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Rethinking Social Impact Competitions

Written by Julian Cottee (Social Innovation and Sustainability Expert) and Chris Blues (Programme Manager for Social Ventures).

Competitions, accelerators and prizes are now well-established fixtures in the social entrepreneurship world.

The Chivas Venture, The Earthshot Prize, Nesta Challenges, The Audacious Project, European Social Innovation Competition, Food System Vision Prize and Tata Social Enterprise Challenge to name only a few.

The ‘Gardeners’

Outside of award schemes that recognise retrospective excellence and best practice (like the UK Social Enterprise Awards for example), competitions come in a number of flavours. On the one hand there are the ‘gardeners’, who delve through the undergrowth looking for the green shoots of promising innovation to nurture. These are prizes like our own Skoll Venture Awards, which aims to spot potential and deploy small but targeted doses of no-strings capital to encourage growth. Other variants of the gardener paradigm are more involved, seeking to actively engage in and boost the evolution of new businesses.

In addition to publicity and funding, accelerator programmes offer a range of other services including learning and development opportunities, networking and access to investment, sometimes taking a stake in the business in return. 

The ‘Architects’

Elsewhere in the innovation support ecosystem are the ‘architects’ – challenge prizes that carefully identify problems that they or their funders are particularly keen on solving, and design tailored competitions to promote innovation in the sector. This is an idea with a long history. Famously, the British government in 1714 offered an award equivalent to several million pounds in today’s money for anyone who could come up with an innovation to precisely determine a ship’s longitude at sea. Today the X Prize Foundation offers similar amounts, and more, to those who can offer advances in diagnosis for medical conditions, or remove CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Both the gardeners and the architects of the social entrepreneurship world have in common the ambition of supporting innovation that our societies need, but for which there is not yet (or might never be) the market demand to unlock capital from traditional investors. They support young ventures with innovative ideas and high social impact potential, but with business plans that are still unproven. In between this high-risk grant capital and the world of traditional growth finance, is the world of social investment, which plays off the calculus of return on investment against the chance of societal benefit.

Systemic Challenges

But how well is our landscape of capital and other support for social ventures really enabling the potential of the best social entrepreneurs to ideate, prototype, launch and grow new businesses that provide answers to the world’s systemic challenges at the scale we need? Even since the inception of the Skoll Venture Awards in 2012, the number and breadth of organisations (corporates, governments, nonprofits, and academic institutions) building awards that catalyse social ventures has grown exponentially. The ecosystem might seem crowded, but are we filling all the right niches, and are we providing support at all of the crucial pinch points along the social entrepreneur’s journey to allow beautiful, wise and impact-led ventures to grow, and to fill the landscape? 

Social innovation needs gardeners and architects, and like any ecosystem, thrives on diversity and plurality. But by combining the best of these two approaches we might see something else too. Taking the big picture approach of the architect alongside the gardener’s ability to see possibility and provide it with what it needs to grow, we can map the system that enables and shapes social ventures to thrive, and ask how it could be improved. How are competitions feeding into the wider social innovation and investment ecosystem? Are we collectively selecting for and nurturing the most important attributes of truly impactful ventures? Are we duplicating efforts? How might social ventures move from one competition or accelerator to another most beneficially? How might we partner for increased impact? 

Competitions play a key role in celebrating and supporting individuals and teams who have chosen to follow their imagination and to demonstrate leadership and courage through building a venture. To serve them better we can step back and consider how we can work together towards just, equitable and sustainable systems.

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Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in Impact Investment

Tara Sabre Collier, Social Entrepreneur in Residence at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Skoll Scholar alumna joins Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures at the Skoll Centre, in examining inequalities within the Impact Investment industry.

Inequality is one of the greatest challenges of our time, hampering growth, spurring strife and instability and impeding human development.

