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.
Just a few years ago, the only measure for a nonprofit’s effectiveness was the percent they spent on overhead expenses. If a nonprofit spent a magic 20% or less on non-program expenses they were deemed worthy of donations. This destructive way of evaluating nonprofit organizations has been losing favor over the last few years as rating agencies like Charity Navigator have recognized the need for a broader evaluation of nonprofit effectiveness. New measures have started to include outcome and impact elements.
But all of this begs the ultimate question which is how do we create a system for measuring and comparing nonprofits across the many social issues and operating models that make up the sector? Because however faulty the overhead percentage measurement was, at least it allowed a comparison of apples to apples. You could see how one nonprofit stacked up against another. But if each nonprofit organization is now creating their own theory of change, and their own outcome and impact measurements, how do we compare those to another nonprofit’s outcome and impact measures?
Enter a host of efforts to solve that very problem. One of these efforts is Markets for Good. They aim to create an infrastructure for evaluating nonprofit effectiveness based on outcomes and impact. You can watch their video explaining their efforts below, or if you are reading this in an email click here to watch the video.
And there are many other efforts to move the nonprofit sector toward measuring outcomes instead of spending practices. These include Idealistics, GiveWell, Philanthropedia among many others. But it’s not clear yet how any of these efforts will be able to analyze and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts because there are many pieces to that puzzle.
To truly be able to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts, we have to:
- Encourage nonprofit organizations to develop a theory of change, because you can’t measure whether an organization has created change if they have no idea what they are trying to change in the first place.
- Give nonprofits resources with which to measure whether their theory of change is actually coming to fruition. Measuring outcomes and impact takes time and money.
- Separate a single nonprofit’s efforts to create change from other forces working on the same social problem so that we can understand the effectiveness of a single organization.
- Create a standardized system for comparing the ability of one nonprofit organization to create change to another’s ability to create change.
- Connect such a system for measuring nonprofit effectiveness to systems already being created for for-profit social entrepreneurs (like GIIRS) so that those with money to invest in social change efforts can compare the social return they would get in a for-profit and/or nonprofit setting.
- Communicate the results of those measures to philanthropic and social investors so they can make more informed, more results-focused investments, whether those be to nonprofit or for-profit social change organizations.
To me, comparing the ability of organizations to create social change is an enormous nut to crack. But it is an incredibly worthy endeavor. I applaud Markets for Good and the many other efforts working to create a system for understanding and comparing social change efforts. It will be fascinating to watch this space develop.
Photo Credit: KJGarbutt
Sean is a visionary leading the charge to transform philanthropy. He is CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, a philanthropy advisory firm. He is also the author of the very popular Tactical Philanthropy blog and writes a monthly column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Philanthropy & Social Investing and his insights on philanthropy have been referenced in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Financial Times.
Nell: At the first Social Capital Markets Conference (SoCap) in 2008 one of the keynoters said “we’re not here to talk about nonprofits.” We’ve come a long way from there to this year’s devoted track around philanthropic capital and the nonprofit space at SoCap. Where do you think the initial hesitance to connect philanthropic and impact investing came from? And how do we continue to integrate the two worlds?
Sean: I think that one of the segments of people who are attracted to impact investing are people who think philanthropy doesn’t work. While I view philanthropic and for-profit social capital to be part of a single continuum of capital, many people seem to feel that they are fundamentally different. Like most new ideas, early adopters often think it is a silver bullet that will “change everything”. Some early adopters of impact investing or other forms of for-profit social capital wrongly believe that impact investing will replace philanthropy. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding. Continuing to integrate the two worlds will require helping the various points on the capital spectrum better understand each other. At the end of the day, capital shouldn’t be viewed through an ideological lens, but should simply be deployed based on what sort of capital fits the situation.
Nell: The SoCap session on nonprofit rating systems like Charity Navigator and GiveWell demonstrated that there is still quite a divide between GIIRS (the impact investing rating system) and nonprofit rating systems. What is your sense of this? Do you think there is potential to somehow combine GIIRS (or something else) and nonprofit rating systems so that there is one comparable impact measurement system?
