Should grantmakers act more like venture capitalists?

Should philanthropic foundation board members and staff act more like the venture capitalists who fund internet startups?

That’s the question our good friend Jon Stahl posed a few weeks ago. Jon’s focus was on the high level of involvement that venture capitalists often have with the companies they invest in. Lead investors typically have a seat on the board and often participate actively in the company, at least at the strategic level. Jon points out that foundation program officers, with portfolios that often run in the dozens, simply don’t have the bandwidth to engage much with their grantees.

I think it’s a great point; maybe there are ways we could refine the philanthropy model to offer grantees more support from their funders.

But the venture capital investment model has some other qualities that may or may not fit our social sector goals very well. For one thing, the VC model is designed to foster blowout success at the expense of everything else. In financial terms, a 2x ($2 returned for every 1$ invested) or even 5x return isn’t very interesting; the VC model is designed to produce 10x and 100x or even larger returns.

In fact, VCs have a lot of incentive to actually kill companies in their portfolio that don’t knock it out of the park. You probably won’t get funded in the first place unless you’ve got a great idea, a great team, and a great market, but if you don’t show aggressive growth in users or revenue pretty quickly, and then sustain that growth, the odds are decent that your VC will actually be part of shutting you down. A typical venture fund might see half or more of its companies fail outright, thirty percent performing modestly enough that the fund can get its investment back or perhaps make a small return, and only twenty percent doing really well. (The actual numbers are tough to come by, and there’s a lot of disagreement about exactly what they are, but we know that the huge hits are pretty rare and that lots of venture capital funds actually lose money).

The model might make sense on issues where our most desperate need is for a few blowout successes (and where we are comfortable killing off the groups that don’t achieve this level of success). For example, it might be perfectly reasonable for the Gates Foundation to fund malaria eradication programs using a VC-style approach, hoping that one of their high-risk-high-reward investments comes up with the solution we’ve all been waiting for.

But on lots of social sector issues, activists and funders are happy – and reasonably so – with moderate, sustained success. If a VC-style approach on malaria eradication comes at the cost of stable, sustained funding for effective malaria prevention efforts, it’s probably a much less appealing strategy. In fact, those “moderate” successes only look modest by comparison to absurdly high Google-style returns.

And on many issues there probably just isn’t a knockout punch waiting to be uncovered through high-risk entrepreneurial style investment by philanthropic donors. Preventing extinction and recovering endangered species is just hard work, politically and ecologically; there almost certainly isn’t a fantastically successful strategy just waiting to be discovered. We ought to have more sophisticated ways of measuring outcomes, and more effective ways of rewarding nonprofits that craft and implement successful strategies, but success across lots of fields won’t look like the 1,000x return that early Facebook investors walked away with. There may be some radical advocacy innovations waiting to be uncovered, but odds are good that most of our success will come through philanthropic investments with returns that look more like the equivalent of 2x, 5x, and 10x outcomes in the investment world. And even though these numbers look small compared to the superhits, they are still huge success: anytime a foundation invests $50,000 in a nonprofit and gets $100,000 or $250,000 worth of social change value out of the deal we all ought to celebrate.

The VC model also shifts enormous control over the company itself to the investors. It’s one thing for a social sector funder to have detailed expectations about how their grant will be spent, and perhaps to use the size of their grants to influence organizational decisions about staffing and strategy (which itself is enough to make many nonprofits very uncomfortable). It’s something altogether different when the funders actually control the organization itself.

Finally, the idea that funders might play a more active role in managing the organizations they fund carries as many risks as it does benefits. The best program officers offer real expertise about the issues they fund, they can draw on wide experience working with the nonprofits they fund, and can offer a higher-level strategic vantage precisely because they aren’t in the trenches on a day-to-day basis. But even the best are still at a distance from the day-to-day work, they often don’t have much experience on the other side of the funding equation, and they can be very prone to a favorable results bias.

In fact, while investors and entrepreneurs may not (and often don’t) share the same long-term vision, they measure results in a very consistent way: how much money is this company earning and how much is it worth. Philanthropic funders and the nonprofits they support may tend to have better alignment on long-term vision, but they rarely share a consistent and unambiguous approach to measuring outcomes. And this problem is only amplified by the strange power dynamics that characterize most grantmaker-grantee relationship. Deeper involvement by program officers in the nonprofits they fund comes with some real challenges.

I’m guessing the appeal of the VC model for Jon is mostly around the opportunities for nonprofit folks to learn from the experience and vantage of the funders they work with (not to mention the potential for funders to provide other kinds of resources to their grantees), and given how weak nonprofits usually are mentoring and professional development this makes a lot of sense. The trick, as is usually the case when drawing from outside models, is making sure we understand what those external models are designed to do and adjust the ways we mimic and poach from them accordingly.

There are other models worth exploring, as well. Angel investors often contribute much smaller amounts but expect much lower returns, which means that a moderate success can still be a success, and the angel investment model includes a lot of room for investor involvement and support. Crowdsourced funding models, with Kickstarter as a marquee example, might offer some insights. In many ways these models look a lot like traditional membership-oriented fundraising in the nonprofit world, but as federal law expands accessibility to true crowdsourced investment we can expect to see rapid evolution in the mechanics and structure.

I agree with Jon’s basic point that we should look at the venture capital model for ideas about improving philanthropic funding. I do think, however, that the VC model in particular has some significant limitations in a social sector context. The nonprofit world, at times, goes overboard when it pulls from other sectors, missing the nuance and context and overdeveloping some particular element that seems important. But we can learn a lot, too, by paying attention to other sectors, and we’ve got a lot to gain by poaching, adapting, and testing whatever we think might help.