Proving philanthropy works

How can five individuals make the greatest social impact? This was the question that five private equity professionals asked themselves one Saturday afternoon in 2004. It sparked the formation of the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA).

A lot has happened in the four years since. The EVPA recently held its fourth annual gathering – this year in Frankfurt – and not for the first time it was standing room only as 350 delegates from a broad range of industries turned out.

Since inception the EVPA has grown, according to the organisation's 2008 member directory, to 101 members. Organisations have signed up from all over Europe and from a broad church of professions: venture philanthropy funds, private equity firms, charitable foundations, universities, lawyers and accountants among them.

When it was originally created, the EVPA drew up a two-pronged approach to promulgate the venture philanthropy model.

First, the association sought to engage the support of its private equity counterpart, the European Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (EVCA), in order to tap into its membership network.

“Getting the EVCA to support us was easier than it might otherwise have been, because Javier Echarri, the secretary general of the EVCA, had originally been hired by Serge,” says Doug Miller, referring to EVPA co-founder and former EVCA secretary general, Serge Raicher.

The second strand to the EVPA's plan was to bridge the gap between the private equity industry and European foundations: the organisations which have the knowledge and contacts within the social sector. “It is one thing to have a methodology, but you actually have to be able to access the social market. The foundations had that access,” says Miller.

What Miller thought would be a “difficult sale” to the European Foundations Centre in Brussels was in fact quite the opposite. “They were very open to new ideas and new capital. We had their full support,” he continues.

“When you marry the private equity skill set and methodology to the foundation's contact network and social sector experience, one plus one equals four,” he says.

The goal of the EVPA, explains Miller, is to bring the venture philanthropy principles of transparency, performance measurement and strategic planning into the mainstream of social sector work.

Serge Raicher, a partner at London-based funds of funds manager Pantheon Ventures, has now stepped into the association's chair. On his return from the Frankfurt conference he said he was pleased with the progress the association has made in permeating the venture philanthropy message among the private equity community.

“It is increasingly becoming an important project for a number of private equity firms. We see firms starting their own foundations, and even reserving carry points for them. We aremoving from'oneman wanting to give something back' to a much more organised structural approach from the private equity community,” he says.

Next year should be interesting for the EVPA. As well as exploring the possibility of an Asian association, Miller will begin deploying the EVPA-endorsed €2 million European Venture Philanthropy Fund he raised with fellow EVPA member Rob John.

At the same time, Raicher's personal goal for his term as chairman is clear.

“Over the next two years we need to deliver the proof points that venture philanthropy actually works,” he says. “We need to produce research that can measure impact, develop tools and deliver all those elements which will help VP funds raise money.”

In other words the organisation is going to apply the venture philanthropy model to itself.