Sean: I would guess that any truly effective impact measurement system should be functional across both for-profit and nonprofit activity. A good impact assessment system wouldn’t care about the tax status of the entity producing results, it would just care about the results and the cost of obtaining them. That being said, I think evaluating a nonprofit organization is really quite different from evaluating a for-profit organization. So even if we have a unified impact assessment framework some day, I would guess that organizational assessment will utilize different systems and approaches for nonprofit and for-profit organizations.
Nell: How would you like to see the conversation about connecting philanthropy and impact investing evolve at SoCap11? What are your hopes for next year’s conference?
Sean: I’d like to work to profile more examples of ways that for-profit and philanthropic capital worked together to produce social impact. Our session on Evergreen Lodge at this year’s conference looked precisely at this question, but I’d like to see more examples. I’d also like to see examples of ways philanthropic entities have used for-profit investments or subsidiaries well or for-profits have effectively used philanthropic activities to drive profit and social results. However, one of the most important goals is simply getting the different players into the same room and getting them to come to understand each other better. While Kevin Jones and I had a good time talking about the Social Capital Markets as a meeting ground for the Barbarians and Byzantine, in reality none of us are barbarians.
Nell: Beyond SoCap where do you think the important conversations about unlocking philanthropic and government capital for social impact are happening?
Sean: This is an interesting question. SoCap is special because it is one of the only (the only?) conference that is specifically about capital for social impact without regard for sector. But versions of this conversation are happening around Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, The Social Innovation Fund, online and in a different sort of way at the PopTech conference.
Nell: At the last general session of SoCap Woody Tasch of the Slow Money movement said he doesn’t think mission-related investing will ever be adopted by the majority of foundations. What are your thoughts on that?
Sean: Social Responsible Investing, the practice of screening out stocks of tobacco companies, defense contractors and the like from investment portfolios, is not practiced by a majority of investors. Yet, SRI is very mainstream and has significantly altered the behavior of publicly traded companies. Today, SRI mutual funds are one of the fastest growing areas in money management. So I don’t think that the majority of funders have to adopt mission related investing for the concept to be deemed a success. It should be noted that SRI took a good 20 years or so to go mainstream. So it could be some time before mission related investing is considering mainstream.
Nell: And more broadly, what do you think it will take to change how philanthropists (both foundations and individual donors) use money to support social impact? How do we make more donors builders instead of just buyers?
Sean: Today, I think that very few people in the social sector really understand what “philanthropic equity” is and how capital differs from revenue. Nonprofit accounting does not acknowledge that capital even exists in the sector. Nonprofits can only book cash coming into their business as revenue or a loan. There’s no official way to account for equity-like capital. So I think that there needs to be a pretty major education effort to get the whole sector very clear on how fundamentally different it is for a funder/donor to “invest” philanthropic equity in a nonprofit vs paying a nonprofit revenue to execute programs. Personally, I don’t think much progress will be made until nonprofit accounting changes. Until that happens, it doesn’t matter much what we call “growth capital”, it is all just revenue to the nonprofit.
Despite my frustration in an earlier post about this year’s Social Capital Markets Conference inability to fully integrate philanthropic and government capital into the discussion, I was reminded by a friend that we have actually come a long way in three short years. A keynoter at the first SoCap conference in 2008 noted that “we aren’t here to talk about nonprofits.” The fact is that just two years later not only were nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders present in large numbers at the conference, but they had their own track. It was a huge step forward to have a devoted track focusing on the philanthropic capital market with Sean Stannard-Stockton at its head this year. The track brought some great work to light and started some important conversations.
In the spirit of continuing and expanding that conversation, here are the conversations/sessions I’d like to see at SoCap 2011:
- More case studies like the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland and the Evergreen Lodge in Yosemite (not related) that demonstrate innovative collaborations of capital across the philanthropic, government and private sectors
- A working session that looks to compare/combine the nonprofit rating systems and GIIRS (Global Impact Investing Rating System)
- Case studies of nonprofits who have crafted a growth or capacity capital campaign to unlock philanthropic capital for scale and change
- A discussion about venture philanthropy. New Profit, Venture Philanthropy Partners and others pioneered the nonprofit capital space. Where are they now, what have they learned, and what are they doing to revamp the venture philanthropy model?
- An update on the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), what they’ve learned, what the government’s plans are to revamp and scale it.
