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.
It seems that October had two primary themes: moving nonprofits to measure outcomes and the evolution of philanthropy. The drum beat that nonprofits must find a way to measure what change they are creating has been growing louder, and every nonprofit leader would be wise to listen and understand this new trend. But in order to get to a place where most or all nonprofits are measuring outcomes, philanthropists must start paying for measurement. It is interesting to watch this all evolve.
Below are my top 10 picks for what was worth reading in October in the world of social innovation. And as always, please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or my newest social media network, ScoopIt.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- There were several great articles about the need for nonprofits to prove the change they are creating. Steve Boland at Nonprofits Assistance Fund kicked if off by encouraging nonprofits to compare their resources to the outcomes they achieve. The New Philanthropy Capital blog encouraged nonprofits to approach measurement with theory, courage and creativity. And on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog, Lauren Gilbert provided a case study of BELL and how they measured outcomes.
- And then to the ultimate question, “Will funders pay for measurement?”. Beth Kanter asks the question What is the Funder’s Role in Supporting Good Measurement? and Mario Morino (author of Leap of Reason) weighs in. And Phil Buchanan, CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, argues “Foundations must step up and support robust nonprofit performance management systems.” Oh yes, please.
- Writing in the New York Times Paul Sullivan explores how the advent of impact investing is pushing philanthropists to measure the impact of their dollars.
- Even though the premier social entrepreneurship conference, Social Capital Markets, was in September, there were two great round-up blog posts about how SoCap moved the conversation about investing in social entrepreneurship forward. First was Jeff Raderstrong’s argument that we need to beware of the hype around impact investing and focus on solutions to social problems. And Christine Egger wrote a fabulous post on the Idealist blog about new ways to think about, fund & inform social change.
- There were a couple of great posts about (the really sexy topic of) nonprofit budgeting. It may sound dry, but a nonprofit’s budget is an incredibly powerful tool for creating social change, so the more organizations that can harness that tool, the better. On the Nonprofit Finance Fund blog, Peter Kramer demonstrates how to connect your budget to your overall organization strategy. And Kate Barr argues that breakeven budgeting is the “biggest barrier to nonprofit financial health.” Amen to that!
- Two great pieces this month from Lucy Bernholz who always makes us think, especially about the future. First is her piece on libraries and the future and then her laundry list of things we can no longer assume about the world around us.
- I always love a well done infographic and PhilanTopic offers one with their Nonprofits’ Impact on the Economy.
- Writing on the Social Earth blog Ashok Kamal reminds us that the work of social change is an exhausting roller coaster and we all need some “inspiration capital” to keep us going.
- Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org, describes that for the millennial generation, innovation is the status quo and they are “poised to bring the social and business worlds closer together – tying profit to social change, and strong local communities to a new global society.” Let’s hope!
- It looks like the old is becoming new again as cities revive the idea of public, inner city markets.
Photo Credit: x1klima
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
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Adin Miller. Adin is the Senior Director for 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.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You have always been on the funding side of social change. How do you think philanthropy must evolve in order to add to, instead of detract from, the new energy around social innovation?
Adin: I actually believe the philanthropic sector is embracing social innovation, although at a slower rate than we expected. Our modern version of philanthropy, which traces its roots back to the formation of private foundations and federated systems over 100 years ago, has had many examples of supporting innovation and taking risk. However, I believe the growth and demand for metrics, data, and measures of success and impact may have unintentionally tamped down the sector’s willingness to take risk through innovation.
The Bay Area community is identified with entrepreneurship and innovation. That same ethos is also evident within the nonprofit sector (for example, see The Joshua Venture’s profile of it’s 2012 applicant pool (PDF)). The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund has embraced this ethos by providing funding to support social innovation in new and established organizations. I have also advocated for a broader embracing of innovations in how we fund in order to further support new approaches.
By embracing the energy around social innovation, I can engage new donors in our efforts while also providing the means to support an evolving ecosystem of organizations that make up our local Jewish community. In some sense, I believe philanthropy’s resistance to the new energy around social innovation seems misplaced. Harnessing that energy can be an effective tool in a comprehensive strategic philanthropic approach.
Nell: You are fairly passionate about connecting traditional philanthropy to the emerging world of impact investing. Why is it critical to bring the two worlds together?
