The Laboratory for Philanthropy

I am just back from the annual European Venture Philanthropy Association conference, this year in Madrid. I have attended most of the organisation’s fifteen conferences – because venture philanthropy is at the cutting edge of all of Europe’s philanthropy.

The conference is increasingly focused on impact investing. This phrase has as many interpretations as there are official languages in the EU – but it covers the broad range, from grants, to projects that can demonstrate social impact, to for-profit investments in social enterprises that deliver near-market rates of return. There were a mixture of social enterprises, charities and foundations pitching for business at the event, but all of them were able to show precisely what return – social or financial or both – they could offer. More, to be blunt, than many of our largest charities can manage.

Scale is a central theme. This word is used to mean “growth” as in: ‘We’ve got a great idea – how can we scale it up?’ It is the obsession of my friend Miquel de Paladella who announced a successful second round of investment – €430,000 – to expand the JumpMath franchise in Spain. Visit their website (in English) and you’ll see that their impact indicators are on the front page. This display of impact is not the only reason for their success, but it is central to explaining why they raised finance.

Crowdfunding was popular at the conference. It’s growing fast in all its varied flavours, from crowdfunding for equity through crowdfunding for loans. Factary’s former landlord, Jamie Hartzell of Ethex, gave a concise description of the ethical issues that surround this type of finance. The first social stock exchange in Spain, La Bolsa Social presented its crowdfunded equity programme, and we also heard from Babyloan (yes, that is its real name) in France. Babyloan has tied up with Total, the French energy company, to crowdfund microfinance for green energy projects there.

We discussed the role of foundations and trusts in all this. BMW Foundation described their work in professionalising ‘pro bono’ support for non-profits, working with their alumni and staff. Seb Elsworth of Access Capital described the blend of loans and capacity building that they are planning to offer smaller organisations in the UK, some via Community Foundations. And Arnaud Gillin of Innpact in Luxembourg described the Shell Foundation’s involvement in creating loan structures to support small, growing enterprises through GroFin; it looked complicated but in essence it involves the foundation providing a grant to a lending entity to encourage other investors to join a structured, layered, lending scheme. If the loans fail, the grant money takes the burden of failure, giving lenders higher up the tree greater security. Innpact demonstrated that a grant-maker could multiply by at least four, and sometimes up to 20, the impact of a grant by working in this way.

How can we use all this? In past blogs about EVPA I have emphasised the need to keep an eye on what is happening. Now it’s time to move from watching, to action. Take a look at the extraordinary growth of crowdfunding for example. Robert Wardrop, a Research Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance showed figures from their 2015 report that indicate a 104% increase in donation-based crowdfunding 2012-2014 in Europe excluding the UK. Reward-based crowdfunding is growing even faster at 127%. There are opportunities for fundraisers here.

Or take the new financial models for foundations – could your organisation structure an entity to offer loans to, say, small farmers, using the expertise you already have and a few of your foundation partners?

And finally, one cheering fact. Despite concerns that we have expressed before (see our report Trust Women for example) about the lack of women in senior positions in European philanthropy, this year’s conference had a majority of women present; 51% of participants were women. A strong message for the future.

The EVPA conference is the bubbling laboratory for philanthropy in Europe. It is where you will meet new people with new ideas – some scary, some brilliant – and see where the mainstream will be, five years later.

Next year’s conference is in Paris. See you there?