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.
Today wraps up the Social Entrepreneur track of RISE, Austin’s SXSW-style conference for entrepreneurs. It was a lot of fun putting together the track with Jessica Shortall, with lots of help from Annie Frierson, Suzi Sosa, Andy White and the many amazing, inspiring social entrepreneurs in our area. I’m so impressed with the speakers and panelists that made up the track. From design-thinking for social entrepreneurs, to domestic microfinance, to technology for social impact, to social investing, to balancing mission and profit, and much, much more. It was so great to see those working in the gray area between social impact and entrepreneurship together sharing insights, ideas, knowledge, discussion, debate.
I couldn’t get to all of the sessions in the track, and so I’d love recordings of those I missed. But because RISE is a free conference there is little budget for “extras” like recording equipment and staff. However, I heard a rumor that some of the sessions were unofficial taped. If you know of any taped sessions, let me know, and I’ll post them to this blog. And I will definitely make the case to the organizers of RISE that next year we find a way to tape sessions. Because this content is just too rich to be shared by only the 25-40 people in the room.
So I wanted to share my takeaways from the RISE Social Entrepreneurship track and thoughts about where we go from here.
First, the takeaways:
- There is tremendous interest and energy around social entrepreneurship in Central Texas
- However, there is little infrastructure or eco-system to effectively support those entrepreneurs
- More social entrepreneurs in the track and attending sessions were women (that could entirely be based on the fact that the leaders of the track are women, but I think there’s more to it than that)
- There is a debate about whether social entrepreneurs need to bootstrap as long or as hard as traditional entrepreneurs since the same end reward (financial profit) does not really exist for SEs
- Funders of social entrepreneurs are not present in nearly as many numbers as social entrepreneurs
- An “investment banker” or “broker” vetting and connecting social entrepreneurs to potential investors is a key part of the needed ecosystem
And that’s just a beginning list. There were far too many conversations, insights, war stories, and needs to catalog here.
Which brings me to where we go from here. There is a disconnect for Austin in the realm of social innovation. When I talk with people in the social innovation space outside of Texas they are always interested to hear that I am from Austin and are sure that Austin is well along the path of launching and growing social entrepreneurs. Because of Austin’s reputation for progressive ideas, its wealth, its technology background and its rank as the third largest venture capital city in the country, people assume that social entrepreneurship, which often follows from these things, is burgeoning here. When I tell them that isn’t the case, they are shocked. What is holding Austin back?
We heard some provocative conversations this week and saw some inspiring examples of social entrepreneurs who are making it and funders who are helping them along. But that’s not enough, not even close.
Social entrepreneurs need access to significant funding at every step of the game from seed to growth, whether their model is nonprofit, for-profit or a hybrid. We need to give social entrepreneurs the skills to create solid business strategy around a great idea, language for creating a compelling pitch, infrastructure to grow results. We need to create communities for social entrepreneurs and social investors to interact, network, learn from each other, forge partnerships. But most of all we need to collectively say, it’s not enough. One week a year is not enough. A handful of social entrepreneurs and social investors in a city of 1.7 million is not enough. Social innovation is a growing industry, one that Austin should and must climb on board. I’m not satisfied. I want to see more. A lot more.
Two weeks from today the 2nd annual Social Capital Markets Conference kicks off in San Francisco. I’m pretty excited about it because I think one of the biggest things standing in the way of social innovation is a social capital market–the financial tools and vehicles necessary to adequately capitalize social innovation. The speaker’s list for the conference reads like a Who’s Who of the social innovation world. There are some incredible sessions, too many to choose from. I wish the conference were longer than 3 days. I’ll be tweeting (as much as my multi-tasking challenged brain can handle) and blogging from the conference.
Just a few of the topics to be discussed at this year’s conference include:
- The Social Capital Movement Across the Globe
- Social venture funds’ prominent role in the new economy
- The sophistication of social investing pioneers
- Raising money for impact investing in a downturn economy
- The Obama Administration’s focus on social innovation
- Creating effective collaboration between the private sector and development agencies
- Moving beyond Microfinance
- Market based solutions for the base of the pyramid
- New corporate structures, including hybrid businesses and L3C organizations
- Creating metrics and value around social change
- Mobile technology platforms worthy of investment
Are you excited yet?
One of the things I’m particularly excited about at this year’s conference is a movement toward including nonprofits and philanthropy in more of the conference. Last year’s conference tended to focus a bit more on blended value investing (investing in social impact organizations that provide a social AND a financial return). But we don’t want to neglect those social entrepreneurs that employ a nonprofit model to create their desired social impact.
To that end, SoCap this year has a host of sessions about nonprofit social entrepreneurs and a social capital market for them. I am moderating one of these sessions, Growth Capital for Nonprofit Social Entrepreneurs on Wednesday, September 2nd at 1:30pm. Darell Hammond of KaBoom!, Greg Baldwin of VolunteerMatch and Kelly Ward from America Forward/New Profit will discuss the growth capital that was used to bring some impressive nonprofit organization’s to scale.
If you are going to attend only one conference in the social innovation space this year, I would highly recommend SoCap. Hope to see you there!
Growth Capital for Nonprofit Social Entrepreneurs
Date: Wednesday, September 2nd
Moderator: Nell Edgington, Social Velocity
Greg Baldwin, VolunteerMatch
Darell Hammond, KaBOOM!
Kelly Ward, New Profit and America Forward
Nonprofit social entrepreneurs like Volunteer Match and KaBoom! have become, over the past decade, very successful, national, multi-million dollar nonprofit organizations working to solve critical social problems. They’ve achieved this impressive scale through growth capital from individuals, foundations and venture philanthropy funds. Greg Baldwin from Volunteer Match and Darell Hammond from Kaboom will be joined by Kelly Ward from America Forward and New Profit, a pioneer venture philanthropy fund in Boston, to discuss the various financial tools available and necessary to scale nonprofit social entrepreneurs.
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