Adin: I believe our current societal challenges and the continued shift by government away from social, safety net, and education services requires that philanthropy look beyond the confines of simply applying a 5% spend rate on a private foundation’s net investment assets. The general principle of impact investing encourages philanthropy to make better use of the other 95% of assets it manages. Whether structured through Mission-Related Investments, Program-Related Investments, or emerging fields such as social impact bonds, philanthropy has the opportunity to put more of its resources into action to support social change efforts and grow them in scale.
Community foundations and federated systems (such as my employer, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund), in my opinion, have the greater opportunity to embrace impact investing. They directly engage individuals through donor-advised vehicles, supporting foundations, or annual fundraising appeals, and have the unique opportunity to also encourage individual social impact investing that compliments and aligns with their individual charitable giving and philanthropic behavior. The market opportunity is big and when it’s finally realized, will have a much bigger disruptive impact on how philanthropy functions and supports social change.
Nell: In your current role at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund part of your charge is “to define and develop metrics to document impact.” Determining social impact is such a holy grail in the social change sector. How do you go about defining and measuring impact in your work?
Adin: As an institution, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund is looking to better understand and track its ability to affect social change. The need for and supply of data have been hallmarks of the current disruptive state of philanthropy. But, I’m also cognizant that we cannot overwhelm our grantees with outsized and overwhelming data requests. As such, we’re methodically working with our funded organizations and community donors to identify the key data points we should be collectively tracking to measure effectiveness and impact.
For our large-scale initiatives – such as our Reducing Barriers and Increasing Access to Participation in Jewish Life initiative – we have adopted a Collective Impact approach and the specific intention to work with partner organizations and community members to define shared goals and intended impact. We have also positioned our new grantees to set aside funding for smaller-scale efforts to assess and measure their effectiveness. I expect that my team and I will continue to work with grantees and partners to craft the right recipe to allow us to effectively measure impact while also emphasizing the impact may take years to become evident.
Nell: You have been involved with social change both as a staff member at funding institutions and as principal of your own consulting firm. What role do you think consultants play in the social change ecosystem?
Adin: Consultants have the opportunity to bring their wider field of vision, built through multiple and diverse interactions with clients, into play. In some respect, consultants serve as ambassadors of thought and action that can bridge institutions in the social change ecosystem. When I managed my own consulting firm I had the privilege of learning about crosscutting issues and approaches that I could then bring into my interactions with clients. There is a tremendous amount of quiet coaching and mentorship that happens as a consultant and that’s the entry point by which I could advise as well as gently push clients to consider additional paths to achieve their missions and goals.
Nell: Before moving from consulting to the JCFEF you were active with your Working In White Space blog, but you haven’t been as active on the blog recently. What role do you think social media plays in social change and how do you stay engaged with it from within an organization?
Adin: Oh, I very much miss my blog. Writing is undeniably a muscle that requires constant use and dedication, and my own ability to do so took a dramatic hit over the past 12 months. Nevertheless, I believe in the power of social media and blogging to share experiences, push ideas along, and test out theories. In my current work, I’ve encouraged my team to find their own voices and become engaged in social media and blogging. The opportunity to exchange ideas in public is a key element of how philanthropy professionals can further extend the effectiveness of their efforts while also raising the transparency quotient so needed in the sector.
On a personal level, I still try to maintain an active profile in social media (mostly Twitter – I’m @adincmiller – but Google+ , LinkedIn and Facebook as well) where I push along interesting content. I follow about 80 different philanthropy, social media, and impact investing RSS feeds that give me a great window into current debates and trending issues. And I continue to coach and push for greater communication through social media platforms.
In the world of social innovation, May was most definitely about innovations in philanthropy and funding of social change. From social impact bond experiments, to hybrid foundations, to impact investing, to the Giving Pledge 2.0, there was much discussion and debate about how funders of social change should and are innovating. And that is very exciting because it is not enough for social entrepreneurs to push things forward, we desperately need new financial vehicles to fund those social change efforts.
Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in May, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. If you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest. And if you want to read 10 Great Reads lists from past months, go here.
- First up is social impact bonds (or pay for success bonds), a very exciting, new way to fund nonprofits that achieve improved social outcomes that result in public sector savings. McKinsey released a new report on the potential for social impact bonds in the US. And Minnesota is one of the first states to experiment with these bonds with a $10 million pilot. Twin Cities Business magazine explores the idea and Kate Barr of Minnesota’s Nonprofit Assistance Fund gives an overview of the idea, resources and further conversation.
