EVPA conference 2014: which walls to tear down next?


Michael Alberg-Seberich


Berlin is a good place to look back and ahead. There is history at every corner; on the other hand, the city is driven by its start-up and creative industry culture. This year’s European Venture Philanthropy Association Conference, the 10th, took place right in the historic heart of this metropolis from 17 to 18 November. The organizers had the courage to choose not one but four locations around the Brandenburg Gate as the venue for the conference. The conference title ‘Collaborating for Social Impact: the next 10 years!’ seemed to motivate every one of the 500 participants as they walked between receptions, workshops, panel discussions and pitching sessions, quickly creating an engaged and connected atmosphere.

For me the central panel of this conference was the one entitled ‘Venture Philanthropy: the next 10 years – a conversation with the EVPA founders’. Luciano Balbo, Stephen Dawson, Michiel de Haan, Doug Miller and Serge Raicher are the ‘glorious five’ that had the vision to set up EVPA 10 years ago. They put venture philanthropy on the map in Europe and created a forum for people and organizations that believe in financial and social impact.

Their roundup of the last 10 years could have focused on anecdotes about how the association grew out of Doug Miller’s son’s room into an organization based in the heart of Brussels representing 180 members from 25 countries. But as the five founders are critical minds, they only looked back briefly and instead focused on the road ahead.

Stephen Dawson pointed out that there is still a lot to do. His question was: how does venture philanthropy and impact investing become mainstream? He proposed a ‘broad church’ approach for the sector similar to how the venture capital and private equity industry over time joined forces in one European association. He wondered whether the EVPA community should continue to work around its ‘sacred cow’ of social impact first or whether the old saying should apply ‘every holy cow is a potential steak’.

Michiel de Haan blatantly asked whether there really is a difference between well- done venture capital and venture philanthropy investments. He pointed out that his venture capital investments in the medical field are the ones with the most tremendous impact for individuals and society. These investments especially scale with dramatic speed.

This ‘return debate’ was manifold. Luciano Balbo, for instance, pointed out that as pioneers they should not focus on the individual success case but on the creation of the market overall. Serge Raicher underlined the importance of transparency in the sector. This, for him, is the driver for building trust in this growing market. Doug Miller, who has taken his experiences in Europe to found also the Asian Venture Philanthropy Association, summed this discussion up on a rather diplomatic note: that the sector can only grow deal by deal along the investment spectrum from the donation to an equity investment.

Thanks to Karen Wilson of GV Partners, the moderator of the panel, the five panellists also tackled several other future challenges of venture philanthropy, like the growing importance of building an investment infrastructure in Africa, sourcing the right investments, and the struggle for exits in the sector. A real tour de force!

The debate about whether the EVPA community really changes the way we do business overall is the one wall that will be in question in the sector for a while. Let’s hope, not the next 10 years.

Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner of Active Philanthropy.

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