Income inequality has been worsening across countries since the turn of the century and is likely to be tremendously exacerbated by COVID-19. The impact investment sector has been a powerful force for progress towards many SDGs but needs to take a critical look at how, as a sector, it is advancing or exacerbating SDG 10. In most of the world, income and wealth inequality are inextricably tied to race, ethnicity, gender, national/origin migration status but most impact investors have not fully interrogated their roles in fostering equity and inclusion across their organizations and portfolios.

There is no aggregate global diversity and inclusion data for the impact investment industry.

Data from the UK, one of the world’s leading countries for impact investment, show a clear discrepancy in the ecosystem, with people of colour occupying less than 7% and women outnumbered 2:1 in board directorships. While the UK does not necessarily represent the entire impact investment industry, it is an important global hub. Moreover, there are a number of global commonalities in terms of wealth distribution, private capital markets and philanthropy that indicate other Western impact investment markets will similarly fall short. The impact investment industry hybridises investment, philanthropy, and social enterprise traits; talent, staffing and leadership trends will reflect this DNA. A few global highlights from these sectors (across UK and USA) reveal less than admirable diversity and inclusion track record.

Venture Capital

The United States is the world’s leading VC market. White men are 30% of the country’s population yet nearly 80% of VCs and 80-90% of leadership in venture-backed companies. This demographic disparity, is replicated in the European VC ecosystem. Furthermore, research shows that venture capitalists are far more likely to partner with people who share their gender or race, leading to far less funding for women entrepreneurs and founders of colour.

Philanthropy

Women are about 56% of US philanthropic foundations CEOs, but people of colour only occupy 11% of said roles, despite a significant philanthropic emphasis on serving communities of colour in the US. There’s now evidence that this disparity is reflected in philanthropic funding for social entrepreneurs of colour, with a recent Bridgespan study showing Black-led social enterprises have 76% smaller net assets than white-led counterparts, mostly attributed to bias.

Social sector

Just 3% of UK charity CEOs were of non-white backgrounds, despite the fact that a large share of the UK sector’s work likewise addresses communities of colour. On the international front, an older study indicated less than 10% of the largest international NGOs had African board members, despite Africa being the largest market for INGO grant funding and programs.  Likewise, despite women comprising 70% of INGO staff, women are still vastly under-represented (i.e. approximately 30%) as CEOs and leaders of these organizations.

These select examples demonstrate a pattern of diversity paucity which contravenes the vision of impact investing.

Two painted multicoloured hands, holding hands

If the impact investing industry replicates these disparities, there is a risk of reinforcing income inequality, instead of combatting it.

The representation gap also points to a possible market failure whereby impact capital is likely not being efficiently distributed to many promising ventures with potential to solve societal challenges because of a disconnect between primarily Western white male funders and under-represented social enterprise founders, especially in the Global South. Furthermore, the lack of representation in impact investment teams and portfolios would likely detract from the sector’s financial performance, given the proven linkages between gender/racial diversity and financial performance. There’s no dearth of evidence for the commercial benefits of representation but nevertheless a handful are mentioned below:

While the corporate sector continues to rise to the occasion on diversity and inclusion efforts, the impact investment industry is yet to get on board with really advancing the inclusion agenda beyond gender. In the face of what we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no time like now to decidedly develop diversity and inclusion initiatives that will improve financial/social returns. If impact investors are truly serious about the SDGs, including SDG 10, we must fight the hazards of inequality, starting with our own industry.

Authors:
Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

Tara Sabre-Collier, Social Entrepreneur in Residence, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

Confronting the hard truths of impact investing

Each year the Skoll Centre invites a small number of Oxford students to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Each year they share their unique perspectives of the sessions and events that unfold during this magical time in Oxford.