- Beyond SIF, examples of what local, state and federal governments are doing to partner with philanthropists to expand capital for social entrepreneurs. Council of Foundation’s Public/Philanthropic Partnership is a place to start.
- Stacked deals involving philanthropic and private capital are very tricky to create, as Julie Sunderland and others have argued, but what can we do or develop to make this less difficult? What sorts of terms are people playing around with? What’s working and what isn’t and how can we evolve this?
- Donor-Advised Funds hold tremendous opportunity to unlock philanthropic capital, but are underused currently. What can we do to unlock that potential?
- Where do community foundations fit into all of this? Often the nexus of a city’s philanthropic activity, they have been slow to climb aboard the social capital market train. How can we unlock this potential capital for social impact?
- Discussions about how we educate philanthropists about the need for capacity and growth capital in the nonprofit world. How do we make more philanthropists builders instead of buyers?
- How do we get more foundations to use Program Related Investments and Mission Related Investments?
SoCap10 did a great job of starting the conversation, now I’d like to see that conversation move to the tactical. Let’s create new structures, incentives, partnerships, tools to unlock philanthropic and government capital for social impact.
What do you want to see at SoCap11? Add to the list in the comments.
Photo Credit: paratiger
Day 2 of SoCap was by far my favorite. It started with an interesting keynote from Julie Sunderland of the Gates Foundation. She offered a perhaps more realistic, bordering on the pessimistic, view of the social capital market space. She said that Gates struggles to find entities that can absorb the size investments they want to make. They get excited about the idea of bringing together foundation, government and private dollars in stacked deals, but that the work is complicated and hard and they have yet to craft one of these deals simply because it is extremely difficult to determine the terms. All of this underlines what I’ve said in a previous post: in the nonprofit, philanthropic and government worlds there is still much work to be done to unlock capital.
The first session of the day for me was “Lessons of Behavioral Finance: Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Impact Investing” with Hope Neighbor and her ground-breaking research, Money for Good, released earlier this year calculating a $120 billion pool of potential impact investing money that is sitting on the sidelines. Hope said that despite our desires to the contrary, people still very much think of their charitable giving as separate from their impact investing, “the reality is that people compartmentalize their money.” And only 3% of the population uses data to compare the organizations they give to.
My favorite session of the day, by far, was “Deep Dive Into the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative.” This session was exactly what I was hoping to see more of at SoCap this year. A group of leaders in Cleveland realized that the heart of their city was quickly deteriorating and no one was doing anything about it. They formed a coalition of the anchor institutions in Cleveland (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Clinic, etc), foundations, city leaders and others to create the Evergreen Cooperatives that brings career-track jobs and green, employee-owned businesses to the inner city, transforming a city that has lost 50% of its population in the last 50 years. Beyond the fascinating coalition, business model and results this project is achieving, lies its impressive financing. A combination of bonds, foundation grants, loans, HUD money and others launched this project and financed the 3 businesses they currently operate (a green laundry, an organic greenhouse, and a solar power company). According to Evergreen leaders, “Cleveland wants to be where the world is going, not where the world is.”
To scale this project to create 5,000 jobs (the area needs 46,000 jobs), which will be the impetus to truly transform the inner city economy, they are creating a CDFI and looking to use PRIs and MRIs. What excites me so much about this project is not the spirit of collaboration and tremendous results, but how they are bringing public, private and philanthropic money together in a truly innovative convergence. THIS is the kind of social capital market I’m talking about. Impact investing is great, but it is only ONE piece of the puzzle. I would love to see more examples like Evergreen at SoCap.
The last breakout session I attended for the day was “Nonprofit Analysis: Beyond Metrics,” which gave a great overview of the growing nonprofit evaluators market through the lens of rating one nonprofit, DC Central Kitchen. It was interesting to see how Charity Navigator, the most well-known nonprofit evaluator, has evolved from a system driven purely by IRS 990 form overhead ratios to a three-pronged review including transparency and impact evaluations.
The end of the session gave me serious pause, however, when a member of the audience asked whether any of the evaluators might use the GIIRS system coming out of the impact investing world to rate nonprofit impact. Ken Berger admitted he wasn’t familiar with GIIRS and Tim Ogden of GiveWell said he was skeptical of social return on investment (SROI) calculations in general. Again, my point that the philanthropic and impact investing worlds aren’t communicating and collaborating becomes apparent. Wouldn’t that be amazing if impact in both the philanthropic and impact investing worlds could be measured in a comparable way? That would be truly innovative!
