This year’s European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) conference in Madrid attracted a record setting number of almost 600 participants. While the usual suspects from the venture philanthropy community, foundations, and social entrepreneurs were among the attendees, there seems to be a growing interest among corporates to get to know the field of venture philanthropy and social investment. In comparison to last year’s conference in Berlin, the number of corporate attendees doubled to 4 per cent of total attendees.
This development is certainly welcome, given that it has been repeatedly mentioned that today’s global and local challenges will only be successfully tackled, if the private sector is engaged in a greater and more meaningful way. To acknowledge the role of corporates, there were several sessions which specifically focused on their contributions…while leaving their more controversial business aspects aside.
The break-out session “Corporate Players and Venture Philanthropy: Lessons learned from some first movers” featured panellists from LafargeHolcim – the world’s largest cement producer, Shell Foundation – the charity associated with one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, and Google.org, the charitable initiative of the world’s biggest data company.
Google.org for example committed itself to provide annual grant financing equal to
1 per cent of net profits – equal to about USD 140 million – and 1 per cent of its internal resources – time and expertise of Googlers as well as in-kind donations in the form of free access to their digital products and services. All these resources are available to organisations which leverage technology for social and environmental purposes.
LafargeHolcim focuses on utilizing their expertise in the provision of low-cost yet safe housing in emerging markets and developing countries. As opposed to the Shell Foundation, LafargeHolcim manages this base of the pyramid initiative not from within its foundation, but from within the company. By now, they have even managed to turn a pre-tax profit of about USD 10 million, which is less than 1 per cent of LafargeHolcim’s new merged pre-tax profit of USD 1.64 billion.
The aforementioned Shell Foundation is probably among the more experienced corporate venture philanthropy actors with its focus on market-based solutions to challenges such as access to energy and sustainable mobility. Besides grants totalling about USD 30 million in 2014, the Shell Foundation heavily emphasizes the importance of their other resources, such as time and expertise, which might be just as crucial to its partner organisations.
While these efforts are certainly commendable, there were a few other corporate initiatives which could have deserved just as bright of a spot light, if not brighter. Brighter in my opinion, since corporates such as the Spanish BBVA bank or the French energy company Engie (previously GDF Suez) are leveraging even more corporate resources for societal change. While both corporates were already contributing grants, volunteering and in-kind donations, they have gone a step further by setting up their own corporate impact investing funds. Using such a tool, particularly for a non-financial company such as Engie, is certainly not a common CSR practice.
Further, by strategically leveraging and combining all those different corporate resources – grants, time, expertise, and now impact investments – BBVA and Engie might have found a way to widen the spectrum of returns to a social/ environmental, financial and strategic dimension. The latter kind, strategic returns, might still be difficult to grasp. Yet, access to new business models, technology or greater ability to innovate among the corporate employees, have been mentioned repeatedly.
In the pursuit of the often elusive win-win situation for corporates and society, corporate impact investing may just be the missing piece in the puzzle. However, in order to convince more corporates to seriously consider such an approach, it is crucial that we can clearly prove the social/ environmental, financial and strategic benefits of corporate impact investing.
This is certainly no easy task, yet I am convinced one of the necessities if we are keen to seeing even more corporate attendees at the next EVPA conference 2016 in Paris.
Fabian Suwanprateep, is a consultant and project manager at Beyond Philanthropy.