social impact bonds
Note: Fifth and last in my list of guest bloggers this summer is Laura Tomasko. Laura is a network developer at the Council on Foundations, where she follows trends related to private capital for social good. Here is her guest post:
Perhaps like some of you, I dedicate a good portion of my internet reading to blogs like Social Velocity, Re: Philanthropy, and Philanthropy 2173. When I am browsing a blog unrelated to nonprofits, philanthropy, and impact investing, I do a double take when I come across a topic from my professional sphere.
One of those non-work related blogs that I read is Popville, which chronicles activities in Washington, DC neighborhoods. This July and last, two local businesses sought financing through crowdfunding platforms, and reached out to Popville readers for support. Both cited the community focus of their enterprises as reasons to financially support their efforts. What ensued in the comment thread of both posts provides a snapshot into how those outside of the philanthropy and impact investing field understand and discuss crowdfunding, charitable giving, and investing with the intention to generate social and financial returns.
Last year, a local business named Pulp posted to Popville to request “donations” to improve the store and website, including repairs to fixtures, new paint, windows, and other related costs. Even though they said they wanted donations, Pulp actually sought no-interest loans, a distinction clear on their Clovest crowdfunding page but not on Popville. Confusion and opinions swarmed the comments section as people tried to figure out whether Pulp wanted a donation or a loan, and shared their musings on the whole situation.
This July, another local business, Three Little Pigs (TLP), used Popville to promote their Kickstarter campaign, accurately requesting donations for infrastructure improvements to enhance the business that will allow them to build a community space on their third floor. In exchange for donations, TLP offers gifts, like a pound of maple-cured bacon, to donors.
The comments to both posts provide insight into how local residents react to financial requests from community-focused small businesses. Such requests may increase given the passage of the JOBS Act and the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed rules that allow non-accredited investors to get an equity stake in a local business through crowdfunding platforms.
Here are common themes about local businesses raising money on crowdfunding platforms raised by commenters:
- Is This Charity?
While both businesses used words associated with philanthropy to appeal to the charitable sense of local residents, neither provides a charitable tax benefit to the readers. This created confusion and commenters wrote in to ask whether the business would provide a tax benefit or repay the money. One Pulp commenter asked, “Does anyone know what the tax implications are to this approach? I doubt they realize the tax-exemption you typically see with donations to non-profits. Or do they? Could this be an interest free loan as well as a tax-free donation?”Questions such as this one suggest that those using crowdfunding platforms to raise money need to clearly state what they ask of their potential supporters and what they will get in return. For example, they should distinguish between how the funding will benefit the community and whether it is a charitable donation, a donation without a tax benefit, or loan.
- Should You Donate to a For-Profit?
Many commenters bemoan the idea of a for-profit business asking for donations instead of raising the necessary capital through the sale of goods and services. There seems to be an expectation that the business should either flourish or fail based on the value of the good or service, and donations should not supplement either course. While some were happy with the idea of donating to a for-profit, most did not support the concept.
- What About Traditional Financing?
Several wondered why the businesses did not get loans through banks or pay for these expenses using a credit card. Others supported crowdfunding as a way to get around the hurdles of traditional financing. While one TLP commenter in support of traditional financing noted, “There are plenty small business loans and lines of credit they can apply for at the mentioned banks,” one in favor of crowdfunding stated, “If you can’t meet every requirement, the major banks will usually turn you down due to high risk.”
The confusion and concern that arose from these two crowdfunding experiences suggest that language matters and concepts like crowdfunding and impact investing are still new to people accustomed to distinguishing charity, which generates social benefit, from business and investing, which seek to generate financial revenue.
In addition to local businesses on crowdfunding platforms, mainstream media use language associated with charity to describe impact investing activities. An interesting example is coverage of the bridge loan that Laura and John Arnold made to the National Head Start Association during the 2013 government shutdown. Covering the story, the New York Times uses the headline, “$10 Million Gift to Help Head Start Through Shutdown” and Politico writes, “Philanthropists pledge $10 million to restore 7,000 Head Start seats.”
Tucked within both articles, after terms like “donation” and “gift,” are brief mentions that the money might be paid back as a no-interest loan if government restores funding after the shutdown. However, to those scanning headlines and not reading the entire article, it is not clear that the Arnolds have made an impact investment in the form of a bridge loan to the Association.
