European community of investors, corporations, and philanthropists speak the languages of impact in Brussels
Heading to Brussels and the European Venture Philanthropy Association’s (EVPA) Impact Week for the first time, I wondered what languages I would hear from such an international community at an event in the ‘heart of Europe.’ In Brussels, almost every sign was in Flemish, French, and English, and the conference organizers were French, Italian, and Dutch, among other nationalities. But the languages I heard were varied in a way I hadn’t expected. I work with Acumen, which has been pioneering a way of solving big global challenges that brings together the best of philanthropy and finance. The EVPA community felt like a natural place to share Acumen’s insights and lessons, as it includes people and institutions with diverse expertise on ways to use capital to address social and environmental challenges. Here, participants spoke the languages of business, finance, philanthropy, and social justice, each with great fluency.
Breaking down barriers
A frequent topic of conversation was the need to break down barriers by learning the language of the ‘other’ — from those prioritizing social impact, including foundations, NGOs and government institutions, to those who need to prioritize profits and growth. I found it refreshing that leaders in the philanthropy and impact investing communities could acknowledge the tensions that exist in balancing social and financial performance and stand on the same stage with major investors and business leaders from institutions like Ageas, Snam, IKEA, Microsoft, and others to talk about inclusion, local communities, and environmental justice. Dozens of sessions explored the gaps that persist in accessing capital, and the contradictions that sometimes get in the way of progress.
Trends in corporate impact investing
At the C-Summit, which took place alongside the EVPA Summit as part of Impact Week, I led a session on corporate impact investing with J&J, Engie Rassembleurs d’Energies, and Philips where each shared details on how they had established mechanisms enabling them to make investments in innovative social enterprises that aligned with their respective business and social purpose goals. With funds as big as $50 million, these companies showed a true commitment to applying principles of investment to tackling issues from healthcare equity to energy poverty, primarily in developing economies. Each one agreed that financial returns were not the driver of their investing activities, though capital preservation was a goal they all shared. Instead, each was eager to use their investing to learn about market failures, discover innovations, and engage their people in ways that embedded purpose into their work.
Green-hushing – An environmental, social, & governance backlash
One of the key topics at the main event (EVPA Annual Summit) was the way that Environmental, Social, & Governance (ESG) guidelines – which are facing a backlash back home in the U.S. – are becoming codified into European regulations – leading to some perverse outcomes. While ‘greening’ of funds and brands has been seen to appeal to consumers, employees, and investors, recent fines for green-washing, or exaggerating claims of sustainability, are causing some to worry that ESG regulation may be too much of a stick when carrots are still needed. I heard the term ‘green-hushing’ for the first time, speaking to the way that some funds and companies are talking LESS about their sustainability and social impact work fearing fines or lawsuits.
Patient capital & ESG
A second session I led on Patient Capital investing with IKEA Social Entrepreneurship, Boehringer Ingelheim, Microsoft, and Rabo Foundation explored how corporations are using a combination of investment, philanthropy, and corporate capabilities to support social enterprises. Each shared examples of how this innovative way of working through long-term ‘patient’ forms of support for social enterprises aligned with their ESG goals to improve environmental sustainability, healthcare access, farmer livelihoods, and beyond. The theme of ESG came up in our discussion, but more so a common interest in creating measurable impact for vulnerable communities.
Learning the languages of impact
While debates were welcomed at the Summit, there was a pervasive sense that groups that have so often been siloed need to come together, whether in blending capital, sharing expertise, or creating more unified voices around regulatory change. For this to happen people need to speak multiple languages. And I don’t mean French, Italian, and English, though I heard all of those and more at the summit, including Armenian! I mean the languages of impact, finance, business, and policy. The strength of the EVPA community is in its diversity but the joy of this community is in the shared sense of purpose. This was a safe space to talk about the need to disrupt, question, or challenge the status quo of business, investing, and even philanthropy. The combination of diverse expertise, pragmatism, and optimism left me convinced that real change is possible. Time to brush up on my Italian for next year’s EVPA summit in Italy!
Yasmina Zaidman, Acumen