpus and do more program-related and other mission-related investing?
- How do we ensure that more information means better information? What if low performing nonprofits simply start mimicking high performing reporting? How do we ensure that accurate performance evaluation is conducted and reported across the sector? And how do we fund that?
- What about the problem of donors misconstruing information? For example, if nonprofits provide more financial information, and donors still have a bias against overhead spending, could that just shift more money to nonprofits with lower overhead, not necessarily higher performance?
Watch for the interview on the Social Velocity Google+ page next week.
And stay tuned for more video interviews soon!
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.
The nonprofit starvation cycle is one nonprofit leaders know only to well. Nonprofits rarely have the technology, staff, and systems to function effectively. So they scrape by trying to wring one more drop out of a completely dry rock.
But instead of waiting for funders to fix the situation, it is up to nonprofit leaders themselves to break free. And you break free by raising capacity capital. The Social Velocity webinar, “Raising Capacity Capital,” can help you do just that.
Capacity capital is a one-time investment of significant money that can help build or strengthen a nonprofit so that it can create more social change. Capacity capital funds things like technology, systems, a program evaluation, revenue-generating staff, start-up costs for an earned income business. It is money that strengthens the organization so that it can do more.
But often nonprofit leaders don’t recognize that everything they need to raise capacity capital and break free from the starvation cycle is in right in front of them.
The “Raising Capacity Capital” webinar will show you how to:
- Talk about the importance of capacity capital to your donors and board
- Create a budget for the capacity dollars you need
- Develop a campaign goal
- Break the goal into donor ask amounts
- Identify prospective donors
- Give your board a role in the campaign
- Gain the confidence to start asking for the money you really need
This webinar is one of our most popular webinars. Here’s what some past participants had to say:
“Thank you! this was helpful and wonderfully accessible. I am impressed.”
“Just a note to thank you for the informative webinar. I found it most constructive, as my organization is right at the stage of getting out of starvation mode. I look forward to participating in more sessions.”
On Demand Webinar
And keep in mind all Social Velocity Webinars are “on demand,” so you can watch the recorded webinar, receive the slides and get your questions answered anytime.
The registration fee will get you:
- A link to a recording of the webinar, which you can watch whenever you like
- The PowerPoint slides from the webinar
- The ability to ask additional follow-up questions after the webinar
If you are serious about moving your nonprofit out of the starvation cycle, capacity capital can help you get there.
Photo Credit: gfpeck
June was all about attacking some pretty fundamental roadblocks in the way of social change. From the pivotal “Pledge Against The Overhead Myth,” to a new database for all nonprofit organizations, to moving philanthropists from innovators to capacity builders, to ideas for growing the level of giving, it seems June was about putting everything on the table and exposing what stands in the way of progress.
Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in June. But, as always, add your favorites to the list in the comments below. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- The big news in June was GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s Open Letter to the Donors of America and their kick-off of the Pledge to End the Overhead Myth. The three nonprofit review organizations are on a quest to expose the destructive nature of the overhead myth.
- This exciting announcement was followed quickly by some great articles. Kjerstin Erickson’s (former Executive Director of FORGE) eye-opening post about how the overhead myth can ruin a great nonprofit. And Ann Goggins Gregory (most famous for the seminal Nonprofit Starvation Cycle article in a 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review that arguably started the entire overhead debate) great post about what nonprofits can do to speed adoption of the idea of overhead as myth. And Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy chimes in with what foundations can do. And writing on the Grantmakers in the Arts blog, Janet Brown seems to agree, arguing that “with more efforts for honest assessment and honest communication between funders and nonprofits, we can stop dancing solo and begin dancing as real partners.”
- Antony Bugg-Levine, from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, gets down to brass tacks, gleaning 3 things that funders can do to help nonprofits from the NFF’s most recent State of the Sector survey.
- Echoing these same themes, Dan Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, argues in the Huffington Post Impact blog that “Philanthropists…must come to grips with their new role as capacity builders rather than innovators.” Amen to that!
- But the reality is that foundations aren’t using innovative tools already available to them. A recent study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that only 1% of US foundations are using PRIs (program-related investments), which I think is an enormous missed opportunity.
- Keeping with their ultimate goal of building the data infrastructure necessary for social change to thrive, Markets for Good announces the new BRIDGE project, which assigns all nonprofits a “numerical fingerprint” so that we can eventually understand the global social sector at scale.
- The annual unveiling of philanthropic giving numbers shows the same result, giving as a share of Gross Domestic Product has not strayed far from 2 percent over the past four decades. Suzanne Perry offers some reasons why, past failed attempts to grow the figure, and new ideas for moving the needle.
- The Dowser blog interviews Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, a ten day transcontinental train journey where each of the 40 Millennial riders profiles a crowdfunded project to build a better nation.
- If you wonder whether social media can actually move social change forward, check out this fascinating case study. A Facebook app encouraging organ donation resulted in an initial 2000% increase in organ donor sign ups. Who knows if those rates will continue, but the experiment definitely demonstrates the power of social media.