With increased interest in social entrepreneurship and impact investing, many use charitable language to describe financial transactions ranging from donations to impact investments. Until the concept of impact investing becomes as mainstream as charitable giving, taking the time to distinguish between the two could increase awareness, and eventually adoption, of both traditional and untraditional forms of financing for social good.
Language matters and those raising capital from local residents, as well as those in the media writing about these transactions, should differentiate between the desired financial transaction and its charitably-minded purpose. Crowdfunding may bring impact investing to new audiences, and let’s make sure that the message gets there clearly and accurately.
Photo Credit: zeh fernando
Note: Second in my list of esteemed guest bloggers this summer is Adin Miller. Adin is Senior Director of Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, but his post is his personal viewpoint, not necessarily that of his employer. Here is his guest post:
Readers of the Social Velocity blog know of Nell’s clarion call for nonprofit financing not fundraising and her conviction that the current mode of nonprofit growth through fundraising is bankrupt. Today I want to examine another area I consider broken, namely the ineffective way in which philanthropy identifies and grows emerging organizations and projects – the domain of scaling innovation. I’ll focus on the Jewish federation system, in which I currently work, and then pull back out to the larger philanthropic sector.
To begin, let’s define innovation funding as the practice of funding an innovative venture – a new emerging organization or an iteration of an existing program within an established organization – that does not yet have evidence-based documentation of its approach but that points to the potential to generate significant social benefit. In my work, I also focus on the stages of funding an innovative venture goes through as it morphs into a scaled up nonprofit. Funding is generally aligned with the following stages:
- Pre-proof of concept
- Proof of concept
- Pilot stage funding
- Early stage funding
- Second stage funding, and
- Mezzanine stage funding.
By the time the organization has approached mezzanine funding, its annual budget will be growing from the $1 – 5 million level per year to the $10 – 50 million level per year.
The Jewish federation system represents one of the oldest philanthropic engines in the United States and Canada, tracing its history back to 1895. The system includes 153 Jewish Federations (local independent fundraising and grantmaking nonprofits) and over 300 Network communities (volunteer driven federations), which raise funds and distribute resources among programs serving the Jewish community. Per the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), each year the federation system raises and distributes “more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services and educational needs,” placing it among “the top 10 charities on the continent” in terms of grantmaking.
One would think that as units in an overarching system that the local federations would share a common agenda. And that’s true to a large extent – there is commonality of purpose (funding Jewish overnight camps, for instance), ongoing support for local Jewish organizations, and consistent funding support in Israel and other global Jewish communities. However, where the system fails to deliver is in scaling up innovative ventures.
Much of that failure in funding innovation is attributable to a confluence of factors such as limited geographic scope and funding periods. With the exception of international funding, for instance, each local federation fences its funding to the geographic area in which it operates. As such, a local federation won’t fund an emerging innovative venture unless it has a presence within the funder’s geographic area. That holds true even if the innovative venture has developed the best new approach to addressing a critical area of need because it operates on the other side of the figurative (and in some cases literal) river.
Additionally, many federations provide limited funding windows lasting between three to five years. The funding period is usually sufficient to help an innovative venture establish some basis to prove its concept. But it also forces these innovative ventures to focus on sustainability instead of continued growth, a syndrome similar to the starvation cycle experienced by more established organizations. This failure by the funders to adopt a long-term strategy to not only fund but also finance the continued growth of a successful innovative venture tends to prematurely end its ability to scale efforts and generate more impact.
The situation for the innovative venture is further exasperated if it concludes that continued growth can only be achieved through expansion to new locations. By virtue of each federation working independently, without an intentional approach to working collaboratively to scale an innovative venture, the “system” establishes unique markets. And each unique local market forces the innovative venture to reestablish its market opportunity. That involves seeking independent funding for each location, repetitive due diligence scrutiny (because, as we know, funders don’t proactively share due diligence data amongst themselves), and a faint hope that sustained funding or financing will materialize after the initial funding period ends.
In short, this is not an efficient method for scaling innovative ventures. It has generated pockets of nonprofit incubators in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and others. And any number of innovative ventures emerge each year – there’s even a handy guidebook to track some of the most promising ones. But there is no methodology or intentional effort on a national scale to support these innovative ventures at all stages of their potential development (from pre-proof of concept to mezzanine funding). In some sense, growth is based on a hope and prayer that another funder will step in and continue to fund the innovation venture as it looks to scale.
You can take my above critique and substitute the words “community foundations” for “federations” and you will see the same issues in the larger philanthropic sector. Just as the federation system does not effectively scale innovative ventures, neither do community, local family, and private foundations.