As a young impact investor, I was introduced to a strange new lingo that included “additionality”, “doing well by doing good”, “patient capital” and the “triple bottom line”. I was excited by the possibilities of social enterprise and investing money for good, but also exposed to some of the contradictions and challenges of impact investing that these opaque terms and phrases can conceal. How can I support the most impactful projects and businesses when my capital provider demands a “market return”? Must I accept a tradeoff between impact and returns? When does capital need to take extra risk? And what should entrepreneurs do when their business is too small for larger funds, and too large for early-stage venture capital, falling in the so called “missing middle”? These were among the thorny questions that a brilliant panel of investors and entrepreneurs wrestled with at the 2019 Skoll World Forum’s “Unleashing Conscious Capital” session.

The session brought together some of the brightest lights in impact investing:

  • Jacqueline Novogratz (@jnovogratz), the founder of Acumen and a legendary figure in the impact investing space, brought to the discussion a sense of optimism backed by decades of results and experience.
  • Sean Hinton (@seanjhinton), a Director of the Economic Advancement Program at the Open Society Foundations, brought a mix of levity and honesty, challenging the panel to think critically about the tradeoffs inherent in impact investing.
  • Michelle Arévalo-Carpenter (@michelleAC1), founder of IMPAQTO, shared stories of the many Ecuadorian companies she supports who have struggled to find willing investors.
  • Perry Chen (@perrychen), founder of Kickstarter, was direct and honest about the perceived absence of impact investors willing to take risks on unique, multi-bottom line businesses like his.
  • Bart Houlahan (@BCorporatio), co-founder of B Lab, moderated the panel, interspersing it with the wisdom he’s accrued as a leader of the benefit corporation movement.

Is the market working for entrepreneurs?

First, the panelists delved into the state of play for social entrepreneurs who seek impact investment. To the question “is the market working for entrepreneurs,” we heard a resounding “no” from Kickstarter founder Perry Chen. He’s built a high-profile, highly impactful business – over $3.5 billion raised and distributed to over 150,000 creator-led projects – but says he struggles to get investors to support the lean entity that facilitates this impact, the Kickstarter platform itself. Why, he wondered, is there no middle ground between trying to be a high-growth unicorn, and remaining eligible for grant funding? He was essentially describing a tradeoff for entrepreneurs – if you want to be something other than maximize profit, it will make selling yourself to investors trickier.

Michelle echoed some of the same concerns. Entrepreneurs in small markets like Ecuador, where IMPAQTO works, can’t sell a grand vision of rapid scaling to investors and grantors, and capital is often not interested in making small deals. She sees 90% of startups she works with as sitting in this “missing middle”, too small for the smallest ticket size available from Latin American funds (companies with $150k in revenue), but too large for early-stage funding.

Perry Chen also sees a lot of “conscious capital” going to what he calls “harm mitigators” or “green dry-cleaners”. That is, enterprises that target established industries where they can make a lot of money, but do so in a more sustainable, less harmful way.

Sean Hinton essentially agreed, facetiously referring to the time “when Bono and TPG invented [impact investing] a few years ago.” Essentially, new entrants to the space are still enamored with the idea that you can have your cake and eat it too. Not so, he claimed. There is often an inherent tradeoff between impact and returns, and that’s where philanthropy and patient, risk-tolerant impact investment capital is necessary to get certain industries and enterprises off the ground. Just as the film industry often produces sequels as guaranteed hits, so too do investors of all stripes like to follow in others’ footsteps rather than be the first person to fund something creative and risky. This can also lead to well-intentioned investors doing bad deals. The Economic Advancement Program he leads has therefore made the decision to fund high-risk sectors with little prospect of a commercial business model or massive exit, investments that a pension fund investor could never even look at.

Jacqueline concluded with a call for a new definition of what makes a “real” investor. It’s no longer enough to only validate those who obtain the highest returns. We need to acknowledge those who have the most impact. Some are concerned that this amounts to donors subsidizing capitalists. But Jacqueline was adamant that there is a role for those willing to take a first loss position, and there are some sectors (e.g. smallholder farmer venture capital fund for sub-Saharan Africa) where overall returns may be in the negative double digits, and we simply need someone to pave the way for more impact (and eventual better returns) down the line.