- There is a lot of hype in the world of social innovation, and two contrarians offer some thought-provoking perspectives about digging beneath the hype. First Daniel Ben-Horin is fed up with social entrepreneurs who don’t realize what a long haul social change is, when he notes “This making a difference stuff, it turns out, can be a real grind.” And Cynthia Gibson argues that we need to create a culture within the social change space that “encourages healthy skepticism.”
Photo Credit: mindfire3927
Could it be that philanthropists and nonprofits are starting to have real conversations about what nonprofits need? I was encouraged by GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance‘s open Letter to the Donors of America earlier this week asking donors to stop focusing on nonprofit overhead expenses.
It is so exciting to see a national conversation emerge about what donors can do differently.
To that end, I think there are 3 key things that philanthropists can do to move nonprofits forward:
- Create Financially Sustainable Nonprofits
The majority of nonprofits lack a sustainable financial engine that strategically and effectively supports their mission. Grantmakers could provide nonprofits the runway necessary to find the right financial model for their organizations. Two-phase capacity capital funding could do this. Phase one would be a capacity capital planning grant to analyze a nonprofit’s current money-raising activities and come up with a plan for transforming those into a sustainable financial model. Phase two would be a capacity capital grant to make the investments necessary (staffing, technology, systems) to revamp the nonprofit’s financial model. The end result would be that nonprofits with a great solution to offer suddenly have the ability to grow the solution in a sustainable way.
- Fund Management Expertise
Nonprofit leaders often come to their positions with a passion for the cause and specific program-related expertise, but a lack of critical management experience. As a result, nonprofit leaders often exist in a reactive, as opposed to strategic mode; are challenged by financial decision-making; struggle with poor board engagement; have limited external partnerships; can’t articulate their value proposition; and lack strategic filters to guide decisions about the future. Management coaching is often a given in the for-profit world, but nonprofit management coaching is only starting to be explored, even though it holds tremendous potential for the sector. It can provide desperately needed strategic perspective, problem solving and expertise that can supplement and ultimately build the management abilities of a program expert who would otherwise struggle to bring a great solution to scale. If more funders provided management support dollars, more nonprofit leaders could grow their solutions.
- Seek Real Conversations with Nonprofits
But these two hurdles will never be cleared if the communication impasse between grantors and grantees is not addressed. There is an often unspoken catch-22 in the nonprofit sector where nonprofit leaders are not comfortable asking funders for what they really need, while funders lack enough on-the-ground experience to recognize and address nonprofit challenges. This lack of honest, open conversation holds the sector back from producing effective funding partnerships and prevents grantors and grantees from marshaling resources to their highest and best use. There need to be many more conversations like the Donors Forum, hosted by intermediaries, where nonprofit leaders and philanthropists can come together to talk openly about what the sector really needs.
We suddenly have a real opportunity to address the obstacles standing in the way of more social change. But to get there, donors and nonprofits have to recognize and openly address what holds the sector back. More effective philanthropy stems from more productive partnerships between philanthropic and nonprofit leaders and a willingness to remedy together the hurdles in the way.
Photo Credit: applejan
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Chris Earthman, Executive Director for the Aragona Family Foundation. For the last 8 years Chris has also worked for Austin Ventures, the largest venture capital firm in the Southwestern US. Chris has over 15 years of experience at the intersection of nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, including helping to establish the Micron Technology Foundation (NYSE: MU), the corporate social responsibility vehicle for the largest private employer in Idaho.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: As head of a regional family foundation, how do you and your board view some of the innovations happening in the social sector like impact investing, social entrepreneurship, etc.?
Chris: I find it refreshing that innovation is happening in our sector, though I’m a little surprised at the slow rate of uptake among funders. The family foundation I currently run is a spend-down foundation, and that’s a decision our trustees made consciously in order to see the fruits of social investments now vs. spending significantly less in order to maintain a corpus indefinitely. There is ample discussion out there among funders, but (and I’m as guilty as anyone) very rarely much action to back it up. We’re trying to selectively dip our toe into the water in terms of funding social innovations, infrastructure, ecosystem improving organizations, selective M&A activity among our grantees and discussing the idea of mission-related investing.
Nell: Speaking of mission-related investing (where a foundation invests part of their corpus into for-profit social enterprises that give both a social and financial return to the foundation), it’s a pretty radical concept for most foundations. What do you think it would take for the idea of mission-related investing to take off for smaller foundations across the country?