The absence of a coordinated national strategy to support the ongoing growth and potential impact of innovative ventures highlights the inherent inefficiencies of the philanthropic sector. The Social Innovation Fund was one potential hope that could address this challenge. But its focus remains centered on those ideas that have already generated evidence-based results. The newly announced White House initiative on impact investing with pooled resources of $1.5B might also point to a new opportunity, but it’s too early to tell.
So, what’s the potential solution to supporting scaled growth of innovative ventures?
One idea, which I first came across in the energy technology sector through a blog post published in 2011 by the Breakthrough Institute, would involve establishing an independent nonprofit investment bank to offer a range of financial tools (grants, loans, etc.) to help not only fund but also finance the growth of an innovative venture. If the federation system could pool 1% of its annual grantmaking budgets into this bank, that would create a $30 million annual fund. And if community foundations could do the same, we’d have an almost $50 million annual fund (this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that community foundations’ assets now total $66 billion and giving is nearly at $5 billion per year).
A second idea would involve creating a framework by which funders would actually work together to lower the structural and financial barriers limiting the continued growth and impact of innovative ventures.
Both ideas require more thinking and a willingness by philanthropic communities to come together to explore possible solutions. The investment bank would certainly require local funders to give up some autonomy of decision-making and local application of funding in order to provide resources for greater social benefit. The second idea would require a national or prominent organization to take the lead in organizing a coalition and developing the framework.
And if all else fails, perhaps we should consider a petition to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to share its resources in more unique ways (this coming on the day the foundation received $2.1 billion from Warren Buffett).
At the end of the day, we should allow innovative ventures to succeed and fail on their own merits, instead of as result of a broken funding model.
Photo Credit: 401k2012
I have to admit, June was a busy month for me with lots of travel and events, so I was less tuned into social media. Thus, I am offering a far from definitive list of the best reads from the month. But here goes…
New data on charitable giving and social fundraising, and a new effort to create a system to classify philanthropic activity made for some exciting developments. And because it wouldn’t be a great month in the world of social innovation without lots of debate, there is also plenty of criticism of philanthropists, philanthropic consultants, and business theory. It all made for a great month in the world of social innovation.
Below are my 10 favorite reads from the last month. But this month, more than ever, please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see a longer list of great reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+.
And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- Good news for charitable giving, it looks like total US donations will go back to their 2007 peak of $350 billion sooner than originally thought. The post-recession rebound will happen sometime this year or early next, according to new data.
- And adding to the data about giving, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog shares some great statistics about fundraising, social media and mobile.
- The Foundation Center has embarked on a bold project to create a robust classification system for philanthropy. They have created a draft “Philanthropy Classification System,” which is a “structure for describing the work of philanthropy consisting of subjects, population groups, transaction types, and approaches (support strategies)” and opened it to public comment. Their goal is to “unleash the ability of foundations to work far more efficiently with each other and with other sectors to achieve the kind of scale that can drive real change in the world.” It’s fascinating. Take a look and give them your thoughts.
- The Packard Foundation is one of the great examples of foundations that understand and support nonprofit organization building. They have created a great wiki on “Organizational Effectiveness” with resources for other grantmakers interested in supporting nonprofit organization building. And my favorite resource on the list is the article from Linda Baker, a Packard Foundation program officer, urging foundations to “be the duct tape” for nonprofit grantees. Ah, if only more philanthropists thought this way!
- But not all philanthropy news is good news. A report on the Walton family shows that the second generation heirs to the Walmart fortune have given almost none of their personal fortune to philanthropy, despite being the richest family in America. The report and the Forbes article about it raise some interesting questions about wealth and the obligation of philanthropy.
- One of the newest and most talked about ways to channel money to social change is the social impact bond. But what are we learning as the pay for success movement gains steam? Gordon Berlin from MRDC shares some insights from the New York City social impact bond and demonstrates how incredibly complicated this new financing tool really is. As he says, “The future of the Pay for Success movement rests on building on the lessons learned from the first efforts to implement these new and potentially transformative financing structures.” So we need to get beyond the hype and understand if this new financial vehicle really can work.
- And speaking of questioning hype, Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, pens a scathing critique of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. She illuminates the danger of an omnipotent theory that allows no analysis or critique. She takes Christensen’s ubiquitous business theory of “disruptive innovation” to task, arguing, “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.”
