Can business acumen help overcome social challenges? Can entrepreneurial zeal generate innovative solutions? Can the energy of a new generation be harnessed to lead us forward on pressing causes? These were some of the questions addressed at the 2015 Social Innovation Summit.
The assembled professionals from CSR, family and community philanthropy, non-profits, and government were there to discuss how new philanthropic and financial vehicles, strategies, and designs are shaping the future of social change. The overarching message was that when individuals and ideas are given the room to innovate and the resources to succeed, tremendous things can be achieved.
"Social innovation means investing in people who don’t look or sound like typical entrepreneurs."
In the words of Kate Goodall, COO of the S & R Foundation, “social innovation means investing in people who don’t look or sound like typical entrepreneurs.” Some of the atypical entrepreneurs at the Summit included Bart Weetjens—founder of APOPO, a nonprofit that trains ground rats to safely detect landmines—and Jack Andracka—the eighteen year-old inventor of a revolutionary test for pancreatic cancer.
The success of these innovations is all the more impressive in the light of the obstacles they face. Bart had to convince donors and affected communities alike that ground rats could be heroes. Jack faced incredulous rejection from other researchers, and he was hampered by a lack of access to scientific literature. But throughout every example of change, the common thread—which will come as no shock to anyone in the nonprofit world—was funding and the lack thereof.
Panelists from all sectors agreed that new tools are needed to finance innovative solutions. Glenn Rockman, of the Global Health Investment Fund, told the audience how a treatment for river blindness that was already proven safe for humans languished for years without funding for final clinical testing, production, and distribution. Isabelle Hau, from the Omidyar Network, spoke of the difficulty in finding long-term loans for social enterprises. The potential impact of these and other stranded projects is clear, and often the business prospects are strong. Nonetheless, for one reason or another traditional finance fails to support them.
The silver lining to these frustrations is that these are ready opportunities for mission driven investors to deliver impact and grow their philanthropic capital. Moreover, they’ll be able to choose from a spectrum of investments—from venture funding to fixed income. As the market grows and matures, investors will find opportunities for innovation and impact across causes and across asset classes.
John Cochrane is Associate Director, Social Innovation, at the Council on Foundations. If you’re interested in impact investing, feel free to send John an email and be sure to visit www.cof.org/impinv. Follow him on Twitter @jmlcochrane.