In German we use the Yiddish word ‘tacheles’ to express the desire to speak frankly, to do some straight talking. At this year’s conference of the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) in Geneva this desire could be felt in the conference halls and, especially, in the many workshops. This desire, as well as the number of participants reaching more than 500, seems to be another indicator that the venture philanthropy movement in Europe has grown up.
Therefore the motto of the 9th EVPA conference – Responsible Leadership: Inspire and Act! – was well taken. Workshop titles like ‘Impact investment showcasing: the best value arguments’ or ‘The good, the bad and the ugly: lessons learned from mistakes’ indicate that real cases and real questions were at the heart of the conference. In some of the sessions there actually developed a sense of a collective learning community.
A good example of this was the session ‘Fundamentals of non-financial support’. In this session four grantmakers/investors presented real-life cases where something actually went wrong in the work with a grantee or investee. In small groups the workshop participants worked with these leaders to identify a variety of ways in which time, talent and trust (and not just treasure) can be used as resources to solve the challenges the leaders face. The fact that participants in this workshop agreed on Chatham House rules may be an indicator of the intensive, honest and frank discussion.
Another example for such an open exchange of experience was the workshop ‘How to plan and execute an exit while maximizing impact: challenges and learnings’. Behind this bloomy title were hidden three case studies of exits that impact investors have done in the Netherlands, Russia and Germany. Again the case studies and the discussion in small groups were not so much about the good financial returns these exits generated but about the challenges such an exit creates in the relationship with the grantee. We also talked about how in such an exit you secure the social impact of your investment. Here again you could sense part of the true spirit of venture philanthropy. On a side note, it is interesting that most of these cases come out of family foundations and/or small-to-midsize hybrid funds.
Looking back at the conference and the workshops I was able to attend, you sense a switch from market-building and advocacy to a learning community. Learning means raising questions about the work that we are doing in this space. This year’s EVPA conference has raised many new questions like: How do we define a donor-grantee relationship? How do we implement effective governance systems in an investment? How can we efficiently use pro bono support? Where to draw the line between financial and social returns? When do we admit failure? What is the real role of banks in this field? … These questions are not new, but the sector seems to talk openly about these and many other challenges now. It would be great if next year’s EVPA conference in Berlin could continue these conversations, and perhaps also start a dialogue with academics and NGOs that raise even more questions about venture philanthropy and impact investing. Talking tacheles in the end is part of growing up.
Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner of Active Philanthropy