- This month’s second annual meeting of those wealthy individuals who signed Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge (a public promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity in their lifetime) showed some real interest in impact investing, or using their money to make money while creating social change at the same time. Laura Tomasko argues why their interest in impact investing (both mission-related investments and program-related investments) is such an exciting opportunity. And Lucy Bernholz takes their interest in impact investing in another direction arguing that “this century’s great philanthropists should aim not just to match history’s great givers in their largess, but also in the creation of mechanisms and institutions that serve the future as well as their predecessors served the past.”
- Finally, in a very exciting move, the Obama Administration has proposed an expansion to the rules about how foundations can use program-related investments (low or no interest loans to social change organizations) and some community foundations are already getting into the game.
- And from the nonprofit side of the financial equation comes the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s effort to debunk the myths around endowments as a road to nonprofit financial sustainability.
- Financial sustainability must always be on the mind of social change organizations, as this cautionary tale from the North Carolina YWCA that had to close its doors because of poor financial management and oversight demonstrates.
- Has the drum beat against judging a nonprofit based on overhead costs gone mainstream? An op-ed in the LA Times argues that administrative costs are “no way to judge a charity.”
- At the Social Earth blog Thien Nguyen-Trung cautions against an overemphasis on growth among social entrepreneurs and instead argues for “impact offtakers” or an exit strategy for social entrepreneurs to hand off their solution to government or another larger entity instead of trying to reach scale on their own.
- And Patrick Lester seems to agree in his argument that it’s not enough to fund social change solutions: “Foundations and philanthropists need to step forward and fund not just innovation, but advocacy too–only then will our best ideas be taken to scale.”
- There were several articles about exciting, innovative approaches to solving food problems. From a $125 million loan fund for healthy food outlets in California, to urban farming in Detroit, to a very successful nonprofit grocery store in Portland, Oregon.
- In the Stanford Social Innovation Review Matthew Forti offers 6 things nonprofits should avoid in their theory of change (their argument for what they exist to accomplish).
Photo Credit: C. Frank Starmer
Every once in awhile an article comes along that is so honest and observant that it opens the door for a fundamental shift in thinking. Curtis White’s “The Philanthropic Complex” in the Spring 2012 Jacobin is such an article. White writes about how the politics behind American philanthropy compromise its ability to create real social change. His focus is the philanthropy that funds environmental organizations, but ultimately he makes a larger point about the limitations inherent in American philanthropy overall. I’m not sure I agree with everything White writes, but his unapologetic description of the politics of philanthropy is so raw that it is refreshing.
White begins by laying out the fundamental power imbalance between nonprofits seeking funding and the foundations that offer that funding. That imbalance is so dysfunctional that nonprofits cannot get enough and the right type of money that they really need to effectively solve social problems:
One of the most maddening experiences for those who seek the support of private philanthropy is the…difficulty of knowing why the foundation makes the decisions it makes…The closest thing to an answer you’re likely to hear is something like this: “The staff met with some Board members last night to discuss your proposal, and we’re very interested in it. But we don’t think that you have the capacity [a useful bit of jargon that means essentially that the organization should give up on what it thought it was going to do] to achieve these goals. So what we’d suggest is that you define a smaller project that will allow you to test your abilities [read: allow you to do something that you have little interest in but that will suck up valuable staff time like a Hoover]. Meanwhile, we’d like to meet with your Board in six months and see where you are.” And on you go one year at a time. But cheer up, you’ve made your budget for the year!
Part of this dysfunction, White believes, stems from the lack of wide-spread mission-related investing among foundations. Foundations in America are required to distribute 5% of their funds each year to nonprofit organizations. And the remaining 95% is invested to make as much profit as possible. In recent years the idea of “mission-related investing,” where a foundation actually invests that 95% in companies that align with the mission of the foundation, has been gaining favor. But the vast majority of foundations still don’t align their 5% with the 95%, or their “mission” with their “investments.” This strategic disconnect results in situations like the one the Gates Foundation faced last year:
The Los Angeles Times concluded a long investigation into the investment practices of foundations by revealing that the Gates Foundation funded a polio vaccination clinic in Ebocha, Nigeria, in the shadow of a giant petroleum processing plant in which the Gates Foundation was invested…This is prima facie evidence of a deep moral conflict not just at Gates but in all of private philanthropy. The simple fact is that most boards actually don’t know if their investments and their missions align.