Hard truths of impact investing

From the investors on the panel, we heard some refreshingly forthright insights into the challenges of investing for good, addressing some of those tricky questions that are too often avoided.

Both Sean and Jacqueline were open about the fact that they do see a tradeoff between impact and return for some high-risk, highly-impactful sectors. Second, they alluded to the difficulties of investing “patient capital”. With very long time horizons required to realize returns in some high-impact deals, it becomes difficult to motivate talented investment teams who have their personal investment track records and career arc to consider. Sean also highlighted some other difficulties investors face, from the lack of proximity between decision makers and impact, to the vested interests lobbying against DFIs and impact investors investing in any concessional way in the name of not crowding out private investors. These same private investors have themselves failed to fill key gaps, whether that’s funding clean drinking water or basic medical services.

This brings us to the final hard truth about impact investing, which the panel didn’t discuss explicitly but which must be acknowledged at a Forum dedicated to social entrepreneurship. These enterprises are often plugging holes and providing services that governments should be providing, and that don’t lend themselves to a profit-driven model. This is common both in the developing world, where weaker institutions have failed to provide basic services required for a healthy life, and in OECD countries where conservative activists have gutted public services through waves of privatization. The impact investor faces a tricky dilemma: are there times when they shouldn’t invest in social enterprises, because doing so absolves governments of upholding basic elements of their social contract?

What did we learn?

From Michelle Arévalo-Carpenter and Perry Chen’s firsthand accounts, it was clear that the “missing middle” is real. Sean also pointed out that it can be a moving target: “the ‘middle’ has been following me around my whole career”. But an audience member aired the fact that inside the impact investing community, you might be forgiven for thinking that the problem was exactly the opposite: a dearth of investable deals, not a lack of willing capital! Why do entrepreneurs think there’s no capital, and investors think there are no deals? Who is right?

Jacqueline Novogratz left us with a positive conclusion: if capitalism is a religion, we don’t have to be atheists to push systems change in the way capital flows to good ideas with impact. She thinks a moral revolution, in which we redefine investing success to include impact, is possible. It starts with communicating the stories of what deep impact can achieve and being honest with investors about what it means for conscious capital to seek to create it. What shone through the panel was an optimism that capital can in fact be “conscious”, supporting breakthrough social enterprises and projects with a range of grants, investments, and hybrid forms. However, the challenges and contradictions of impact investing haven’t gone away. The panelists were unanimous in recognizing that some brave philanthropists and impact investors need to take on the extra risks (and potentially extra losses) that come with supporting some of the cutting edge impactful work of social entrepreneurs.

About the Author

Eli Mitchell-Larson

Eli is a social entrepreneur and impact investor working to achieve a negative carbon future. He is currently a candidate for an MSc in Environmental Change & Management and an MBA at the University of Oxford.

Photo credit: Skoll Foundation


Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Emily Durfee, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital’.

The evidence is clear and condemning: investments of resources and support flow unevenly towards entrepreneurs who are white, male, and from wealthy countries.  These entrepreneurs have the “invisible capital,” the right skin color, gender, and nationality, to garner attention and resources from investors.  This inequity to capital perpetuates limits  to the financed perspectives and innovations within social impact, and perpetuates current inequalities and stereotypes.  The panelists in the Skoll World Forum session, “Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital,” posited that these disparities in investment are caused by a toxic “sameness,” and suggested three action steps to increase fairness in access to capital.

The detrimental effect of “sameness” permeated the stories of the diverse panel.  Chaired by Kathleen Kelly Janus, author of Social Startup Success, the panel included Cheryl Dorsey from Echoing Green, Marco A. Davis from New Profit, Vedika Bhandarkar from Water.org, and Halla Tomasdottir from Sisters Capital.  These speakers each focused on different issues, from incubating talented global entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs of color, or promoting female leaders.  Despite these different geographical and issue focuses, every panelist highlighted that the current system passes capital and support between people who are the “same,” either through the visible characteristics of race and gender, or through family privilege, education, or nationality.

