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.

Carrots and marketing to the poor

Baby carrots aren’t actually “baby carrots.”  They’re cut carrots that were originally “seconds,” carrots that were too small or deformed to meet supermarket standards.  One day Mike Yorosek , a carrot grower, had the clever idea of peeling and cutting them, putting them in a bag, and seeing if they would sell.  (“Bunny balls,” his other idea, never caught on.)   The rest is history.

Lately, things have gotten tough in the carrot business.

With the recession, people started spending less overall, and when spending picked up again, people bought less-expensive whole carrots.  These end up in refrigerator purgatory – the vegetable drawer – where they’re not eaten.  So while people HAVE carrots, they don’t eat them, and the carrot industry suffers.

Jeff Dunn, who until recently oversaw Coca-Cola’s North and South American operations, is the CEO of Bolthouse, one of two big growers in the North American carrot market.  Faced with flat sales, Jeff is setting out on an aggressive new campaign and he’s totally ignoring all the “benefits” of his product.  He’s not trying to market carrots as a better, healthier alternative to junk food; he’s trying to market carrots AS a junk food…catchy Cheetos-like mascot, crinkly packaging and all.

Image courtesy of Fast Company Magazine - Still life by Jamie Chung

What can we learn from this carrot marketing fable?

A lot is made in the poverty-alleviation space of how we overlook and ignore the voice and the preferences of the beneficiaries of our work.  Well-intentioned, we talk to people about health benefits, about money saved and doctors’ trips averted and days in school, all the while ignoring that this isn’t how you market anything well.  Rich people buy shampoo because of a sense of aspiration, belonging, a story they’re telling about themselves to themselves and to others – why oh why would poor people think or act any differently?  “Benefits” don’t sell.

This is happening for one of two reasons:

  1. Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.
  2. Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.

(let’s leave aside, for now, that we need a whole lot less ivory tower and a whole lot more people from and of the communities being served).

It’s easy to tell the story of disrespect, but it might be that the people pushing hand-washing, bednets and solar-powered lanterns simply don’t have the same marketing chops as the folks in Atlanta (Coke).

It’s about time we look seriously at what products, outside of alcohol and tobacco, are being successfully marketed to the poor:  cellphones, obviously, and mobile payments; maybe Lifebouey soap or microloans or kerosene (yes, kerosene too.)

It’s time to understand what sells and WHY, and it’s time to take the notion seriously that one of the best things we could do to make a positive impact is to get better at selling things – even free things – to people who need them.  It’s time to take seriously the notion of BUILDING markets, and not just building solutions.  And any efforts that lead with “it’s good for you” had better end up on the cutting room floor.

Generosity Day – first reflections

I’m still trying to process everything that’s happened over the last 72 hours, but I’m pretty sure we did it: we created Generosity Day!

It’s too early to dissect all the lessons learned from this experience since in many ways we’re still in the middle of it, but here are a few thoughts from the eye of the storm.

First, Scott Case is 100% spot on in the theme he chose for the Social Media Week panel that inspired this whole thing: social media successes start and end in the real world.

On the panel, Scott rightly focused more on the “end” part of the equation – to remind us that since we are in the business of social change, a nonprofit’s social media campaign by definition cannot be a success if it doesn’t result in honest-to-goodness social change in the real world.  The rest is just idle (online) chatter.

What I’ve seen since last Friday is how the “start” part of the equation must also be firmly rooted in the real world and in personal connections.  This campaign may have exploded online and in the Twitterverse but it would never have happened if Scott, Katya and I hadn’t spent a day brainstorming together last year with a great group of folks that Jennifer McCrea pulled together (the brainstorm resulted in the creation of the Executive Education course in Exponential Fundraising that Jennifer will be leading at Harvard this year.  I highly recommend it for nonprofit CEOs).

Once Scott, Katya, Ellen and I hatched the idea on Friday morning (4 days ago!) and committed to support it, we each reached out personally to people with whom we have real-life relationships of trust and mutual respect, and we did it quickly.  Within minutes of my first post going up, I was emailing folks like crazy to tell them about the idea; so were other members of the initial brain trust, as was my colleague James Wu (who created the Search for the Obvious site for Acumen, which itself helped inspire Generosity Day) and many others.  As we started to gain momentum over the weekend, we continued to share to let people know about our progress, to give everyone a sense that momentum was building, and to recruit new folks to the cause.

The first slew of bloggers was enough to give the idea critical mass, but that’s just dead weight if you don’t have velocity.  The idea itself –  of rebooting Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day – determined the velocity.  Chip and Dan Heath wrote the book on sticky ideas (and I’m sure they have a mini version of sticky social media ideas in the works), but “Reboot Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day” has a lot of sticky characteristics: simplicity, concreteness, unexpectedness, emotion….  Without an idea that had its own legs and was built to spread, this never would have gotten out of the starting gate.

Taking a step back, and moving beyond lessons about success in social media, I’m left reflecting on some broader themes.  Why has there been so much enthusiasm for Generosity Day – with no marketing budget or PR firm, and virtually no lead time?  It’s not just a social media win, it is a reflection of a particular idea and its power at a particular moment in time.

My take is that Generosity Day was successful because there’s an increasing yearning for genuine connection and a deep desire in all of us to be the people we know we can be.  We’ve been oversold and over-pitched, we’ve bought too many boxes of expensive chocolates and too many pieces of jewelry because there was a holiday that said we should – instead of seeing the perfect thing at the perfect time (a gift, a meal, a thank you) and sharing it right then and there.  There’s nothing wrong with holidays, and certainly nothing wrong with romance, but we’re maxed out on fabricated emotion and are craving things that are genuine.  Generosity Day is a chance to get in touch with what we’re longing for: to be the best version of ourselves, to connect with one another, to help.

My first Generosity Day was absolutely incredible.  I can’t wait for the next one!

Generosity day update

What a long way we’ve traveled since Friday afternoon when we set out to reboot Valentine’s Day and kicked off Generosity Day 2011!

My heartfelt thanks to all of you for spreading the word and for pushing me every day to be better, blog better, do better.

We’ve had more than 3,000 tweets, many thousands of blog views, and some of the people I respect most in the world are spreading the word.  More important still, the #generosityday tweets and posts on www.facebook.com/generosityday are focusing on what people are DOING, which is the whole point.

The list of bloggers who have posted is getting too long to keep track of, but at a minimum you’ll want to check out Jonathan Greenblatt’s post on HuffPo, Alex Goldmark’s post on Good.is, Beth’s Blog, Philanthropy 2173, and the recent post on Time.com.

Brene Brown, who writes at Ordinary Courage has always blown me away with everything she does – and the fact that her “Generosity is my new Valentine” post has 200+ comments speaks to the amazing level of engagement she has created with her readers.  Truly a sight to behold.

Finally, if you haven’t yet, do read the great posts that helped kick this all off: Katya Andresen on The Nonprofit Marketing Blog and Ellen McGirt on FastCompany.com.

As Jonathan Greenblatt said in well in the closing of his HuffPo piece:

I deeply believe that everyone can have an impact — and that, taken together, those small acts can roll up into something truly worldchanging. As we were reminded over the past few weeks in Tahrir Square, every singe person carries the fuse of civic engagement that can ignite our common humanity. Sometimes it just takes a small spark to set it off.

This year, let’s make Generosity Day that spark. I want each of us to repair the world. Lets do it, one small act of kindness at a time.

We ARE doing it, together.  I couldn’t be more excited.