Editorial

Moving beyond scale: the importance of capturing feedback from your target audience

Moving beyond scale: the importance of capturing feedback from your target audience

I’ve often heard mission-driven organizations talk about the importance of scale. While reporting large and wide outreach is a commendable goal, it should not preclude measuring the depth of impact.

Pioneering Capital Must Feed the Growth of the Impact Economy

Pioneering Capital Must Feed the Growth of the Impact Economy

In our collective quest to grow the impact economy, we should not lose sight of the full set of actors, tools, and methods that are needed in concert to effect disruptive change. Namely, we must not overlook the earliest stages of social enterprise innovation, the so-called “Pioneer Gap” that still remains stubbornly under-funded.

Where are the Jobs? Findings and Insights from Upaya’s Accelerator Application Process

Where are the Jobs? Findings and Insights from Upaya’s Accelerator Application Process

What can the applications for Upaya’s accelerator program tell us about the early-stage companies that are creating jobs for people in extreme poverty? Upaya’s India Country Director, Amit Alex, takes a closer look at the pool of applicants to answer a pressing question in India today: Where are the jobs?

The Need of the Hour: Agri-Business Innovation

The Need of the Hour: Agri-Business Innovation

Farmers around the world face intense pressure. Steadily rising cost of inputs, combined with downward pressure on prices, and price volatility in general, make it difficult to predict how much income one can earn in any given season. Despite the grim trends, I am optimistic that dedicated entrepreneurs and creative business models can usher in the operational and technological innovations that are needed.

Pioneering Capital: Opportunities for Impact Investors

Pioneering Capital: Opportunities for Impact Investors

In a piece written for NextBillion.net, Upaya's CEO, Sachi Shenoy, and board member, Nathan Byrd, discuss the challenges and opportunities around pioneering capital, and how impact investors can do so much more with much less. 

Scaling Mountains to Get to Scale

Letter from Executive Director, Sachi Shenoy

I’m not a marathon runner. Or a triathlete. Or a mountain climber. In fact, you could say that my only “extreme” passion is my obsession with fighting poverty at Upaya. 

That being said, 2015 was my Everest.

When we started Upaya nearly 5 years ago, I knew this would be the hardest work I'd ever done. What I didn’t know was that in 2015, earthquakes, floods and fires would threaten our own offices and our partners', and that our team would be challenged by life-threatening illnesses and staff transitions.

Even in the face of all this adversity, even with this mountain to climb, 2015 has also been our greatest success. Thanks to our team’s dedication and tenacity, we:

  • Doubled Upaya’s investment portfolio! (10 partners and counting...)
  • Attracted 5x in follow-on investment capital
  • Had our 1st exit (and capital reinvestment)
  • Doubled our job numbers: Upaya’s partners are now employing 2,329 individuals

The tough stuff is not often featured in year-end letters from small non-profits, but I think it’s an important story to tell. It is not only authentic, it exemplifies our spirit of resilience and teamwork. These are also the same traits we admire in our portfolio partners and their employees. Our newsletter includes profiles of two other fearless individuals: Jamuna and Wilma. I hope you read their stories. Their struggles and successes continue to fuel my commitment to this work, and have helped me raise the bar for 2016.

Next year, our goal is to double our outreach once again, and create over 5,000 jobs in 2016 for families like Jamuna’s. As I share these aspirations, I also extend my deepest gratitude. This work wouldn’t be possible without our very dedicated “base camp” team: You! I thank you sincerely for making this rocky year one that ended with such celebration and victory.

So, I take back what I said. I AM a mountain climber. At Upaya, we all are. We are the risk takers. The do-ers. The believers that it can be done.

Thank you for being a part of this hard, beautiful, life-changing work.

Sincerely,

Sachi Shenoy
Executive Director

 

Thoughts on GIIN's "Impact Measurement (IM) and Performance Management Training"

At Upaya, the process of collecting and assessing beneficiary data to track outcomes and measure impact is fundamental to our work. After all, four years ago the organization was founded with a hypothesis that providing jobs -- and not handouts -- is the most efficient and effective way for the “ultra poor” to progress out of poverty. To date, we have sought to prove or disprove this hypothesis through social performance measurement (what we internally refer to as “SPM”), the systematic collection and analysis of beneficiary level information.