Chris: Let me preface my comments with the fact that we are a spend-down foundation and therefore have not made a meaningful investment allocation to mission-related investing, so I’m by no means an expert here. However, I think there need to be more visible intermediaries and investment products targeting the social impact market. We’ve seen some great progress over the last few years with groups like Sonen Capital, but it’s still a very nascent industry. One of the biggest barriers we’ve come across is the difficulty in quantifying the social return in a format that is comprehensible to trustees. That is starting to change with ratings intermediaries like GIIRS, but recognition and uptake are essentially non-existent among most of the foundations that I interact with. I know that you and many others have opined on the progress here, but it’s still not something that is on many regional/ smaller Foundation’s radars. It may take a few forward thinking Foundation trustees to step up and take a chance to show others that it’s ok to think outside of the endowment model mindset.
Nell: Much of your non-Foundation time is spent working for a venture capital firm where the idea of Mergers and Acquisitions is second nature; however this is a fairly uncommon concept in the nonprofit world. Do we want to see more of it in the nonprofit sector and if so, how do we make that happen?
Chris: Given the fragmentation of the nonprofit ecosystem across the country and the large proportion of small organizations , I think there is certainly an opportunity for more instances of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A), particularly in cases where organizations need to grow above the $500K/ yr threshold. However, my experience is that TRUE collaboration—the accretive kind where you can quantify cost savings and/or program growth and ultimately better outcomes/ social change—is very rare in the nonprofit world simply because there are few external catalysts to get the discussion started and ultimately finished.
We’ve funded a few different M&A efforts over the last couple of years and my takeaway is that the M’s work much better than the A’s. I hate to keep pointing the finger back at myself and fellow funders, but there is a certain level of risk aversion where we’d rather ensure a successful purchase of additional direct services vs. really giving organizations what they need to grow. I’ve seen too many truly innovative nonprofits unable to successfully scale past the $300-500K/yr revenue threshold because of the required organizational capital required to make that pivot.
But I’m by no means idealistic here. While M&As sound sexy, there are many times where poor execution, interpersonal dynamics, Board conflicts, bad timing, or any number of external factors out of your control result in an outcome that may actually harm the organizations seeking to gain efficiencies through scale and collaboration. There are integration costs, donor overlap, brand/ identity battles, etc. that always take much more time, effort, and money before you see any of the accretive results that initially drove the decision to bring the organizations together. The same goes for the appetite of funders to backstop Executive Director salaries and/or fund transaction costs related to a merger discussion. In my opinion, lack of funder appetite is probably one of the biggest barriers to more M&A in our sector.
Nell: As a rule foundations are less interested in making capital investments in nonprofit organizations (funding things like infrastructure, systems, technology, evaluation). Why do you think that is and what can help move philanthropists to understand the need for capacity capital?
Chris: I think there are two reasons:
- The idea of “expressive philanthropy” is fairly well ingrained and many folks start out their philanthropy work wanting to “put their stamp” on a particular cause or portfolio of organizations. The challenge is that many foundations knee jerk into a risk-averse grants process that may or may not fit with their place in the ecosystem. Part of this is based on the endowment model of funding, which more often than not results in a formal, tedious grant application process. This may not be the best way to identify and screen potential grantees!
Let me acknowledge that I spent the first few years of my career as a grant writer, so I completely understand the time and effort that go into these proposals. This experience informs (or biases) my “anti-process” grantmaking strategy wherein we prefer to put the “search cost” onus on myself as a funder and try to respect the time and effort of the ever lean development dollars being spent by grant seeking organizations. It may sound like an arrogant “don’t call us, we’ll call you” approach to grantmaking, but I’ve found that making the grant process donor-centric vs. grantee centric allows the system to operate more efficiently.
- While philanthropic dollars should be fungible, the ability to restrict funds creates a tiered system of revenue for grantees. It always strikes me as a little odd that funders get so hung up about funding direct services vs. infrastructure and overhead and restrict their funding to such a degree. Ask any VC how their portfolio companies use their investments and you’ll find more often than not it pays for the critical growth functions like Sales and Marketing. You can’t grow without infrastructure, and unfortunately our current giving culture is much less amenable to that. I’d even go so far as to say the framework/ process that most funders use to select their grantees are, by their very nature, skewed towards less risk and greater restriction. Therein lies one of the structural problems in our industry. Even something as simple as separating the motivation of our giving (“we really like your yy program initiative…”) from the structure of our giving (“…so here’s an unrestricted grant to spend where you feel it is most needed”) makes a huge difference for the lives of our grantees. It also shows the Executive Director that you value their ability as a manager to make decisions from the inside.
Nell: How do we get funders to get take more risk with their investments and be willing to fund things that have a higher risk, like growth capital, mergers, research & development, but could result in huge social payoff?
Chris: Similar to my earlier comments about impact investing and grant processes, I think funders need to see more celebrated instances of both success AND failure. Another solution is using less restrictive grant processes that are a better fit with the size and scope of your particular foundation. The fact that you can restrict grants does not automatically mean that you should. Until we embrace the idea that its ok to take a risk with our funding (and have a process that embraces this), even if it doesn’t turn out the way we planned, we’ll be much closer to creating an environment ripe for some of the larger social change that motivates our philanthropic giving in the first place.
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