- Another writer peeling away the curtain on theory that holds no weight, Phil Buchanan admonishes consulting firm FSG and the Stanford Social Innovation Review for 1) not recognizing sooner that urging foundations to create individual institutional strategies around their unique positioning and activities is flawed, and 2) failing to acknowledge that many other thought leaders have been discussing that flawed strategy for years.
- As an introvert myself, I loved Frank Bruni’s piece in The New York Times urging politicians to take more time alone to reflect before barreling forward. As he puts it, “Some of the boldest strokes of lightning happen in isolation, where all the competing advice can be processed, where the meaningful strands come together and the debris falls away.” Amen!
- If you want a visual that will blow your mind, check out Ezra Klein and Susannah Locke’s 40 Maps that Explain Food in America. Access to food is a core social challenge, and these maps lay it all bare.
Photo Credit: Spirit-Fire
This week I attended the 5th annual Social Impact Exchange Conference in New York City. It was an interesting gathering of funders, change makers and intermediaries all grappling with how to reach and sustain scaled social solutions.
“Scale” is such a challenging concept, and as I mentioned earlier, there are many entities struggling with exactly what scale means. According to Heather McLeod Grant (author of Forces for Good) whose keynote address kicked off the conference, “scale” is no longer about growing individual organizations or addressing individual issues, but rather about building movements and networks.
The idea of a networked approach to social change is not a new one (see the great Stanford Social Innovation Review article from 2008 by Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano on this approach), but Heather underlined the importance of a more integrated and aligned approach to creating social change. I would have liked to see this idea taken further, perhaps with some of the Transformative Scale discussion that is happening elsewhere, included in this discussion.
There were some real highlights of the conference for me. First was the luncheon panel on the Black Male Achievement Movement and President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Tonya Allen of The Skillman Foundation was a hard hitting moderator of Shawn Dove, from the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, William Snipes from Pipeline Crisis/Winning Strategies, and Andrew Wolk from Root Cause.
The group had a fascinating conversation about the movement to address “a whole generation of young men being pushed to the side.” As Snipes so eloquently put it, “This is a problem about who we are as a society, whether or not we are going to survive. The road we are on is not sustainable. We cannot continue to incarcerate one third of a community. This is an impractical way to run a society.”
The panel described and debated the complexity of addressing a huge systemic problem and how they have launched a movement to do just that. It was a candid and thought-provoking exchange.
Another highlight was GuideStar CEO Jacob Harold’s talk on their exciting efforts to transform the nonprofit information landscape (Jacob is describing this landscape in the picture at the left).
GuideStar’s goal is to address the “two elephants in the philanthropic room:” 1) some nonprofits are better than others (they create more impact per dollar spent), and 2) some donors are better than others (they create more impact per dollar given).
To address these “elephants,” GuideStar is collecting and analyzing deeper information about nonprofits and then distributing that information so that donors make better investments. (More on this next month when I interview Jacob as part of the Social Velocity Interview Series.)
The other real highlight of the conference for me was the keynote address on financial sustainability from Antony Bugg-Levine, head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Antony defined financial sustainability as “Repeatable and reliable revenue that exceeds ongoing operating costs, coupled with the ability to fund periodic investment in adaptation and growth.” In other words, a financially sustainable nonprofit brings enough reliable revenue in the door and can, when needed, raise capital for change and growth.
And that capital piece is often overlooked by nonprofits and funders. Antony described 5 types of capital helpful to nonprofits:
- Change Capital to position an organization for growth.
- Working Capital to handle fluctuations in cash flow.
- Recovery Capital to address shocks to an organization (natural disaster, fire, etc.)
- Risk & Opportunity Capital to develop a new program or different approach.
- Endowments which can provide some unrestricted money, but should not be considered reliable revenue.
Antony also described 5 things that funders do and 5 things that nonprofits do to derail sustainable growth (pictured at right.)
I also enjoyed participating in the “Business Models for Sustainability at Scale” panel with my colleagues Dana O’Donovan from Monitor Institute, Megan Shackleton from the Einhorn Family Trust, Heidi Shultz from the Helmsley Charitable Trust and Craig Reigel from the Nonprofit Finance Fund. We had a great discussion with very thoughtful and engaging audience questions about how to create sustainable financial models and how philanthropy can help move that forward.
The Social Impact Exchange assembled a smart, talented group of people to grapple with how we fund and grow solutions to the wicked problems we face. It was a thought-provoking couple of days.
