Another face of Pakistan

I had the chance to spend last week in Karachi for the final round selection for the inaugural class of Acumen’s new Pakistan Fellows program.  From more than 500 applicants from all corners of this country of 175 million people, we had winnowed the group down to just 40 finalists and had, in the course of a day, to select 20 people as our first Acumen Pakistan Fellows.  The program begins in early 2013.

The images the world (and Americans in particular) sees of Pakistan are difficult ones.  Just yesterday a very troubling article came out in the New York Times about Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, where there have been increasing numbers of open attacks on members of the Hazara community.  The article suggests that the police and security forces are at best ambivalent about stemming the violence that has resulted in the deaths of 100 Hazaras this year alone.

This is one reality in Pakistan, and it is daunting to say the least.

Last week I saw another story, perhaps a quieter one and one that doesn’t scream for headlines.  These are the stories of the applicants to our Pakistan Fellows program: a woman from rural Punjab, the first in her family to get a formal education, who is working on extending credit and education to those who are still excluded from all formal systems; a woman with a Masters in Economics who left her teaching job at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi and is now creating a speed English literacy program for kids in the slums; another young man, a born entrepreneur from a very humble background, who somehow found his way to a quiet section of the library and began reading Harvard Business Review articles and then watching TED talks, and whose startup business Hometown (the website will blow you away) aims to have local artisans and leather-workers provide world-class quality shoes to the world; and finally, a man with a Master’s in Computer Science who is working in Quetta, Balochistan – the same city profiled in the NY Times piece – who is helping build a university from scratch to bring education to some of the most tough-to-reach, downtrodden populations, and is paying for it by creating small businesses ranging from biomass power generation to cut flowers.

These were just four of the 40 amazing people I met last Friday, each one with a story of hope, each one committing themselves fully to making positive change from the bottom up in Pakistan, each one leaving our panelists – all prominent business and social sector leaders – humbled at their spirit of service and commitment.

These are just four stories that never make the front pages – but they should.

Investing in leaders and ideas

At the start of this year, I took on a new role at Acumen as our Chief Innovation Officer.

Acumen’s mission is to change the way the world tackles poverty by investing in companies, leaders and ideas.  The Chief Innovation Officer role is about scaling Acumen’s impact: building out from our core investing work to create the ecosystem of leaders the world needs to do this work; and investing in the spread of ideas by digging in to measure and understand the direct impact we are having through our investing work and sharing these learnings with the world – so we can all get smarter about what it really takes to tackle poverty at scale.

The impact piece is the most challenging and potentially the most exciting part of this work.  Challenging because deciphering and quantifying impact is the 10 zillion dollar question in any social change work.  And exciting because I firmly believe that the day we can clearly and succinctly explain and quantify impact is the day that everyone stops pretending that financial returns are the closest proxy for success for impact investors.

I dug into these issues in my recent talk at Acumen’s Investor Gathering last week.  The talk just went live on YouTube (see below or link here), so I thought I’d share it here first.

(Special thanks to Niklas Peters at Acumen who helped with the presentation and, while juggling a million other things, found the image for my favorite slide – the one from Brazil.)

Your chance to shape a sector

Kevin Starr, who among other things runs the Mulago Foundation, penned a provocative, must-read series of posts on Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Problem with Impact investing (Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and Pt. 3).

He leads off his last post in the series with the sub-header “Real impact investing is not for the timid” and focuses most of his screed on the fact that our sector is horrendous at articulating and measuring impact.

This is hard stuff, these are long and rocky roads, and it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

At a minimum impact investors diverge radically in articulating what we mean by impact.  At our most timid, we claim that nearly any enterprise operating in the developing world by definition is creating impact (really?).  At the other end of the spectrum, even the most impact-focused investors are likely to screen heavily for impact but then have limited capacity (financial resources, time and attention) post-investment to really understand or accelerate impact.  At the recent ANDE metrics conference there was deep appreciation for the strong foundation we’ve created in our sector – the Pulse platform, IRIS standards and GIIRS ratings – as well as a generalized acknowledgment that these tools alone are not enough to bring the clarity and insights we need to create large-scale, lasting change.

As Kevin states, both clearly and provocatively:

While the philanthropy world is still pretty bad about measuring impact, the impacting investing world is worse. Real impact measurement is a drag on the financial bottom line and investors are usually willing to assume it’s there, so few feel compelled to do it. What’s weird to me is that while all impact investors know that you could never maximize profit without measuring it, they often fail to recognize that the same is true of impact.

If impact investing itself isn’t for the faint of heart, forging the way forward on the next chapter of understanding and accelerating impact in our space is for the bravest of the brave.  Yet we know that better answers are out there; we know that there is increased appetite to dig deeper and to find real lessons about what is and isn’t working and why; we know that both funders and entrepreneurs are looking for better measures so they can deliver real change.

