Apologies for that rather provocative title. Sort of. But it's a real question that I posed in one of the panels I chaired at the 7th International Conference on Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility at Humboldt University in Berlin last week. It was a fabulous conference with some truly fascinating speakers from whom I learned a great deal. See Prof. Carol Adams's post with some of the key messages from the conference here.
You can also listen to all the Day 2 plenary sessions via the live-stream recording that can be found here (if you have 9 hours or so to spare).
The session I'll share in this post is the panel I chaired on Innovative Philanthropy and Impact Investing, which starts at 5:25:19 (hrs:mins:secs) of the live-stream with an introduction by Professor Dr. Joachim Schwalbach, the formidable conference organizer and spirit behind the event. The experts who joined me on the panel were:
Lisa Hehenberger - Assistant Professor, Department of Strategy and General Management, ESADE Business School
Kärim Chatti - Market Director at ResponsAbility Investments
Johanna Mair - Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and Editor of the Standford Social Innovation Review
Thimo V. Schmitt-Lord - Head of Foundations & Donations, Bayer Foundations
Johannes Weber - Managing Director, Ananda Ventures - Social Venture Fund
Lisa kicked off with an enlightening keynote, explaining the spectrum of philanthropy through to impact investing and the convergence towards a form of "blended social and financial value" creation. There are many hybrid ways of funding to create social value, Lisa explained. It doesn't need to follow the traditional separation of philanthropy for social value and investment for financial return. "It's possible for a foundation to be providing a grant in a more strategic way to a social enterprise that is generating revenues and it's also possible for an investor to start seeing some social and environmental returns with their investments."
Venture philanthropy is, then, very close to impact investing. Venture philanthropy is a long-term investment in an organization, providing both funding and also management support - often with an eye to measuring the impact of the organization and its activities. Impact investing is more or less the same thing, with the expectation of a financial return as well. Lisa highlighted the need for improved policy frameworks and greater transparency in impact measurement as the next stages in the evolution of this approach.
This being said, with the growth of impact investing and new types of corporations such as B Corps and Social Enterprises, the first question that I posed to the panel is: Is philanthropy dead? If both philanthropy and impact investing are designed to generate a social return, why does philanthropy still exist? What's the justification for philanthropy in this new context?
The consensus view of the panel was that philanthropy is very necessary. In times of emergency, support is needed and there's no time to stop and calculate the social or financial return. You just need to help people. Also, in early stages of social enterprise development, seed funding is critical to support growth through to the stage where new enterprises are mature enough to be attractive to impact investors. At the same time, in early stages, enterprises do not have access to capital via loans as they have not yet developed their business infrastructure, and charities in most legal structures cannot take on debt in any case. Without philanthropy, these charities and social enterprises may not have the capacity to move out from first base. Thimo Schmitt-Lloyd actually prefers the term "non-profit investment", rather than philanthropy, as he feels that reflects the expectation of a form of return - not necessarily financial - which has meaning to the investor.
LISA: "You could almost see philanthropy as the research and development budget for social innovation. So if you don't have that, you don't get social innovation started. The impact investors would then have no deal flow and nothing to invest in."
JOHANNA: "Philanthropy is absolutely not dead. Quite the opposite. There are two questions: Can the idea that you can invest and gain a social AND financial return be extended to all problems we have on the planet? No, of course it cannot. The second question is: What is new in philanthropy and how does that to social innovation? There is a lot of innovation in philanthropy - look at examples around the world in Germany or in Silicone Valley - entrepreneurs that turn into philanthropists - there is a competitiveness in terms of what kind of philanthropic endeavor you establish. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, doesn't use the 501(c)(3) (typical charity) vehicle. He uses an L3C corporation structure as a vehicle for his philanthropic ventures. The drive to be innovative in this space is fueling new ways of philanthropic activity."
THIMO: "If the risk profile of an investment is low, then the innovation potential is also low. The higher the risk, the higher the potential for failure. That's why you need very early investment in social innovation, because it provides the space to experiment, and sometimes fail, without the pressure of needing to generate a return."
So there you have it. Philanthropy is alive, kicking and innovating.. and setting the scene for responsible investment in its different forms. I then asked the next question on everybody's lips. Is impacting investing a compromise? Are investors compromising on the level of financial return they can achieve (versus mainstream investing) in order to achieve some form of social return?
KÄRIM: "In all discussions with investors and portfolio managers, return is key. We live in an environment where there are no interest rates ... so you have to look at your portfolio. Pension funds, family offices and corporate funds want returns. They want to see a nice return track record and return outlook. We deliver nice returns and nice risk profiles. On top of that we have an impact measurement system and we show all the social good that an investment supports, but that is on top. As soon as returns are tanking, large corporate investors pull out their money. In the Press Release, the CEO and the CSR Manager will emphasize the impact and the CSR benefits ... but in reality, decisions are made based on the risk-return profile. We invest in established businesses, possibly businesses planning an IPO or geographic expansion - this is different from the early stage investing that may need to be supported by philanthropy. Our investors know that."