White ultimately argues that because the wealth of philanthropy is built on privilege it is impossible for that wealth to bring about social change because that change might undermine the underlying power structure that created the wealth in the first place, “The great paradox of environmental philanthropy is this: How do institutions founded on property, wealth, and privilege…seek to address the root source of environmental destruction if that source is essentially the unbridled use of property, wealth, and privilege?”
White’s is a shocking, provocative, and controversial piece. And he probably takes his argument too far. American philanthropy has contributed to much positive social change over the centuries.
But what if White’s article helped to start an honest conversation about the need for more money to make real change, unbridled by politics and self-preservation? What if it helped encourage things like:
- Foundations unleashing billions more dollars to social change efforts by broadly employing mission-related investing.
- More philanthropists making larger, longer and more organization-building grants that actually make their grantees more effective and self-sufficient, instead of encouraging year-by-year dependence.
- Foundations getting out of the way of the organizations working on the ground to solve social problems by fully funding requests for the amount, type and use of money.
- More foundations becoming spend down foundations, where they have a plan for spending down their assets and eventually closing when they have achieved their social change goals.
- Nonprofits getting braver, bolder and more honest with their foundation funders about exactly what they need from them.
That’s my hope.
Photo Credit: Robert Minor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1908)
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jessamyn Lau. As Program Leader of the innovative Peery Foundation, Jessamyn helps shape the foundation’s strategy, develops programs, strengthens the foundation’s portfolio, and supports existing grantees. Jessamyn’s MBA from Brigham Young University and time spent with Ashoka U have given her the perspective and skill-set to help the foundation develop new methods to support and build the field of social entrepreneurship. Jessamyn is currently working with BYU’s Ballard Center to create the Peery Social Entrepreneurship Program (PSEP), a cross campus initiative providing opportunities for students and faculty to engage with social entrepreneurship through curriculum, experiential learning, and research.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: At the Peery Foundation you have done some really interesting experiments with social media, even adding an element of crowd-sourcing via Twitter to your strategic planning process. But recently you have gone back and forth about whether you want to continue your PFWhiteboard blog. What has your thinking been about how social media fits into the overall work of the Peery Foundation?
Jessamyn: One thing we know about social media is that it’s a good tool for is spreading the word about our partners and their work. 90% of what we post/tweet is about our portfolio partners. Every now and then we try to figure out how else to deliberately use social media. We’ve tried stuff that hasn’t worked (so we stopped doing it), and we’ve tried stuff that did seem to yield value for us and others. In general it’s still throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks. Intuitively we think social media is a good thing for our creativity, learning, and listening, however, we don’t feel tied to it as a core part of our strategy or practice. When it makes sense we use it, when it doesn’t we don’t.
Nell: What do you think holds foundations back from using social media and embracing greater transparency? What do you think will make that change?
Jessamyn: The tricky thing with social media is it’s really hard to link it to outcomes. Even when tangible examples of outcomes are illustrated it’s often a first-mover advantage and not something that will produce the same results if everyone did the same thing. If foundations could see how social media directly led to more impact it would be an easier sell. It’s a similar story with transparency. Being transparent requires change, time, dedication and a certain amount of risk. Without a clear and strong argument for how that leads to more impact it’s easier not to take the risk and stay quiet.
Another issue is strategic planning, which, at times, can become more of a bane than a boon to foundations. When it comes to social media many foundations think they need a strategy and a full blown plan before they will start using it. As with many things it’s hard to know exactly how Twitter or Facebook will be useful until you give it a go and play around a
For the most part I think the change will only come with an increase of millennial philanthropists, foundation ED’s and program officers who come with a share-as-default mentality and bias towards creative experimentation in public.
Nell: You recently did a fascinating blog post about how the social entrepreneurship movement is encouraging young people to think they can solve the world’s problems, without much real world experience. How do we balance Generation Y’s zeal to find solutions with their youth and lack of experience?