The panel suggested that “sameness” manifests in the incubation, sourcing, and funding of entrepreneurs.  First, many entrepreneurs cannot pilot new innovations, because their families and communities lack the saved capital necessary to fund pre-investment experimentation.  Second, investors often use networks to source new investees.  However, these networks are usually homogenous, and investments based on existing networks perpetuate the power and resources of those already connected to funders and investors.  Finally, the processes for selecting entrepreneurs surface existing biases, whether for certain native language speakers, or names on resumes and pitches.  This is exacerbated by the “sameness” of internal funding structures.  For example, 94% of foundation presidents are white, 85% of their trustees are white, and 74% of their staff are white.

This “sameness” maintains and increases inequity across entrepreneurial systems, and blocks innovative solutions. To overcome it, and open investments and resources to a diverse entrepreneurship panel, the Skoll World Forum panel advocated for a multi-pronged approach of awareness, assimilation, and transformation.

First, funders must acknowledge and measure the types of inequality in their current systems.  Marco suggested that funders collect and publish data on the currently invisible biases in their systems, such as the diversity of their investment pipelines, the barriers faced by “un-same” applicants, and their own internal diversity metrics of the board, leadership, and staff.

Second, we must assimilate underrepresented groups into the current systems of funding and investment, breaking the cycle of “sameness”. Funders, incubators, and other ecosystem players must diversify the players in the room.  To do this, Hella suggested government bills to enforce diversity standards in board and leadership composition.  Hella and Marco also advocated for investor actions, such as simplifying language and requirements, providing unrestricted funding, and extending funding timelines, to improve accessibility of investments to diverse applicants.  Finally, Marco and Vedika promoted intermediary roles and events, such as “serendipity meetings” or pitch coaching, to introduce diverse entrepreneurs to existing funders.

Finally, we must transform the current systems by removing biases of “sameness”. This is a very challenging task, and there are no final or proven solutions.  However, Cheryl recommended some emerging opportunities, such as blind screening of initial applications, mindfulness training for investing staff, and leveraging AI and machine-learning algorithms to further decrease human biases.

The current invisible barriers to capital for entrepreneurs, driven by a pernicious bias towards “sameness,” prevent talented entrepreneurs from accessing critical capital and support, and limit the generation of creative and effective solutions.  The panel highlighted that the solutions to these underlying biases are multi-faceted, and evolving, and called each of us to act on the above steps, and to innovate new opportunities to overcome “sameness” and promote investment equality.

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Has Impact Investing Been Inflated?

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

Rareș Pamfil, Oxford MBA Candidate at the Saïd Business School, shares insight on the Skoll World Forum debate, “Has Impact Investing Been Inflated?”

Participating at this panel were:

  • Julia Sze, Director of Impact Investing at Arabella Advisors
  • Chris West, Partner, Sumerian Partners (formerly Director of Shell Foundation)
  • Mara Bolis – Senior Advisor, Private Sector Department, Oxfam America
  • Cathy Clark – Director of CASE i3, Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University
  • Lisa Kleissner, Co-Founder, Toniic

This was a special session at the Skoll World Forum, because it centered around an Oxford-style debate on the motion “Has impact investing been inflated?” Chris West and Mara Bolis argued for the motion, Cathy Clark and Lisa Kleissner argued against, and Julia Sze moderated.

It should be noted that speakers on both sides of the debate are active in developing the impact investing space, with neither of them opposed to the practice. Nonetheless, today they took a firm position either for or against the motion being debated, for the sake of creating a more thought-provoking debate.