I’m hiring someone who wants to lead this charge.  Full details here for new Acumen’s Head of Impact role.

The application process is unorthodox because we need someone unorthodox.  As you’ll see in the job description, the ideal candidate has lived and breathed the reality of building an operating company / social business in the developing world; she has the analytical background and curiosity to translate these experiences into broader conclusions; she is a natural at building relationships within and outside of Acumen; and she’s excited by a lot of travel because she knows to do this right she’ll need to get her hands dirty.

I truly believe this is one of the most exciting opportunities out there for the right person.  Can’t wait to see who applies.

Deadline is August 5th.

(Happy to answer questions in the comments if you have them)

Today – livestream of Acumen Fund Investor Gathering

Each year at Acumen Fund we bring together our top supporters from around the world for our Investor Gathering, a day to share our successes (and failures) with those who make our work possible.

This year, to mark our 10th anniversary, for the first time we are live-streaming one hour of today’s event.  You can watch the live video feed today at 1pm Eastern on our Community site http://community.acumenfund.org.

This is a chance to hear from our global team about the work they have been doing and what they are learning, including closing reflections about the future by our founder and CEO Jacqueline Novogratz.

We’re proud of what we’re building, and excited to share it with you.

Enjoy.

Fast Company Interview

I was excited to be profiled by Lydia Dishman in her Innovation Agents column in Fast Company. Here’s the full copy of the piece.

Innovation Agents – Sasha Dichter, Director of Business Development, Acumen Fund

BY Lydia Dishman  Fri Aug 26, 2011

Sasha Dichter wants you to know that social impact investing is anything but a crock. He talks to Fast Company about making a difference for global social good.

The economy may be slumping and the markets fluctuating wildly, but Giving USA recently reported that over $290 billion in charitable funds was raised in the U.S. last year, an increase of nearly 4 percent. What’s more remarkable is that the majority of those dollars came from individuals, accounting for a whopping 73 percent of overall giving.

Talking with Fast Company, Sasha Dichter asserts that we aren’t running out of money for worthy causes, we just need “a different mechanism that will outlast an individual philanthropic funding system.” As the director of business development at the nonprofit Acumen Fund, Dichter understands there are huge, public problems such as clean water, sanitation, and affordable, preventative health care that can be solved by social impact investing.

“At Acumen Fund we’ve been asking ourselves this question since 2001: How can we combine the best investing and philanthropy for the 3 billion people living on less than $2 per day?”

Dichter rattles off statistics and outcomes such as how Acumen Fund’s already invested $60 million in more than 44 enterprises and touched 40 million lives, that illustrate how well-versed he is in the decade-old world of impact investing. Or, as he explains it, that space “somewhere between pure philanthropy and pure investing where there’s a class of capital that’s willing to get a lower expected economic return for a higher expected social return.”

As a graduate of both Harvard’s business school and its Kennedy school as well as doing stints as global manager of Corporate Citizenship at GE Money and as a senior program manager at IBM, Dichter has spent longer than that raising both philanthropic and sub-market return capital. He’ll be the first to tell you that social impact investing is far from “a crock.

Challenge – Talent

It’s also why, when he talks about how maximizing every philanthropic dollar should be a profit seeking, not necessarily profit maximizing, endeavor, he doesn’t try to sidestep the challenges. For instance, he points out how funding is not the biggest issue in giving people safe drinking water. “When the model starts to work the money will find its way there. The challenge is finding people willing to slog it out. The scarce resource is talent on the ground, not just in leadership but teams,” he explains.

This was in evidence when Acumen Fund invested in A to Z Textile Mills in Tanzania, a manufacturer of low-cost bednets treated with long-lasting insecticide (LLINs) which are effective for up to five years to prevent malaria, a disease that kills nearly one million people in Africa every year.

Acumen Fund’s initial investment in 2002 catalyzed a public-private partnership between A to Z, Sumitomo Chemical, ExxonMobil, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)–all heavy hitters. So no one expected to have difficulty getting the nets sold.

But they did–at least through traditional sales methods such as “Tupperware” parties, church and hospital sales, and door to door. Even corporations invested in having healthy workers refused to purchase nets for their employees.

By listening to the community and experimenting with different retail venues, A to Z became an Acumen Fund success story. The company is now the largest manufacturer of LLINs in Africa, producing 29 million bednets each year, protecting millions of people from malaria, and providing jobs for more than 7,000 people, primarily women.

