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Finding Common Ground Between the Financing Fault Lines

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Ashley Thomas, draws on this year’s Skoll World Forum theme in relation to social impact business models.

There is a fault line between models of international development financing. On one side, there is the traditional donor and philanthropic capital that utilises grant money to support projects. On the other side is the social enterprise space that seeks to create sustainable impact through revenue generation.  There has been a lot of excitement in utilising grant funding for social enterprises to build and tweak their business model, but to date there has been little appetite for true hybrid models of ongoing subsidies for social enterprises.

This is a conversation that I had in numerous sessions and coffees throughout Skoll World Forum. It was also one of the key themes from the session hosted by Mercy Corps and USAID on sharing the learnings from their investments in the Innovation Investment Alliance. There is a common ground emerging; these conversations are hinting at the start of innovative new business models that allow for hybrid grant and revenue streams.

The Problem:

Social enterprises are addressing market failures. They bring products or services to underserved markets, often at low margins, and often at high costs. However, market failures exist for a reason; many companies are realising that even at scale, high volume low margin products are not able to generate the revenues that are necessary to be sustainable. However, social enterprises often sell themselves on this vision- that with initial capital to pilot and build systems, they will be financially sustainable at scale.

The Solution:

Philanthropic capital- which does not require financial returns, can help bridge this fault line, and maximise the potential impact of social enterprises. This does not mean we should revert to the large scale unsustainable development models of the 1990’s, but use philanthropic capital as way of targeting the market failure and allowing social enterprises to maintain their focus on their mission and outcomes. This hybrid model is being utilised in the FundiFix hand pump repair service designed by Dr. Rob Hope out of the University of Oxford. The model uses monthly user subscription payments to pool capital to finance prompt hand pump repairs. However, the willingness to pay only accounts for 2/3 of the cost of the service, and the remaining cost is subsidised through grant funding. This is also used in much larger social enterprises.  Ella Gudwin from Vision Spring spoke about how their model has shifted from seeking to maintain cost recovery- and retailing glasses at increasingly higher prices, to minimising the “philanthropy per pair” and serving their target customer.  They were able to do this under a scaling innovation grant from USAID and Mercy Corps, demonstrating that donors are also recognising the need for the pivot into these hybrid models.

It is increasingly clear that there is not one single model for social enterprise, and a single-minded focus on achieving commercial sustainability may limit the impact. Innovative hybrid models that use the social enterprise ethos of cost effectiveness in combination with smart grant funding that can subsidise the product can address the market failures preventing social enterprises achieving impact at scale. There is immense opportunity to achieve scale and impact through creating this common ground.