The argument from Chris West and Mara Bolis broadly followed the one made in their recently launched report: “Impact Investing: Who are we Serving” (blog by Mara Bolis). Their key concern with the field as it stands today is that there is a mismatch between the type of capital supplied and the type of capital needed. “Because this sector is trying to behave differently, this money should behave differently”, pleads Mara Bolis. Too frequently, the social entrepreneurs who are knowledgeable about the financing needs of enterprises which serve the poor in developing countries, are left out the conversation when impact funds and other investment vehicles are designed. This has lead to unrealistic expectations about returns, and risks undermining the sector.

What can be done? Chris West argues that more patient capital is required, as well as more realistic expectations about returns. Entrepreneurs also need to ensure that they accept investment only at the right time, from the right people, and under the appropriate terms. Otherwise, enterprises can end up with “schizophrenic boards”, which cannot agree on whether to prioritize financial growth of social impact. Participants from all sides agreed that social investment finance intermediaries have a key role to play in helping entrepreneurs raise the right kind of capital, as do resources developed for entrepreneurs seeking investment, such as the CASE Smart Impact Capital toolkit.

Nigel Kershaw, OBE Chair of The Big Issue Group, addresses the panel of speakers.

On the other side of the debate, Cathy Clark and Lisa Kleissner spoke about the progress that has been made in developing this field, emphasising that there is genuine commitment to social impact among many of the funders have in the field. For instance, in the Toniic 100% impact network, over 130 individuals have pledged to use 100% of their assets for positive social and environmental impact, amounting to a total of over $4.5 billion in assets. Lisa Kleissner, who is a member of the network, shared her personal perspective: “The money that we [received] was more than we had hoped for, so we were willing to take a risk.” Her approach has been to work closely with entrepreneurs, understand their business model, and provide a combination of grants, loans, and other investments as needed.

The T100 project will provide other personal journeys and insight from 50 Toniic 100% impact members. The early findings are that 83% met or outperformed financial return expectations (in a sample of 40 portfolios), and 87% of all respondents met or exceeded their impact return expectations. However, what constitutes an annualised market rate of return varies considerably among respondents, leading 53% of respondents to state that the discussion around financial returns needs to be re-framed.

What can we conclude from this this debate? By one metric, the side against the motion won. The small group of 7 audience members who felt that impact investing had not been inflated grew to over 15 after the speakers finished their remarks. But they remained a minority in the room. Nonetheless, many audience members commented that “Has [the promise of] impact investing been inflated?” was the wrong question to ask. Inflated according to whom? And is it not too early to tell? What is clear is that the field has developed substantially in the last 15 years. Regardless of whether early results meet or defy expectations, the recently created sector infrastructure (funds, advisors, measurement experts, and other intermediaries) will enable growth, better capital placement, and better impact outcomes in the coming years.

 

Social Entrepreneurship 101

 Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, Mark Hand and his colleagues give us their take on an introduction to Social Entrepreneurship.  As Mark says, doctor “happy enterprising!”

“Social Entrepreneurship,” according to one definition, “strives to solve social problems at a systemic level using innovative, sustainable, scalable, inclusive and measurable approaches.”

What?

Confused about social entrepreneurship? You’re not alone. -Image by Debbie Levey

In the 1980s, Ashoka Foundation’s Bill Drayton started using the phrase social entrepreneur to describe the people he funded to fix the world’s problems. Thirty years later, we use the phrase (and its sister, impact investing) to encompass nearly all novel do-goodery. The result is that it takes a couple of years working in social entrepreneurship or impact investing before you can get a grip on who’s who and the various meanings that different players attach to the same words. And the upshot is a clear division between insiders and outsiders. This keeps insiders’ jobs safe, I suppose, but it also prevents a lot of smart people from contributing to some of the coolest work on the planet.

So, in an effort to demystify the world of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, here’s a primer edited from a post written during the 2012 Emerge Conference at Oxford. If you’re a veteran, you’ll recognize all these names–and probably roll your eyes at how often the same examples are trotted around stage. If you’re new, we hope this can be a useful starting point.