Challenge – Storytelling

Even with those numbers, it’s likely that you haven’t ever heard of A to Z or any of the other businesses focused on social good that Acumen Fund investments are supporting in Africa, India, and Pakistan. Which brings up another challenge: communicating the cause and “making the ask” for funding.

Even as the guy who wrote a manifesto for CEOs of nonprofits, an impassioned diatribe for them to grow a pair and not be ashamed to ask for money. Dichter acknowledges that paving the path for people to understand impact investing is key to the future of the sector.

In his blog, Dichter describes the potential philanthropist/investor as having two pockets for two types of capital. One is for investing for financial return, the other is for philanthropy. He writes, “Asking someone to make an impact investment isn’t a move along a rational economic scale, with each step proving marginally more attractive. It’s asking someone to do two things instead of one: create a new pocket and invest out of that pocket with us.”

He puts most of the onus on impact investors, though. “We as a sector have a responsibility to not be apologetic about what the [investment] story is. There is no tradeoff,” he explains, the way there was a generation ago with the screened investment funds of the 1990s that peddled various “vice-free” stocks. “A certain amount of results have to be proven,” he adds.

Challenge – Analysis

But not quite in the way most MBAs would think. Dichter’s not opposed to applying metrics and analysis to the warm fuzziness of investing funds for social good. In fact, the Acumen Fund uses something called the Best Available Charitable Option (BACO) model as an analytical tool created to help evaluate investments against other charitable options delivering comparable products and services. Donors always know where their dollars would be most effectively placed.

Instead, Dichter believes that when impact investing does what it should, ie: tackle poverty, metrics will be beside the point. And this is where impact investing takes a sharp turn away from traditional philanthropy. He writes, “What if we get to the point when it becomes pointless to ask if an intervention works because, like the cellphone, it will be ubiquitous, so the question will feel purely academic?”

Dichter maintains there is no skipping hard work and the way to affect change on global social issues is to get close to the problem. One impact investment at a time.

Apply by Monday – looking for two great people

I’m looking for two great people to join my team, most likely in New York.  Both roles have incredible potential for impact.

One person, for the more junior role, is a crackerjack writer, thinker, synthesizer.  He or she will have wondered if her writing and organizational skills could be coupled with her passion for international issues and global development.  And she’ll discover that the answer is “yes.”

The other person, for the more senior role, is a fearless fundraiser, defined as I and you see this role in its fullest way and with all the strategic potential that implies.  This person will externally represent and build cornerstone partnerships for Acumen Fund, so she must be a natural storyteller and builder who has the grace, presence and poise to be thrust into any meeting or relationship (individual, institutional, corporate, government, you name it) and leave the person on the other end thinking, “Wow!”

The links above have all the specific details.

If this job is for you, or if you know someone you think is perfect, let me know AND apply directly.  We have audacious goals, for this team and for Acumen Fund, and I know we’ll get there.  I can’t wait to find the two people who are going to help make this happen.

The deadline is next Monday.  Please spread the word.

Raising kids is hard, surviving childbirth shouldn’t be – Make it Obvious.

This is a guest post from my Acumen Fund colleague James Wu, creator and curator of the wonderful Search for the Obvious website.

Search for the Obvious began with a simple idea: the most brilliant solutions to the world’s problems are all around us; sometimes, we just need a little help noticing them.

We are going beyond shedding light on these solutions.  We are highlighting some of the world’s most pressing problems and recruiting people to help us change the way the world thinks about them and to increase the urgency in solving these problems. The first Search for the Obvious challenge was Make Sanitation Sexy, and the winners were featured on GOOD, Design Observer, and YouTube (our winning videos got a million and a half views!)

In the spirit of International Women’s Day, Acumen Fund is partnering with ABC  News’ Be the Change: Save a Life and launching a challenge on maternal health.  We are looking for you (or your wonderful friends) to create the most inspiring, sticky ways to shed light on this global problem.

Not convinced? More than 1,000 women die each day due to complications during childbirth – 99% of these women live in developing countries. By the time you have finished reading this post, it is likely that one woman has died in childbirth.

Here’s what you can do. Use your creative genius to communicate this message: Raising kids is hard. Surviving childbirth shouldn’t be. Show the world that moms deserve better!

Here are some ideas for what you can contribute:

  • The most retweetable tweet of all time
  • A New York Times-worthy column that would make Nick Kristof proud
  • An iconic print ad or poster
  • Guerrilla marketing or public art that commands immediate Instagram and yfrog-ing action
  • A must-see must-share video that would hold its own against TED’s Ads Worth Spreading
  • THE UNEXPECTED. YOU DECIDE…GO CRAZY!

Enter your submission to Search for the Obvious maternal health challenge by April 17th. Winners will be announced on May 9th (the day after Mother’s Day).