 

I recently had the wonderful opportunity of attending the “Impact Measurement (IM) and Performance Management Training” in Bangalore organized by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) in collaboration with international consultancy Steward Redqueen and Social Value International, to reflect on Upaya’s methodology and revisit some of these ideas. The purpose of the training was to introduce practitioners to different IM frameworks and ways in which these frameworks could be used to suit the context of an individual organization and its mission.


Some of my key takeaways from the training were:

  • Don’t overstress the rigour; it should be “good enough”
  • Data is not just for reporting but also for decision making
  • Consider establishing a counterfactual in the setting

Financial and business decisions are made everyday on the basis of imperfect information provided by financial accounting frameworks. Yet when it comes to evaluating impact, we tend to hold ourselves to a higher standard or rigour --where randomized control trials are considered to be the gold standard. However, sometimes the fear of publishing imperfect impact data gets in the way of doing any IM activity. If the data is ”good enough” to spot trends, aid in decision-making and undertake some course correction, and not overly tax human or financial resources, then it is worth undertaking.

Secondly, these days it appears that impact data is mostly used for reporting outwardly to stakeholders, such as philanthropists and investors. In doing this, we overlook the critical role data can play in helping an entrepreneur and/or management team make decisions about the business itself. The challenge most often cited among practitioners is one of constrained resources - the buy-in needed to undertake the exercise of data collection and the need for doing it all. For an early stage enterprise that is working to expand the business, build the team, formulate marketing strategy, and raise funding, IM is a weighty commitment.

Data collected through impact measurement, however, should not be seen separate and distinct from business data. Instead, if an IM framework were designed to provide useful insights for the business about its beneficiaries, that could then inform refinements to the core product or service, then there exists a higher probability of entrepreneur’s buy-in and also better quality data.

Last, but certainly not least, is the need to accommodate the counterfactual in the actual impact assessment. A counterfactual simply put means “what would have happened anyways, without the intervention in question.”  A counterfactual could be in the form of state and national averages based on government data. Or it could be a more statistically rigorous “control group” or “non- intervention group.” The counterfactual, when compared with data that depicts the outcomes of the intervention, can give us a clearer indication of impact, or what positive effects can be attributed to the intervention. In essence, it can provide the necessary context and help us paint a picture of the impact that has occurred.

In the coming months, we will integrate some of these learnings into our SPM framework. We hope to make our system of impact assessment more robust so as to provide high quality information on the progress made out of poverty by our beneficiaries. Our goal is to simultaneously provide valuable insights and learnings to our entrepreneurs, to support the continued growth of their businesses and the creation of hundreds more jobs.

Four interesting takeaways from the GIIN/ Dalberg “Landscape for Impact Investing in South Asia” report

On 18 December 2014, the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), in partnership with Dalberg Global Development Advisors, released a report that provides a “state of the market” landscape analysis of the impact investing industry in South Asia. The Landscape for Impact Investing in South Asia looks at the $8.9 billion in deployed impact investment capital in six countries – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – and paints a picture of a “diverse but growing impact investing market across South Asia.”

As the report has circulated amongst the Upaya team, four main points have jumped off the page. Some of them mirror observations we’ve seen through our own experience investing in India, and others shed light on issues we are wrestling with. In no particular order:

Two of the top five areas for impact investment in South Asia – Manufacturing and Agriculture/ Food Processing - are directly contributing to livelihood enhancement. That said, they are still only 17% of the identified market.

Broadly speaking, manufacturing and agri-processing are two broad areas under which our team has focused its livelihood development efforts and we are excited to see them crack the top five areas for impact investment. 

However, the fact that the two segments combined are still a smaller percentage of the impact investment market than each of the top two categories - Financial Services and Energy – shows that we still need to expand the conversation about job creation and its social benefits in the impact investment community.  

“There is also a need to bring less-exposed enterprises into the fold in a number of countries. Even in India, where formal networks of entrepreneurs exist, it is difficult to find enterprises that are not part of these networks.”