Why Should We Care About This Social Entreprenonsense? 

If you’ve gotten this far, presumably you are already interested in social entrepreneurship. There’s good reason to be. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll be competing for funding and spots at commercial incubators like Y Combinator with social entrepreneurs that have a head start on a compelling, convincing pitch. If you work at a nonprofit, you’ll be fighting for talent and money with a growing, exciting field. If you’re an investor, for-profit impact investors like Bamboo Finance will be pitching the same pension funds that you used to have a lock on. And if you’re a regulator, watch out: millions, and soon billions, of dollars are doing an end-around governments’ own poverty-alleviation and environmental agencies by going through foundations, private companies, and sometimes developed world aid agencies.

Broadly Speaking

To review: (1) Social entrepreneurship is opaque and ill-defined. But (2) It also matters right now and it will matter more in the future. None of that gets at our original question, though–what is it? How can we split up the things people include when they talk about social entrepreneurship?

Microfinance

Many of the leading funders of social entrepreneurship–Acumen, Gray Ghost Ventures, Unitus, Ashoka–cut their teeth on microfinance. In brief, microfinance is the provision of loans, often in the developing world, that are typically at smaller amounts and lower interest rates than existing banks and moneylenders. Kiva, an online marketplace for microloans, is probably the most well-known. Among the other pantheon of microfinance gods are the Grameen Bank (and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus), Accion, and BRAC. Microfinance splits roughly into three camps: first, nonprofit microfinanciers like Grameen; second, government agencies such as USAID and DFID that underwrote the sector for decades; third, for-profit microfinance funders like Unitus, which invested in the for-profit Indian microfinance bank SKS. The latter are the most controversial; in 2010 SKS became the second microfinance bank to list publicly (and make some investors a boatload of money) at the same time that the suicides of some of its clients pushed the industry to the brink of collapse.

Impact Investing

As microfinance’s golden age came and quickly passed, many funders moved in the early 2000s to the work of funding startups with high-growth potential and significant social impact. In 2007, these groups created the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) to promote their work. Today, this kind of investing is called impact investing. You might also hear the phrases patient capital, venture philanthropy, or social venture capital.

That work, broadly, is venture capital with a social or environmental twist. Ideally, social entrepreneurs will get seed funding from individual (angel) investors, then work through business incubators like Stanford’s D-Lab, the Unreasonable Institute, or Echoing Green, then receive capital from seed-funders such as the Unitus Seed Fund, the Mulago Foundation, and Village Capital; occasionally angel groups like Toniic and Investors’ Circle step in at this point. The next step up–talking here about amounts in the $500K-2m range–includes Shell Foundation, LGTVP and Skoll Foundation. Moving farther along the funding continuum means tapping deeper pockets like those of Omidyar.

It’s hardly that clean, of course. First, funders like the ones listed above often have multiple funds investing in different amounts, for example. Second, some of these funders give grants to nonprofits (which for-profit investors wouldn’t call “investing”), while others put equity into for-profits targeting mostly middle class consumers (which others wouldn’t call “impact”). Some will even give grants to for-profits while others make loans to non-profits. Third, the funding chain is hardly well-developed: speak to any entrepreneur on the hunt for investment and you’ll walk away more confused about the funding landscape than ever.

Social Enterprises

Still, the high-growth social enterprises that these groups fund (which are typically listed on the Our Portfolio section of their websites) make up a significant portion of the actual work going on in the arena of social enterprise. D.Light, Aravind Eye Care, Simpa Networks, One Acre Fund, DripTech, Embrace, Envirofit, and Grameen Phone are some of the household names within the social entrepreneurship family, along with Partners in Health, Riders for Health, Root Capital, FairTrade USA, and Teach for America.

