Is the venture philanthropy community in Europe in a time of uncertainty really backing the changemakers in the right way? Is it reaching its full potential? Can we do more? These questions were the red thread of last week’s 8th annual European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) conference in Dublin, Ireland. The intensity of the discussions during the conference events and on the conference halls left you with an impression that a whole sector ‘lay on the psychiatrist’s couch’ – in VP-speak they did a ‘due diligence’ or ‘evaluation’.
Why? It looks like venture philanthropy and impact investing are at a turning point in Europe. One reason for this is growing interest in the field. The other reason is the rapidly changing financial and social environment in Europe. The more than 300 conference participants included the veterans, new ventures and organizations/individuals that wanted to learn more about the sector.
In the opening talk with Johan H Andresen, owner and CEO of FERD, the Norwegian industrial and financial group, the question was raised whether venture philanthropy can change the business philosophy and modus operandi within a traditional for-profit company. Andresen, who because of illness only attended the conference via Skype, thinks that his involvement in venture philanthropy has changed the way the company thinks and acts. Katinka Greve Leiner, director of FERD Social Entrepreneurs, underlined in her keynote that venture philanthropy has taught the company a lot about challenges in Norway’s society and has helped to align the values of the company.
The second keynote presented another threshold for the sector: working together with government. Paul Carttar, former head of the USA government’s Social Innovation Fund, showed how government and venture philanthropy can cooperate to scale social innovations. His observations were very much in line with a panel discussion on activities at the EU level to support social entrepreneurship.
The elephant in the room – somehow this grey giant is not leaving – is the question of impact measurement. In a pre-conference event around 80 participants learned about the current status quo in the field. Several conference speakers, such as the current EVPA chairman Serge Raicher, pointed out that the struggle to measure social impact is a defining one for the sector. The good news is that many committed people are trying to find solutions for this matter, combining thoroughness with pragmatism. Chances are high that one day the elephant will turn into a mouse…
The EVPA conference overall was, again, an event that gave an insight into the current situation of venture philanthropy and impact investing in Europe. The more than 25 workshops explored in detail the questions raised above. Some highlights of the programme were workshops on the relationship between corporations and VP organizations, how to support early-stage social enterprises, the role of institutional investors in venture philanthropy, the relationship between grants and impact investing, and how to better communicate venture philanthropy to a wider public. In addition the organizers had put together a whole series of sessions that gave an introduction to various aspects of venture philanthropy and impact investing.
Another highlight of this year’s conference was the programme of site visits. I was not able to attend one, but I heard many participants raving about their visits to various social enterprises in Dublin. In sum, the conference was true to its declared aim to be an experience for every participant’s head, heart and hands.
All this was framed as a challenge to the European venture philanthropy and impact investing sector. A challenge that will be out there for the next 12 months until the EVPA meets again and reflects on how the sector has developed further.
Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner of Active Philanthropy