So, although Day 2 of SoCap provided much more conversation and examples of how the philanthropic and government capital markets are evolving, there is still much work to be done to bring both capital fully into the social capital market. Perhaps at SoCap 2011?
Photo Credit: Markets for Good
Now that I got that off my chest, I want to tell you about all of the great things happening at the Social Capital Markets Conference (SoCap). Day 1 provided a great update on all the work that has happened since we met at Fort Mason a year ago. Unlike so many other conferences that just regurgitate old information and bring the same people together to discuss how great they are, SoCap is very much a working conference. The sense of urgency is palpable. The attendees are the very people who are creating this new social capital market, and they don’t have time to sit around and theorize. So SoCap holds many exciting announcements about new initiatives, new infrastructure, new tools to strengthen and grow this burgeoning marketplace for money to create social impact.
Day 1 began with a passionate, inspiring speech by Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen Fund. She discussed their and others’ work to create new measurement tools for impact, like Pulse and REDF’s new tool (officially announced later in the day). So much of SoCap is about measurement, which is very exciting. How do we know social change is happening? What does it mean to say we created a job?
She also talked about the need for exit strategies and patient capital. Two critical elements to making impact and scale happen and be sustainable. But most importantly, Jacqueline provided the balance of passion, commitment, and inspiration that is so important to remember as we work to create what often is a dry, data-driven space. She encouraged us to remember that we are “building our own organizations while we are building a sector,” and “each of us can work to change a small sequence of events that together changes the world.”
Next up, Matt Flannery, co-founder of Kiva–the online micro-lending platform, described how Kiva has democratized and distributed risk-tolerant, patient capital, which again is such an enormous need to those working to create complicated, long-term social change. And he argued that online philanthropy is quickly becoming a huge economic force. This idea of democratizing capital through lots of people giving small amounts through new technologies is very exciting.
And finally, to drive home that point, Kushal Chakrabarti from Vittana, a Kiva-like platform for education loans to students in third-world countries, demonstrated that this idea of person-to-person small lending holds tremendous promise for transforming how capital flows to social change efforts.
In the “High Engagement Impact Investing” session I attended later in the day, there were great examples of new ways of engaging impact investors, but the highlight for me was Don Shaffer of RSF Social Finance (a true pioneer in the social capital market space) discussing “RSF Prime,” their community-based pricing for loans. Periodically they bring investors and borrowers together with staff to set the interest rate for borrowers. It’s a radical idea that is really working for them. Deval Sanghavi from Dasra described a similar community-based approach that they and others like Village Capital take where the entrepreneurs within their portfolio decide who gets funding. These community-based approaches to funding are fascinating and as Don said, they are truly “transforming the way the world works with money.”
The last general session of the day was packed with exciting new infrastructure announcements. B Lab’s Jay Coen Gilbert announced several exciting things:
- Their work to create a legal “benefit corporation” status in Maryland and Vermont. The benefit corporation is a legal corporate structure that marries the financial motive of the for-profit corporation with the social benefit of the non-profit corporation. Within one day of being a legal business structure, Maryland already had 11 benefit corporations.
- The work to develop the necessary infrastructure of a new impact investing asset class with things like IRIS, (the FASB of the social capital market space) and the GIIRS rating system that compares social impact results (the S&P or Moody’s of the impact investing world).
The standards and systems that B Lab and others are creating provide the necessary infrastructure to encourage investors to become impact investors.
Finally the Calvert Foundation and Ron Cordes announced the Global Impact 50 Index who’s goal is to drive $2 billion of capital into impact investing over the next 5 years by working with the gatekeepers to impact investing, the financial advisor community. The theory is that if financial advisors understand impact investing and have the products and infrastructure necessary, they will encourage their high-net worth clients to make impact investments, thereby unlocking this capital market.
It is so great to see so much progress, albeit in the impact investing part of the market only, in just one year. You really get the sense, at the edge of the San Francisco Bay, that something is happening, systems are changing, the social capital market is slowly becoming a reality. And it is due to this sharp, passionate, committed group of people who aren’t content to philosophize. They are out there building, brick by brick, this new capital market that will make social change a reality.