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
In addition to the Social Impact Exchange conference I mentioned earlier, I will be traveling a lot this summer connecting with nonprofit and philanthropic leaders. I’ll be blogging about what I learn in my travels and conversations. And, I’m really excited to announce, that I have an amazing group of guest bloggers who will be posting throughout the summer as well.
These guest bloggers are people who really make me think and will offer some really interesting perspectives. I’ve invited them each to take over one Social Velocity blog post sometime during the summer.
Below is the guest blogger lineup with some background on each of them. Their posts will begin in late June. And I will continue to post throughout the summer as well.
Social Velocity Summer Guest Bloggers
Robert is the founder of DC Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen, as well as the nonprofit sector advocacy group, CForward. Robert was included in the Non Profit Times list of the “50 Most Powerful and Influential” nonprofit leaders from 2006-2009, and speaks throughout the country and internationally on the subjects of hunger, sustainability, nonprofit political engagement and social enterprise. He is a tireless advocate for the nonprofit sector, encouraging nonprofits to take their rightful seat at the table. He is always pushing us to think bigger and smarter about social change. You can read my past interview with him here and my post about CForward here.
David is the founder of Idealistics, a former social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He has worked in the social sector for the last decade providing direct services to low-income and unhoused adults and families, operating a non-profit organization, and consulting with various social sector organizations and foundations. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which I highly recommend. He will make your head hurt, but in a really good way. You can read my interview with him here and watch the Google Hangout he and I did about Using Real Performance Data to Raise Money.
Jessamyn is Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, a family foundation based in Palo Alto, California. The Peery Foundation invests in and serves social entrepreneurs and leading organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world. Jessamyn helps shape the foundation’s strategy, develops programs, strengthens the foundation’s portfolio, and supports existing grantees. Her experience as part of the founding Ashoka U team has given her the perspective and skill-set to help the foundation develop new methods to support and build the field of social entrepreneurship. You can read my interview with her here.
Adin is Senior Director of Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. In this role, he develops new strategies and programs to bring about change and impact within JCF’s mission. Adin focuses on defining metrics to document impact, maximizing measurable impact and increasing the visibility of the organization. Prior to JCF, Adin was a nonprofit consultant and had his own blog, Working in White Space, which was phenomenal. You can read my past interview with him here.
Laura is a network developer at the Council on Foundations, where she tracks philanthropic trends and builds relationships with leaders advancing the common good across sectors. She also leads an impact investing initiative and regularly interacts with those interested in the changing landscape of social good. Previously as manager of public-philanthropic partnerships, she built the capacities of federal agencies interested in partnering with foundations. Before joining the Council, she worked at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and at the Central New York Community Foundation. Laura has been named a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum. She is also a StartingBloc Fellow and writes for UnSectored, serving on advisory boards for both organizations. You can read my interview with her here.
So there you have it. A summer guest blogging lineup that I am thrilled about. I can’t wait to read what they all have to say. Stay tuned!
Photo Credit: Holger.Ellgaard
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
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
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.
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