JOHANNES: "In our social venture fund, it's different. Our funds work very well on a financial level but that's not why investors invest in us. They are not looking at the risk-return profile. Their focus is what sort of a difference their money will make."
THIMO: Today, you also have to deliver a mission. Of course you have to deliver financially, but there must be a fit with the mission. Today, people ask, what's the impact?
LISA: "One of the outcomes of the G8 Task Force was policy innovation. One example was in France - the Solidarity Savings Funds. If you are an employee in a French company, you can invest in a pension scheme where 90% is regular investment with a strict risk and return profile and 10% is invested in social enterprise. This has significantly increased investment levels in social enterprises in France, as it was designed to do."
KÄRIM: "We see huge differences across geographies in how pension funds are invested. I suggest you go back to your pension fund and ask how it invests your money. Some funds apply certain filters and positive or negative screening, but we also see more automatic alignment with responsible investment practice in certain countries such as Norway, Holland and Canada.. In some cases, employees are consulted about where the money should be invested."
JOHANNES: "If you are a venture investor, you will probably be very interested in digital business models which may be highly innovative and are usually easier to scale. Of the businesses we invest in, around 40% have a digital aspect. Increasingly, IT-driven people want to work in this space. Digital natives are more interested in using their skills for social advancement even if they are not as well paid as they might be working on mainstream commercial initiatives."
Some questions from the audience were rather incisive. For example, our panelists were asked: To what degree do impact investing and philanthropy divert attention and resources from driving real structural and social change? Is philanthropy about soothing our conscience and impact investing mainly about developing a new source of revenue?
THIMO: "It depends how you define "return" for you as an investor. When return is progressing the ecosystems in which you operate so that you can operate better as a business, that's also a big return and not a diversion."
LISA: "Traditionally investors perhaps have this notion of two pockets. In one pocket is the money used generate to a financial return and in the other pocket is the money that's given away to make us feel good. That's changing. Now, both pockets are starting play a role in generating some form of return. There's a convergence at the individual level and also at the institutional level."
JOHANNA: "The old charitable model we all know has been replaced. It's not one single model of charity. It has become more strategic."
And, to close, a couple of stories from Thimo that demonstrate the validity of different channels of investment through non-profit or venture philanthropy showing that blended value that can be achieved through a strategic, holistic approach.
First, a story of two engineers who have developed a portable sterilizer for Africa that runs with solar energy and dirty water - and can therefore be used anywhere. It's cost is EUR 10,000 - modest enough, but still not affordable in most parts of Africa. As a rule, medical clinics in Africa do not have sterilization equipment and its a fact that, in Africa, 30% of deaths are due to unsafe medical practices. The Bayer Foundation is funding pilot devices to be provided free to social entrepreneurs who will take the sterilizers from clinic to clinic and sell not a machine, but the use of a sterilizer by the hour. In this way, a business model is formed that creates employment, upskilling for local distributors and a practical and affordable solution for clinics. Philanthropy funds the early stage and investment will kick in when the model us up and running.
Another example refers to early detection breast cancer tactile examinations. An entrepreneur found that using trained blind women as examiners (instead of physicians) can advance the detection of tumors by an average of nine months! This became relevant to the Bayer Foundation as law requires corporations in India to provide funding for CSR initiatives. Bayer discovered there are 60 million blind women in India while at the same time, breast cancer rates are among the highest in the world. Using "CSR" money to establish a training center for blind women to become examiners, Bayer starts with a philanthropic venture that can develop into an investment-worthy business as it scales, as women will pay a small fee for testing and the initiative will ultimately generate its own revenue.
The overriding conclusion, I think, it that philanthropy is not dead and we shouldn't attempt to kill it off. It serves a very important purpose in fueling early stage social development initiatives and also, in supporting communities when they need support with no strings attached. On the other hand, the emergence of different models, such as impact investing in its nascent forms and responsible investment in its larger scale frameworks provide additional blended value opportunities to get rich(er) and save the world all at the same time. Often, as in the Thimo's examples, this forms a sort of continuum starting with giving, moving into seed funding and developing into larger scale investing.
So, when you are next reading the "community giving" sections of Sustainability Reports ... often seen as the "nice-to-have" rather than material elements of corporate impact ... you might have a slightly different perspective.
Thanks to Joachim Schwalbach and all the expert speakers on this panel for a fascinating discussion.
elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting AND Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen) or via my business website www.b-yond.biz (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm). Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine: firstname.lastname@example.org