This point really hits the heart of one of the biggest challenges in the impact investment space – pipeline. Right now, too many impact funds are only looking at the businesses that self-identify as social enterprises, and are only doing due diligence in that limited pool. The result is a sort of “social venture ghetto” where a subset of entrepreneurs are continually showcased together at business school competitions and conference panels, thus creating the impression that they represent the full scope of social ventures in the space.

Not coincidentally, the investors who have been successful are the ones who have not limited their purview to that ghetto. For Upaya, the majority of entrepreneurs we support do not necessarily self-identify as social enterprises, but simply as businesses operating in poor communities. Friend of Upaya Artha Initiative has taken a similar view of the issue with their Artha Venture Challenge, a competition that has uncovered several great companies outside of the mainstream social enterprise conversation. In both cases, Upaya and Artha have had success in finding the types of investment opportunities that were sitting outside the standard impact investor conversation but are having a positive impact through their work.

“[In India] funds are shifting toward a less opportunistic and more hypothesis-driven approach to selection; in this new approach, these funds start with the identification of a problem in a given sector, then identify a potential solution (hypothesis), and subsequently seek organizations that contribute to this solution.”

Among the team we’ve long been wary of the proliferation of impact investing funds whose portfolio companies are united only by a broad notion of “positive impact” rather than a specific type of change they are working toward.  Our concern is that, without a unifying objective, funds will scatter investments across a variety of issue areas and miss the opportunity to aim significant resources at a specific problem.

Of course, Upaya has developed its own hypothesis – support Small & Growing Businesses that can be large scale employers in ultra poor communities – and are pleased to see that others are starting to bring their own theses into sharp relief. I would certainly point to our friends at Omnivore Partners as a great example of what can happen when a fund pursues clear and measurable outcomes in a specific area (in their case, agricultural supply chains).

In India, “foreign funds are prohibited from investing in debt and, as a result, most of the capital from [foreign] impact funds is deployed through equity instruments. Consequently, small domestic funds are emerging to fulfill the need for early stage debt.”

Accessing affordable working capital debts is a continual challenge for many SGBs in India, including some of Upaya’s partners at various points in their early lifecycle.

For much of the past year, our team has worked with domestic lenders to find creative and effective working capital solutions for our partners. What they are now coming to see that, while smaller domestic lenders are playing a role, these funds still have a big gap to bridge if they are to fulfill the credit needs of SGBs. It is an issue that Sreejith, Tanya, and the team are working hard on, and we are all glad to see this observation in the report.

Celebrating Women Leaders

Representing Upaya at the Clinton Global Initiative for a second year in a row, I was honored to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and share with her Upaya’s successful completion of its Commitment to Action — to double the number of jobs in our portfolio over the past year! The timing could not have been better, either, as Secretary Clinton told the assembled members earlier that day that “We need to provide the support systems that enable … the array of opportunities that women at all ages should have.” I was heartened by this statement, and could not agree more when she followed it up by asserting “work is an essential part of one’s purpose in life.”

A common theme during the meeting was the empowerment of women and girls all over the world, and the discussions made me reflect on our own experience as an organization that has now promoted entrepreneurship for over three years in India’s poorest districts.

We’ve seen with our own eyes the power of women in the workforce. A woman who earns is far more likely to provide nutritious food for her family, send her children to school and save for the future.

We have seen the effect that a woman’s job has on her daughters — they start to believe that they too can be productive and more independent when they are older. They aspire to stay in school, reject the notion of early-teen marriage, and collectively perpetuate a virtuous cycle that will lift their communities out of poverty.

Women entrepreneurs are an especially powerful breed — they are fearless, have overcome seemingly insurmountable societal obstacles to pursue their dreams, and run their companies with a devotion and purpose that is infectious. These entrepreneurs are committed to hiring other women, counseling them through their own challenges at home, and providing a safe haven for them in the workplace. Women helping women, women helping girls … it’s a natural rhythm we kick off when we equip just one in a community with the funds and the right tools to start a business. 

Upaya is more determined than ever to identify the women leaders of tomorrow in India and nurture their incredible potential. And after my recent experience, I know we’re not in this alone.