Bradach asked leaders and thinkers in the scale movement – like Risa Lavizzo-Mourey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Billy Shore from Share Our Strength, Wendy Kopp from Teach for All, and Nancy Lublin from Do Something – to contribute their insights to the series. Bradach is doing this because he believes we have not yet figured out how to grow solutions to a point at which they are actually solving problems. As he wrote in his kick-off post to the series:
Over the past couple of decades, leaders have developed a growing catalog of programs and practices that have real evidence of effectiveness. And they’ve demonstrated the ability to successfully replicate these to multiple cities, states, even nations in some cases, reaching thousands or even millions of those in need. Despite all this progress, today even the most impressive programs and field-based practices rarely reach more than a tiny fraction of the population in need. So we find ourselves at a crossroads. We have seen a burst of program innovation over the past two decades; we now need an equivalent burst of innovation in strategies for scaling.
One of the places where scale has been an on-going topic of conversation is the annual Social Impact Exchange’s Conference on Scaling Impact. Now in its fifth year, this conference next month in New York City brings together “funders, advisors and leaders to share knowledge, learn about co-funding opportunities and develop a community to help scale top initiatives and build the field.” The conference is organized, in part, by the Growth Philanthropy Network, which “is creating a philanthropic capital marketplace that provides funding and management assistance to help exceptional nonprofits scale-up regionally and nationally.”
I’m excited to be attending this year’s conference and participating in a panel called “Business Models for Sustainability at Scale.” From my perspective, one of the biggest hurdles to scale is a financial one. Very few nonprofits have yet figured out how to create a sustainable financial model, let alone how to create one at scale. And this hurdle exists for many reasons, including: lack of sufficient capital in the sector, lack of sufficient management and financial acumen among nonprofit leaders, an unwillingness among funders to recognize the full costs of operation. So I’m excited to be part of this important conversation about how we can actually create financially sustainable scale.
It will be interesting to see how the conversations at the Scaling Impact conference – led by rockstars in the field like Antony Bugg-Levine from the Nonprofit Finance Fund; Tonya Allen from the Skillman Foundation; Heather McLeod Grant, author of Forces for Good; Paul Carttar from The Bridgespan Group; and Amy Celep from Community Wealth Partners – will relate to the perspectives of those writing in the “Transformative Scale” blog series. I wonder where there will be overlap and where there will be disagreement or even controversy. Scale is an incredibly difficult nut to crack. And as Bradach rightly states, no one has figured it out yet.
I will be posting to the blog during the conference about what I’m hearing and where there are common threads or separate camps.
I hope to see you there!
Image Credit: Social Impact Exchange
Today the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) released the results of their sixth annual State of the Nonprofit Sector survey and the data underlines a growing crisis in the financial sustainability of our nonprofit sector.
56% of nonprofit leader respondents reported that they were unable to meet demand for their services in 2013, this is the highest rate since the survey’s inception six years ago. And the scary part is that this inability to meet demand is not because of a temporary down period in the economy, but rather because of deeper dysfunctions in how we funnel money to the sector. As Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of NFF put it, “The struggles nonprofits face are not the short-term result of an economic cycle, they are the results of fundamental flaws in the way we finance social good.”
The survey gathered responses from more than 5,000 leaders from U.S. nonprofits of all sizes, domain areas, and geographies.
The top challenge by far for nonprofit leaders, with 41% of them reporting it, is “achieving long-term financial stability.” And this is evidenced in several ways:
- More than half of nonprofits (55%) have 3 months or less cash-on-hand.
- 28% ended their 2013 fiscal year with a deficit.
- Only 9% can have an open dialogue with funders about developing reserves for operating
These struggles with financial sustainability stem in large part from a lack of understanding among funders of the true costs of social change work. Roughly 53% of nonprofit respondents’ funders rarely or never fund the full costs of the programs they support. And for approximately 24% of respondents their government indirect cost rate (the amount government allows for indirect, or “overhead” expenses) declined over the last 5 years, while about 47% of respondents are subject to a government indirect rate of 9% or less. That is nearly impossible.
For the first time, the survey included questions about impact measurement, a growing interest among funders, ratings agencies and others in the sector. But these questions just further underline the financial Catch-22 in which nonprofit leaders find themselves. 70% of nonprofit leaders report that half to all of their funders want to see proof of the impact of their programs, but 71% of nonprofit leaders also report that funders rarely or never fund the costs of impact measurement.
At the end of the day, government and private funders are putting greater demands on nonprofits whose services are increasingly needed, all while funding is becoming more difficult to secure. It’s a vicious downward spiral.