Jessamyn: I don’t think I know the full answer to that, yet. My opinions on this point are still developing as the Peery Foundation works closely with BYU to build a cross-campus social entrepreneurship program. I’m not sure the overall problem is too much zeal or youth, or even too little experience -all of these things provide incredible value in the right context. I think what’s lacking are clearer expectations and support for students to build self-awareness and deliberate preparation in their development as social innovators. As I said, I’m still figuring it out -watch the PF Whiteboard over the coming months for more on this.
Nell: The Peery Foundation is one of few foundations that do mission-related investments. How did you decide to move into that realm and what do you think holds other foundation back from MRIs?
Jessamyn: Our primary function is to support and serve the social entrepreneurs we work with. We try to keep our funding as flexible as possible. Peery Foundation funding is generally unrestricted and the structure of a grant is often co-crafted with the entrepreneur. We have come to realize that entrepreneurs with differing business models, or at differing life-cycle stages, need different types of capital. Once we believe in a SE and their model for addressing poverty we want to always be open to providing the type of capital that they need at the time they need it.
We’re still at an early stage in developing our capacity to provide debt and other funding outside of philanthropy. In our philanthropic funding we’re not paper heavy and our agreements are very trust-based. It was definitely daunting to explore this new realm of traditional investment due diligence and contractual agreements. So far we’ve found the kind of support we need to help us make the leap fairly painlessly through the Toniic Network, and from sources such as Silicon Valley Community Foundation and University Impact Fund, and still feel like we’re able to retain our low-paper, trust based partnership approach to the extent that makes sense.
Nell: In some ways philanthropy has been a bit left behind by the impact investing movement. Why do you think that is and do you think philanthropic giving and impact investing will become more integrated?
Jessamyn: The potential of impact investing is huge, though I’m not sure I agree with the statement that impact investing (ii) has left behind philanthropy (charitable giving from individuals, corporations and foundations totaled over $290B in the US alone for 2010, impact investing is estimated at $50-100B in 2011). Though there is a lot of attention and discussion surrounding impact investing, there are still relatively few organizations actively channeling dollars to ii. Even in the future (when I think ii will absolutely eclipse philanthropy by the numbers), I see ii and philanthropy as very complimentary. In many cases philanthropic capital prepares the way for ii dollars, or continues to fund pieces of a model (overhead or continuing innovation) that ii capital can not.
Indeed, there are many incredibly efficient and effective models of social entrepreneurship with models not conducive to impact investment capital – they will probably always rely on philanthropic dollars. There will always be an important role for philanthropy to play. Philanthropy is the ultimate risk-taking capital. We should not lose sight of this or think that ii is here to replace philanthropy.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony Bugg-Levine is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary dedicated to mobilizing and deploying capital effectively to build a just and vibrant society. In this role, Mr. Bugg-Levine oversees more than $225 million of capital under management and a national consulting practice, and works with a range of philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. He is the co-author of the newly released Impact Investing: Transforming How We Make Money While Making a Difference.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You’ve recently taken over the helm of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a pioneer in cutting-edge ideas for better capitalizing the nonprofit sector, like growth capital. What’s next for NFF? Where do you go from here?
Antony: I am humbled and excited to be given the responsibility to lead an organization with such a strong legacy and talented staff. After 31 years of working with nonprofits and funders, Nonprofit Finance Fund understands as well as anyone how we can best raise and use financial resources to create sustainable organizations that together weave the fabric of just and vibrant communities.
Honing and sharing these insights is more important than ever. As the economic crisis has turned into an intractable employment crisis, the communities we work with and the organizations that serve them are facing unprecedented challenges. Business as usual is no longer going to work. But business-as-unusual is increasingly exciting. The crisis has created new opportunities by shaking loose long-held barriers that kept the worlds of social change and business firmly apart.
NFF is well-poised to help ensure that these new opportunities bear fruit, by doing what we have always done–bringing a data-driven approach to identifying what works, and working deeply and closely with social change organizations while communicating effectively with capital providers. We will have more details on our specific strategic direction in early 2012 but are very excited about the possible directions we can take. In many ways, this is our time and we hope to be worthy of these opportunities.
Nell: You recently wrote a book with Jed Emerson about impact investing that charts the field and where it might be going. But the field of impact investing, especially in places like the Social Capital Markets Conference, seems to separate itself from philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. How can and should impact investing and philanthropy collide and what will make that happen?
