Investing with the head and the heart: reflections from the AVPN conference


Jenna Palumbo


Reflecting on my three days at the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) conference, held 20-23 April in Singapore, I was struck by the number of conversations that wrestled with seemingly dichotomous concepts: head vs heart, disruption vs sustainability, local solutions vs scale, perseverance vs ‘fail fast’, and even as far as love vs hate. But what else would you expect at an AVPN conference, where (ex) bankers, corporates, government and the social sector come together to explore solutions to some of the most pressing social issues in the region?

While each of these debates is fascinating, I would like to reflect on two in more detail.

First, ‘head vs heart’. Traditionally capital has been deployed with either the head (financial investment) or the heart (philanthropy). However, there is growing recognition that this isn’t an either/or situation, and that both head and heart are essential to make best use of our scarce resources. Panellists reflected on the challenges in the existing funding landscape, with particular frustration levelled at short-termism and the obsession with reducing overhead. Ironically, the consequences, such as lack of sustainability, fragmentation and lack of evidence are too often cited as frustrations of funders with the sector.

Fortunately, the conference was more about showcasing solutions than airing frustrations, and it was encouraging to see the growth in venture philanthropy funds across Asia. For example, Social Impact Partners has recently launched a fund in Singapore, as has Social Investment Partners in Japan, which is supported by pioneering funders like the Nippon Foundation. These funds, after conducting rigorous due diligence, will offer investees multi-year, capacity-building funding and support ,exemplifying how investing with the head and the heart can generate sustainable social impact.

Now on to ‘love vs hate’. The moderator of a panel on Engaging Governments opened with: ‘You love them, you hate them, but you sure do need them.’ The panel went on to reflect on the challenges of working with government, but also the invaluable benefits of legitimacy and access to scale that come with successful partnerships.

In a later session, a wise soul reflected on the moderator’s comment: ‘that statement could apply equally to any sector depending on where you are sitting.’ And this underpins a theme that ran throughout the conference – that the problems we are tackling are so enormous that we have to work together, and to do that we need to recognize the strengths and challenges of the various sectors and come together with mutual respect. And again, the conference was full of positive examples of cross-sector collaborations, including a range of social impact bonds in development, tiered funding models that reflect various risk appetites, and partnerships coming together to achieve scale.

So as I head home to Western Australia I am filled with enthusiasm for our recently launched WA Venture Philanthropy Fund. This fund brings together government, social sector experts and pro bono expertise to identify and support a portfolio of high impact organizations in Western Australia. For me, the conference strongly reinforced the need for strategic philanthropy; to build organizational capacity, to develop an evidence base of what works, and to take risks where government and impact investors can’t. I sincerely hope that with the support of the philanthropic community we can show that investing with your head and your heart is the way forward.

Jenna Palumbo is director, Western Australia of Social Ventures Australia.

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