What We're Reading

What We're Reading August 2014: Summer Breeze

Stanford Graduate School of Business “Does Impact Investing Really Have Impact?” (4 August 2014)

Jyotsna came across this YouTube video of a panel discussion on Impact Investing from the 2013 Social Innovation Summit at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It led to a good debate around what the merit of impact investment really is, and whether or not it could become a mainstream asset class or another form of venture philanthropy. 

Jyotsna also took pride in noting that Michael Smith from the White House Social Innovation Fund is exhorting exactly the type of evidence-based practice that Upaya holds central to its approach through continually measuring outcomes, refining models, and improving the business program to maximize benefit. He also warns of a trend he sees in investors who seek out innovation by “running after bright shiny objects and creating things people don’t need,” and instead is promoting efforts that are focused on measurably better, outsized positive effects for the public. We couldn’t agree more with this approach.


The Nand & Jeet Khemka Forum Podcast “Artha Initiative: Investing For Impact with Audrey Selian” (August 2014)

Sreejith sent around this great audio interview with Audrey Selian, Director of Rianta Capital’s Artha Challenge in which Audrey hits on some really interesting insights about impact investing. In particular, we felt her comments on sacrificing good investments in search of perfect investments were spot on. She also made some nice points on creating social value in areas where most infrastructure and services are non-existent. Definitely worth the read.


Stanford Social Innovation Review “Fundraising is Fundamental” (26 February 2014)

Laurel sent this piece around to the team in early August. She was struck by the way the authors touted the interesting correlation between forward thinking, innovative nonprofits and discomfort around fundraising.

“The organizations that have the most compelling logic models and the most impressive record of impact (as demonstrated by external impact evaluations) tend to be the worst at raising money—and vice versa ... At many bold and extraordinary nonprofits, people cease to be bold when the topic of fundraising comes up.”

The authors throw out a number of ideas for overcoming this "unfortunate inverse correlation." One strategy is approaching external actors as potential collaborators and passionate partners in the fight to end poverty, instead of as potential funders. This attitude can humanize all players and lead to deeper personal relationships. It also opens up an organization to support in a wider variety of forms - be it moral, in-kind, strategic or material. Of course, she noted that we at Upaya also accept snacks.


What We're Reading July 2014: Communication Breakdown

Fast Company Co.Exist “Sustainability Doesn't Mean Less Profit, It Means Profit Forever” (16 June 2014)

Phillip Barlag of World 50 takes a deeper look at the intersection of profitability and social good. This quote in particular stood out:

Sustainability thus becomes about evaluating your business for its ability to endure forever. It becomes about identifying the roadblocks to infinite market success and finding a way around or through them. It is not as much about good for good sake, but the enlightened self-interest of pursuit of doing well in a sustained manner.” 

This is a point we often make at Upaya when talking about the entrepreneurs we work with, some of whom may not always self-identify as “social entrepreneurs.” For many, they are focused on building profitable enterprises with the clear understanding that the positive externalities of doing so will allow them to play a transformative role in their communities for some time. 


The Chronicle of Philanthropy “How Foundations Can Be the Risk Takers They Want to Be” (16 June 2014) 

Kevin Jennings at the Arcus Foundation asks if foundation funding has become an impediment to innovation? He argues in part for a more honest conversation with grantmakers about failures and he longs for a forum in which nonprofits could present case studies on failed ventures in much the same way venture capitalists do.

This sort of “learning through failure” concept is not new and not limited to the entrepreneurship space. Physicians have been holding Morbidity and Mortality (M&M) Conferences for over a century. It was in this spirit that I moderated a panel titled “We F$&#ed Up!” at the 2013 Global Washington Conference, designed to give three development professionals a safe space to talk about their struggles.

With a packed room of more than 100 funders and nonprofit professionals, each panelist talked openly about the high-wire act of learning from their mistakes without the fear of losing support by alarming their funders. Their hesitation was understandable - in a sector where good intentions are the primary currency, many people are reluctant to disappoint. But as Jennings argues, if innovation is the goal, then a paradigm shift and open dialog about goals may be necessary on all sides.


Stanford Social Innovation Review “Filling Out the Middle” (Winter 2014 Issue)

This article gives a good overview of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) and their efforts to support the growth of small and growing businesses (SGBs).

In many ways the ANDE approach of embracing a wide variety of organizations recognizes the importance of the sector without endorsing one rigid model over another. Instead, ANDE is playing the role of a credible intermediary by creating forums for best practices to flourish, and connecting those with complementary resources and shared goals.

The article also gives a nice look at ANDE’s approach to promoting social metrics and the desire to standardize measures. As Genevieve Edens, ANDE’s impact assessment manager, put it, by speaking the same language, we can start to compare one company to another, create benchmarks for performance, and create market intelligence.”

If we have any hopes of turning up the volume on the global conversation about small business and dignified employment, a credible forum and common tongue like what ANDE is developing could be the amplifier that is so badly needed.


What We're Reading June 2014: Let's See Action

A few interesting articles and a podcast from around the internet.

Economic Times "What is holding back the social entrepreneur?" (15 May 2014)

Exhibit A for the “too much money is chasing too few entrepreneurs” case:

“An April 2014 study by Intellecap, a strategy advisory firm, highlights the gravity of the situation. Of the $1.6 billion invested in social enterprises since 2000, around 70% was in the financial inclusion space (both microfinance and non-microfinance). Of the investments that went into other sectors—including agriculture, energy, education, healthcare and livelihoods—about 67% was in just 15 enterprises.”

The article also does a great job of breaking down fund economics to explain why more patient investments in ecosystem are virtually impossible. Overall, it is a great look at the challenges faced by early stage entrepreneurs in India.


New York Times “Upscale Dairies Grow in India, Promising Safer Milk” (3 June 2014) 

This article is a nice look at how small investments in quality control and chain of custody management allow dairy companies and farmers to profit more from their efforts.

The connection between pro-poor business models and higher-end goods is growing. Here in Seattle, we have Theo Chocolate, a company that is working hard to create maximum social benefit in their supply chain. To absorb the higher costs Theo has had to create a $4 chocolate bar but rather than cutting costs, the company’s founder Joe Whinney has set out to create the best darn luxury bar he can. And Theo is not alone – the work Arthur Karuletwa is doing with Starbucks is very much in the same spirit


Outlook Business "Social Entrepreneurs Are Reinventing The Wheel" (24 May 2014) 

This is a fascinating interview with Intellecap’s Aparajita Agarwal as she talks about social enterprise in India, the differences from working in Africa, and the constant battle entrepreneurs face when they’re trying to differentiate themselves.

Most interesting for me was the point about entrepreneurs trying to make their idea feel truly unique. I suspect much of this need is driven by interactions with impact investors and the benefit narrative those investors are trying to build around their work. Unlike traditional investors who can look simply at the financials and management team in their due diligence, self-defined impact investors often need to have their imagination captured by the social benefits of the business. As such, entrepreneurs often try to tell a story about how their product or service is “revolutionary” or “innovative,” when the reality is that their business might be most socially beneficial and profitable if they could focus their efforts on the fundamentals.

There is a saying that has been floating around Upaya for a long time that seems relevant here – sometimes a business is not innovative for what it is doing, but for where it is doing it. This interview shows we might not be alone in that thinking.