Antony: Advocates of impact investing have done a great job in the last few years explaining how for-profit investment can be both a morally legitimate and economically effective tool to address intractable social and environmental challenges.
But many of these challenges have been intractable precisely because neither markets nor governments have figured out how to address them. So impact investors will have to collaborate with philanthropists, nonprofits and governments to create comprehensive solutions when no one piece can work alone. At NFF we are increasingly seeing the power and necessity of a “total capital” approach where, for instance, we provide impact investing capital in the form of loans, human capital in the form of (grant-funded) consulting support, and government assistance in the form of subsidy or loan guarantee. This is particularly important as the unemployment crisis places increased demands on already strained organizations. For example, to support a set of leading arts organizations, we secured a PRI from the Mellon Foundation that enabled us to provide loans alongside technical assistance to leading arts organizations. We are now developing a similar integrated approach to support social service agencies such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
Nell: The vast majority of money is still bifurcated with for-profit investing on one side and charitable donations on the other. What will it take to change that and get more capital to social change organizations?
Antony: When I began this work at the Rockefeller Foundation almost five years ago I thought we were in the deal-making and infrastructure building business: that a few compelling examples of how impact investing can work and the development of networks and measurement standards to facilitate collaboration would be enough to allow impact investing to take off. But now I realize how impact investing threatens deeply-held mindsets of a bifurcated worldview that insists the only way to solve social challenges is through charity and the only purpose of investing is to make money.
To overcome this belief will require more than analysis and anecdote. Instead we need to build new systems to support the new aspirations. We need:
- a regulatory and legal framework that recognizes and incentivizes the contributions impact investors can make;
- educational systems that train young professionals to adapt investment tools to social purpose;
- measurement systems that allow us to assess and compare the blended value investments generate;
- nonprofit and for-profit social enterprises equipped to navigate the increasingly complicated strategic options that impact investors present; and,
- a philanthropic system organized around the question “How can we deploy all our assets to address the social issues we care about?” rather than “How do we give well?”
Nell: What is your idealized financial future for the social change sector? What level and kind of change would you ultimately like to see?
Antony: I envision a day when we organize the social change sector around the problems we seek to solve rather than the tools we happen to hold. Instead of fetishizing the moral or practical supremacy of grant-making or investing, in this world we will recognize that each has a role to play, and they are often most powerful when taken together. Exciting examples are already taking hold. In California, the California Endowment organized a multi-sector coalition to put an end to the “food deserts” that left many poor communities without easy access to purchase healthy food. This collaboration resulted earlier this year in the launch of the FreshWorks Fund that has mobilized grant capital, bank capital, impact investing capital and intellectual capital to bring new grocers into underserved communities. At NFF, we are applying a similar approach in the ArtPlace initiative, which is using arts as an engine for economic development in the US. This initiative has mobilized substantial commitment from private foundations, the US government and commercial banks.
Nell: How much of a panacea for social problems is impact investing? Can double bottom-line investing truly revolutionize how money flows to solving problems? Will it overtake government and philanthropic investment in social problems? And should it?
Antony: Impact investing is not a panacea. We cannot create and sustain a just and vibrant society unless we recognize that many organizations generate social value that cannot be monetized, and instead must be supported through charity and government. But we also must not ignore the vast potential in the trillions of dollars of for-profit investment capital currently lying on the sidelines of the social change agenda.
The global capital markets hold tens of trillions of dollars. Unlocking just one percent for impact investment will bring multiples of the approximately $300 billion in total annual charitable giving in the US. So impact investing can create a huge difference in how quickly or comprehensively we can address those social challenges where lack of money is the main issue.
Impact investing can also be revolutionary by accelerating new discipline in how we identify, assess, and manage our social change agenda. At their best, investors bring a rigor and discipline in allocating scarce resources to their most productive use, where there is a market-based solution. Impact investing will help spur a movement to link social spending to outcomes that a set of organizations can achieve, rather than just the outputs any one organization can deliver. We need to be careful, however, to recognize exactly where these new approaches will work and where simplistic and reductionist thinking will divert resources away from worthy causes or leave behind worthy organizations.
- The Nonprofit Sector and the
Philanthropy That Funds It Are
Find Out How to Keep Up
in our June 18th
Embracing the Future of the
Nonprofit Sector Webinar