Venture philanthropy: Maintaining Impetus

The UK’s two leading venture philanthropy groups have taken some of their own medicine by deciding to merge in pursuit of greater scale and impact

For venture philanthropists, as with most groups in the impact investing space, one of the big preoccupations is scale. More scale allows for more impact. So it was interesting to see two UK venture philanthropy groups – both of whom have strong links to the private equity industry – practising what they preach this year by choosing to merge.

Impetus Trust, founded in 2002, effectively pioneered the venture philanthropy model in the UK. Four years later – at the height of (and partly in response to) the industry’s reputational challenges – the Private Equity Foundation emerged, with a similar mission and strategy. In January, the two groups said they would join forces and become one entity, ‘Impetus – The Private Equity Foundation’, which will be run by Impetus CEO Daniela Barone Soares. 

PEI caught up with Barone Soares on the day the merger was due to complete in June. It’s been a complex process, she admits. “Even though the two organisations were similar, we went about things in different ways, using a different vocabulary. To make sure that we understand each other and are talking the same language – that takes time.” 

But while this merger has involved all the usual legal and technical difficulties, some of the more unpleasant aspects of corporate mergers – which tend to be focused on cost-cutting – have been mercifully absent, she says. “This is a merger of equals, which is all about gaining scale – so we can provide all our donors and supporters with a single stronger offering.” 

Was she a little nervous when she first heard about the idea? “To me it was really positive, because it just made so much sense. These were two organisations that were very similar in terms of the impact we wanted to achieve in society; who had adopted the same methodology; who drew their support largely from the private equity industry and individuals around it. So given the scale and the enormity of the issues we’re trying to tackle, it made sense that we joined forces. I knew it would be a big change, and that would involve a lot of work. But I thought it was a fantastic idea. And still do.”

So far, she says, the reception from supporters has been extremely positive. And importantly, the group hasn’t lost any donors as a result. “We were actually incredibly complementary in terms of our funding sources, which was a nice surprise. The fear was that if there was a lot of duplication we might end up losing funding, but actually that wasn’t the case.” 

In fact, she argues that a larger combined group will be a better proposition to donors (rumour has it that one private equity group has already pledged a seven-figure donation, though she declined to comment further on this).

FEEDBACK LOOPS

The Impetus/PEF model (as with most venture philanthropy) involves selecting a portfolio of charities, and then providing them with a combination of money and pro bono skills from their networks of corporate donors to help them increase their scale and effectiveness.

So what will the combined group look like? Some of the finer points are still a little up in the air; Barone Soares is planning a big strategy exercise over the summer, to cover everything from general focus to the specifics of the selection and monitoring processes. Children and young people will remain the priority, as per Impetus’s previous strategy, but it’s possible the focus may be refined further – as PEF did by focusing on NEETs, children not in education, employment or training. 

(Incidentally, she wouldn’t be drawn on whether the rather unwieldy new name is likely to change in time, although she did point out that it’s helpful in terms of buy-in that the respective backers of both charities can see both names reflected in the new title.)

But essentially, the idea is that it will be more of the same – only at greater scale, and with a pooling of ideas around best practice. After all, says Barone Soares, the two groups have learned an awful lot in the last few years about what works well and what doesn’t. 

“For example, we’ve developed a much better understanding of what it really takes to build the capacity of an organisation for it to be effective and scale up. We had a more simplistic view of that when we started ten years ago, but we’ve been constantly improving it. And we’ll continue to do that. It’ll be a relentless process of never being happy with what we’ve got, and always pushing for more. After all, if the issues we’re trying to address were easy to resolve, they’d have been resolved already.”

Improving performance continues to be top of her agenda. “[You need] real performance management throughout the chain, so we really understand what is actually working. It’s about having feedback loops in the programme, and then adjusting and refining at every loop. If we can make a science of this very difficult art, we’ll get there. We’re not there yet, but that’s the trajectory.”

Better impact management is the other key priority – although she admits this is still very challenging. “Anyone who says that we’re not in the infancy of impact management and measurement is lying. It’s hard – but that’s no excuse not to do it, we don’t let anyone off the hook. And we have improved it a lot.” 

Ultimately, finding better ways to measure impact will be in a charity’s own best interest, she points out. “A lot of donors put pressure on CEOs to measure stuff purely for the donor’s benefit. But this is not for us; it’s for them – so they can identify areas that don’t quite work. It also allows them to better communicate the impact they’re having in their own advocacy, which can help them attract more donors. So it can be revolutionary for organisations. But we have to prove that it’s value-adding, and not just more work for them to do.”

RATIONAL, NOT EMOTIONAL

So what are going to be the big challenges facing the organisation in the next few years? “The thing that keeps me awake at night is the sheer size of the problem,” says Barone Soares. “One in five children still don’t eat three meals a day; 70 percent of those born into disadvantage will remain so into their adult life and pass it onto the next generation.”

She believes the UK government could be doing more to invest in helping these organisations build capacity; it has the Investment and Contract Readiness Fund, of which Impetus is a beneficiary, but at £10 million she believes it is too small to make a big difference. 

Either way, venture philanthropy can play a big role in determining which sectors and organisations are really worth backing in terms of potential impact, she says. 

“People still often give to charity based on emotion. That’s not to diminish the fact that we as humans should be sensitised to injustice; but in terms of making a decision as to how we allocate limited resources to organisations, I really hope [the venture philanthropy] movement is making that process more rational and transparent and accountable. We’re not there yet, but it’s getting better.”