What holds these companies together? They’re across the spectrum of developmental stage. Some are for-profit, some are non-profit, and some are hybrids. Some call themselves social enterprises; others blanche at the term. Some are successful and others–honestly–are struggling much more than they or their investors will admit. In large part, what binds these groups together is the network of linkages among the overlapping portfolios of each investors, the investor/donor list of each enterprise, and the incubators that gave them their first jolt. At their core, perhaps, all hearken back to our original definition of a social entrepreneurship: “innovative, sustainable, scalable, inclusive and measurable approaches” to big social and environmental problems. They’re selling more efficient cookstoves, solar-powered replacements for kerosene lanterns, eye surgeries, and irrigation systems to customers who would otherwise never have had access to potentially life-changing goods and services.

But wait! What about…

As social enterprise and impact investing have filtered into common use, a number of other sectors have piped up or piled in: “Hey! We’re already doing that–we’re impact investors, too” or “We’re social enterprises, but in a different way.” Community Development Finance Institutions have been pumping money into low-income communities for decades. Small businesses and the local banks that fund them argue fairly that deep impact is local impact. Fair trade organizations and worker cooperatives like FabIndia work to provide better wages to developing-world commodity farmers. Socially responsible investors have made huge strides in shifting mainstream capital into funds that exclude socially and environmentally hazardous investments.

Big bad governments, international bodies, and major corporations have been looking at market-based solutions to poverty for some time, as well. Major development banks provide capital to infrastructure projects in emerging markets, corporations have graduated from corporate social responsibility to innovative efforts like Vodafone’s M-Pesa and Avon’s “Ladies” in Africa. Traditional banks have, as well: JP Morgan has its own Social Finance unit; Deutsche Bank announced its Essential Capital Fund in September 2012. Bilateral aid organizations (USAID, DFID) were essential to the development of microfinance, and the World Bank and IFC have worked to pull capital and expertise into developing countries since their inception. In the last decade, a new form of finance, called social impact bonds, pulls together private, public, and social sector organizations to drive commercial capital to nonprofit activities.

Where to Show Up: Social Entrepreneurship Conferences and Meetings 

Great! You’ve got the lay of the land, and you’ve figured out what you think counts as legitimate social enterprise and what is rubbish. Where are you going to go to meet other people like you? Every year there are a few key conferences and gatherings. Their relative importance shifts over time, but here are the ones that might still matter in 2013. First, there’s SOCAP, the largest gathering of social enterprises and funders on the planet and a complete circus. The Skoll World Forum at Oxford is its upscale version, where heads of state meet the Skoll Foundation’s investees. Opportunity Collaboration is a cozier weekend that in part connects wealthy individuals with entrepreneurs. Other gatherings include: Sankalp, the Intellicap-hosted Indian version of SOCAP; the Emerge Conference, the Skoll World Forum’s younger cousin; and the Foro Latinoamericano de Inversión de Impacto.

What to Read

Congrats. You now know everything you need to know about social enterprise. What should you read to stay up to speed? A couple of years ago, the clearinghouse was Nathaniel Whittemore’s Social Entrepreneurship blog, and no single publication has stepped into that gap. So here’s your RSS feed: Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nextbillion.net, Huffington Post Social Enterprise, Triple Pundit, and Impact IQ.

If you really want to impress, there are a few books you should probably have on your shelf. For a bit of (always inspirational, sometimes fluffy) introduction, scan The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, How to Change the World by David Bornstein, and Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus. For a bit more meat, move on to The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by CK Pralahad, Impact Investing by Emerson and Bugg-Levine and Social Enterprise by Marc Lane. Can’t get enough? The University of San Diego’s Sara Johnson has put together a pretty solid list on impact investing for beginners, and the report on everybody’s tongue in 2012 was “Blueprint to Scale” by Acumen Fund and Monitor.

Happy enterprising,

Mark Hand, Joy Jauer, Sara Johnson, and Kshitij Khurana


Photo Credit: Debbie Levey