UPAYA FUNDAMENTALS: How is Upaya Funded?


In this blog series, members of the Upaya team dive into the what, why, and how of Upaya’s mission to lift people out of extreme poverty with dignified jobs.

To wrap up our Fundamentals blog series, I get the privilege of talking about the unsung heroes of our ecosystem. We have talked about the jobholders and the entrepreneurs who create their jobs; we talked about our founders and where they found inspiration. We have even talked about what it means when we say the word “job.” But none of our work is possible without you. I am assuming that if you are reading this blog, you are probably one of Upaya’s financial supporters and so I thank and salute you.

Upaya is a different kind of investor. We invest in companies that can sometimes be hard to find because they work in remote geographies. The entrepreneurs we back tend to be extremely passionate, but not in a self-promoting way. It takes time and effort to uncover these gems. We are fortunate to be able to have an amazing team who can put in that time and effort looking for them. And because these business models are often full of challenges, it can take patience to see the returns on our investments. While the job creation impact is immediate and keeps growing, helping the company get to profitability and attract new investors may take longer than a traditional investment cycle. This is why we are a nonprofit organization.

The “patient capital” we are able to provide is only possible because of the donors who provide philanthropy to us.

Founding funder, Suzanne Skees of the Skees Family Foundation (left) talking with the Co-Founder of Elrhino, Mahesh (right), and a jobholder of the company (center).

Founding funder, Suzanne Skees of the Skees Family Foundation (left) talking with the Co-Founder of Elrhino, Mahesh (right), and a jobholder of the company (center).

Here is an example of that kind of philanthropy. In 2014, we received the first recoverable grant made by Open Road Alliance, a fantastically innovative philanthropic initiative that pushes nonprofits and funders to think differently about risk. Their grant to Upaya stipulated that part of the funding be used to invest in one of our portfolio companies. If that money comes back to Upaya several years from now, then we will pay them back. If it does not come back, then it was a charitable grant that still created thousands of life-changing jobs. 

In 2018, we started exploring the conundrum of being an equity investor that, as a nonprofit organization, can’t raise traditional investment capital. But investment capital is essentially our raw material. Hence, the conundrum.

The Open Road Alliance grant (and two other similar grants from the Bainbridge Island Rotary and the Galloway Family Foundation) sparked an idea. If we could receive restricted grants for an individual investment and repay funders based on the performance of that investment, why couldn’t we pool a group of these grants and fund a portfolio of investments? It would be like a nonprofit-flavored investment fund.

Suzanne Skees of the Skees Family Foundation (right) with Elrhino CEO, Nisha Bora (left).

Suzanne Skees of the Skees Family Foundation (right) with Elrhino CEO, Nisha Bora (left).

Like all good ideas in the nonprofit space, this seemingly straightforward question led to hours and hours of working with lawyers. (Shout out to our lovely pro bono team at Orrick!) By the end of the summer, we had the legal clearance to move forward with our idea of a Pool of Recoverable Grants. What we hadn’t expected though was the immediate and overwhelming generosity of the potential donors we approached.

Within a month, the Delta Fund, another innovative foundation that had just participated in the first development impact bond to reduce extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, committed to half our goal. They were soon joined by five other foundations helping to ensure that we have $1 million in investment capital to start deploying immediately. The investments selected from our agribusiness accelerator were the first companies funded this way. We will also be investing in companies outside our accelerator thanks to the additional capital we have available now.

At the beginning of this post, I referred to donors being the unsung heroes of our ecosystem. Ecosystem is genuinely the way I view Upaya and our donors. It is a mutually reinforcing web of people with different roles but a shared goal of fighting extreme poverty. Often, our donors are not able to leave their families or their day jobs to meet with entrepreneurs in rural India, but this is still work they want to be a part of. In my mind, everyone who has ever supported Upaya is part of the Upaya team.

We are not grateful to donors for providing support to do our work. We are grateful to donors for joining our work with their support.