In 2002, Doug Miller and a handful of like-minded European private equity professionals decided to attempt what the former US paratrooper is fond of describing as the equivalent of a “night-jump”: to start building an organisation dedicated to advancing the use of venture philanthropy across the world, at a time when venture philanthropy was still in its infancy.
Without proof of concept, the mission’s outcome was unclear; just like a soldier jumping out of an aeroplane during the hours of darkness, before the advent of GPS, they could not be certain of where they would land. “People usually start associations around existing industries; what we did was to start the association to help create the industry,” recalls Miller.
At the outset it may have seemed like an uphill struggle, but Miller and his fellow pioneers were convinced that the venture philanthropy model of applying private equity-style value creation principles to charitable undertakings would catch on quickly; that non-profits and their backers would embrace it as a tool to boost transparency, accountability, knowledge sharing and collaboration in order to deploy capital more effectively, and ultimately to achieve better social outcomes.
And so it has proved. For Miller & Co, the first step was to establish the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) in 2005, which in 2008 moved its headquarters to Brussels and today boasts a membership of more than 200 organisations. Foundations, corporates, private equity practitioners, service professionals, wealth managers, universities and government-related entities (the “seven silos” in EVPA parlance) come together on the EVPA platform to support high-potential charitable groups and social enterprises, and supply them with financial, human and intellectual capital.
In 2010, Miller’s focus shifted to Asia, where Bain Consulting & Co. helped formulate a strategy for creating the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) as a regional equivalent of EVPA. Once again the initiators used up plenty of shoe leather, only this time it wasn’t a “night-jump” anymore but the rollout of an established concept: “We were able to tell people that we would do exactly what we’d done in Europe, but adapted to the Asian culture and way of working. We walked into the room with the EVPA directory and a number of case studies, and we got to critical mass quite quickly.”
It only took 11 months for AVPN to get to 100 members, rather than the three years initially projected. There are currently more than 250 and, according to Miller, the Asian chapter is on track to pass the 300-member threshold in the second half of 2016.
In addition to building AVPN, Miller has teamed up with a group of foundations and individuals including Jean-Eric Salata from Baring Private Equity Asia and CVC Capital Partners’ Roy Kuan to set up a Hong Kong-based venture philanthropy fund, which backs local charities. In Japan, Nippon Foundation and a group of professionals from private equity firms JAFCO and Ripplewood Holdings are part of a similar fund working with Japanese non-profits.
Creating regionally focused entities with locally staffed boards of directors, rather than having just one global entity based in Washington, London or Paris, was important from the start and still is today. To further develop the VP support network globally, 2016 will see the creation of AVPN India as a standalone platform serving the philanthropists of that vast country. The Shell Foundation has provided start-up capital for the project, and the search for a full-time chief executive is underway.
In China, AVPN is working to achieve greater impact through local strategic partners including the country’s three leading academic institutions Tsinghua University, Peking University and Beijing Normal, as well as the China Foundation Centre. (Foundations were first approved in the country in 2009, but today China has around 3,000 privately-funded ones already, of which a number have considerable financial firepower.)
Having made swift progress in Asia, Miller is expecting to soon step down from his current role as AVPN chairman and turn his attention to other parts of the world once again. In doing so he will be playing to his strengths, the former fund placement specialist explains: “I’m very comfortable with the uncertainties of a start-up. To me that’s the most enjoyable stage of a project.”
Next on the to-do list is to create yet another regional platform, this time in Africa. The need for it does not need explaining, Miller argues: “Take any social problem in Europe – in Africa you have it three-fold, or even five-fold.”
Relatively few local foundations exist at this point, but Miller is collaborating with African Philanthropy Networks and also the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association to prepare for the launch.
Some African countries are off limits for political and security reasons, and the initial focus is on parts of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda); South Africa and some, but not all, of the adjoining countries; Nigeria (which Miller says is big enough to possibly warrant a stand-alone approach); as well as a number of West African countries, including Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal.
It is early days and the challenges are considerable. “With more than 2,000 spoken languages, Africa is significantly more diverse than Asia,” notes Miller. So far three local consultants in Nigeria, Kenya and the South African area have been recruited, and the current emphasis is on getting the due diligence right, finding a suitable chief executive, and organising funding.
Across the Atlantic, Latin America is also waiting to be developed. In preparation Miller, who is 71, is working to establish the International Venture Philanthropy Centre as a global super-structure, which in due course will formally take on the job of expanding into LatAm, Africa and the Middle East. AT Kearney, the business consultancy, and law firm King & Wood Mallesons are providing pro-bono advice for this part of the project.
Miller has been both tireless and painstaking in his efforts to build the venture philanthropy/social investment effort globally. Countless individuals and organisations have joined the cause, and Miller enjoys working with them to constantly adjust the VP concept to the specific conditions and requirements prevailing on the ground.
“One of the great things I get to do is to constantly learn about how the guts of India work, of China, and now Africa. We have great teams in Europe and Asia and they do the real work of effective delivery on the ground,” he says.
A key reason for the success of this effort, as Miller would have it, is that virtually no one with a desire to devote a portion of their wealth to good causes likes doing so without having a strategy, a due diligence methodology, a defined outcome and clearly aligned interests. EVPA/AVPN and their regional counterparts exist to enable the provision of these things.
“If you have the want-to, we have the how-to – so get engaged,” is Miller’s message. For more than 10 years now, it has resonated strongly.