EVPA founders interview: Stephen Dawson

 

Stephen Dawson

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As well as being one of the founders of EVPA, Stephen Dawson co-founded Impetus Trust in the UK around the same time, with whom he is still involved. He also works with community groups in his local area in the UK.

In terms of goals and expectations, the initial things were getting established, proving VP worked and getting it to be accepted. But we were ambitious, we wanted the movement to grow, we wanted to enable the social sector organisations we worked with to thrive and to have a greater impact. It was relatively easy for people in the venture capital and private equity world to grasp the idea of VP because it was modelled very much on the same techniques. I think it was much harder in the charity sector. At the time, there was a lot of scepticism in the social sector about business and that capitalism was in some way opposed to what the social sector was doing. One of the things we’d learned at Impetus was that there might be some hostility, so we were very keen not to be seen as business telling them how to do it, but wanting to be accepted as part of the social sector, so getting trusts and foundations involved early on was key for both Impetus and for EVPA,

Over the 15 years, I think EVPA has achieved a great deal. Training, sharing experience, things like the conference, which was obviously profile-raising, the knowledge centre, which developed later and which brought in support from academia, these provided what you needed to build a movement. Obviously we can’t claim credit for all the changes that have taken place over the last 20 years because there was a wider trend of people coming from the business world and applying their skills in the non-profit sector. One of the early principles of EVPA was that of the broad church. We weren’t too rigid in saying what VP was. We wanted to work with those other groups that were complementary and even if they didn’t join us, there were a lot of discussions about the new approaches and how we could help each other, so I think there was an impact beyond EVPA itself because we were inclusive.

It’s great to see traditional philanthropy, trusts and foundations using some of the elements of VP, taking a businesslike approach to philanthropy and looking at, say, impact in a very rigorous way. That’s been the core of what EVPA has done, and though it’s part of a wider movement, I think EVPA can take a lot of credit for its role in that movement.

I think the main change over the 15 years is that VP has merged with social investing. I don’t think there is a clear dividing line. It’s a spectrum and people who have been core members of EVPA from the early days often took an investment approach and that was part of our broad church idea. Obviously, EVPA has developed formal definitions over the years and it’s important to be clear about what VP does, but I often go back to the most basic definition which is using venture capital techniques to solve societal problems. If you have a social objective and you happen to do that through a for-profit enterprise, to me that’s VP.

I think the best moment of the conference for me was the opening, sitting on the platform with Queen Maxima and 750 people in the audience and thinking how far we’ve travelled in 15 years. And it’s been a great couple of days. I’ve met some really good people who are just getting into this space from all sorts of background, including a lot of younger people and it’s been inspiring to see how the movement has developed in all sorts of totally unpredictable directions.

It’s still early days. We’ve achieved a huge amount in the last 15 years, but I’m very excited about the opportunities. Some of the community groups I’ve been involved in since have been using those same techniques. They’ve typically been funded by grants and public sector money but now they are having to look at ways of earning money and the techniques you need to do that are very much VP type techniques. That, and applying social impact bonds and development impact bonds to development challenges, those are the areas I’d expect to see VP and social investment getting into over the next decade or so.

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