More than ever this survey demonstrates a need for the nonprofit sector and those who fund it to take a hard look at how the social sector is financed. We are not sustainably financing the social change work we so desperately need. And if we don’t address that, the downward spiral will simply continue.
Here are some fundamental changes to the financing of the nonprofit sector that I’d like to see:
- Government must move to a more reasonable indirect rate. No one can deliver an effective program with only 9% allocated to administration and other “overhead” costs.
- Funders who want to see impact measures need to step up and fund the work and systems necessary to make it happen.
- Nonprofit leaders and funders need to have more open and honest conversations about the hurdles standing in the way of the work.
- Nonprofit leaders need help figuring out sustainable financial models.
In the six years of NFF’s comprehensive and unparalleled view into the world of nonprofit leaders the story is not getting better. Let’s hope this data serves as a wake up call for the social sector. We must collectively realize that if we really want social change we have to figure out how to finance it effectively and sustainably.
February witnessed some dissatisfaction with the current state of funding for social change, but also some trailblazers playing with new financial vehicles. I always wonder whether true change to money for social good will come with the next generation. Do Millennials hold the key to fundamental shifts in how we finance social change efforts? We shall see.
Below is my list of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in February. But, as usual, please add what I missed in the comments. If you’d like to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.
You can also find the list of past months’ 10 Great Reads here.
- As we work toward social change, its important to embrace the gray areas. Writing in the New York Times Simon Critchley takes us back to the 1970s BBC documentary series “The Ascent of Man” to make a point about the importance of uncertainty in our search for solutions. As he puts it, “Insisting on certainty…leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.” And Fay Twersky seems to agree when it comes to strategic philanthropy, arguing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that “we need to challenge the certainty creeping into [philanthropy].”
- And speaking of changing philanthropy yet another study of Millennial philanthropists claims that this new generation of donors will be quite different than their predecessors. As Phil DeMuth writing in Forbes puts it, these new donors “are no longer interested in providing an annuity to some tax-deductible charity organization.” They want to see results, and they want to get in and get out.
- But Lucy Bernholz is frustrated by the pace of change, at least in how little the financial vehicles philanthropists use are changing. She argues that in this year’s list of the top 50 philanthropists “the financial vehicles for philanthropy…look not unlike [those] in 1954 or 1914.”
- Tris Lumley from New Philanthropy Capital voices frustration as well, but with the general state of nonprofit finance. He puts forward a new model for the social sector that removes the “funder-centricity” of the “anti-social sector.” Because, as he argues, “the result of this funder-centricity at its worst is that the social sector exists not for those it’s supposed to help, but in fact for those who work in it, volunteer in it, and give money to it.”
- There are some bright spots, at least in the United Kingdom. The country leads the way in the social impact bond trend. Emma Tomkinson provides a map of social impact bond activity in the UK versus the rest of the world and the UK Centre for Social Impact Bonds provides a great site of resources on the new tool.
- And even here at home there are some trend setters, particularly the F.B. Heron Foundation, led by the visionary Clara Miller who also founded and led the trailblazing Nonprofit Finance Fund for 25 years. Clara has announced the F.B. Heron Foundation will account for the mission return of 100% of its assets. Unheard of and definitely interesting to watch.
- There is a constant tension in the nonprofit sector between funding new ideas and funding the growth of proven ideas. Writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Alex Neuhoff, Laura Burkhauser, and Bradley Seeman fall squarely on the side of growing proven solutions, arguing that in order to reach a higher performing nonprofit sector we must “follow the “recipes” that earned proven programs their stellar ratings.”
- There was much for Millennial changemakers to chew on this month. First, there is a growing drumbeat questioning the relevance and value of college. Does the higher education model really work anymore? It’s a fascinating question to contemplate. And Naomi Schaefer Riley does so in the “College Tuition Bubble.“
- I’ve been on a real Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art) kick lately. His worldview is that each individual was put on earth to create some specific greater good, but Resistance constantly fights to keep us from achieving it. If you need inspiration to overcome Resistance, read his post “How Resistance Proves the Existence of God.” Love it.
- And for those who are pursuing a life of social change despite the lure of a more traditional path, look to Thoreau for inspiration. For as Maureen Corrigan explains in her NPR review of a new biography of the man, “Thoreau’s youth seemed aimless to himself and others because there were no available roadmaps for what he was drawn to be…If Thoreau had committed to a professional career right after Harvard, his parents might have rested easier, but the world would have been poorer.”
Photo Credit: beggs
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.
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