The 3 Themes and 5 Big Ideas We Got From This Year’s AVPN Conference

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Reject the notion that you “can’t.” Act with a sense of urgency. Be a driver of systems change.

These were the three themes that Doug Miller, chairman of the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, used to tie together the many and varied discussions at this year’s AVPN conference on social investing. Though only in its second year, the AVPN conference has quickly proven itself to be the site of intelligent, needle-moving conversations on philanthropy and impact investing in Asia.

At the conference, there were broad conversations on social impact (like panels on engaging the government as stakeholders and the need for intermediaries in the social sector) as well as deep dives into the finer details of social change work in implementation (like using the GIIRS to measure impact and best practices for working with co-investors). In upcoming posts, APF will be sharing the lessons learned from individual sessions during the conference, but first, we want to complement Doug Miller’s 3 themes with our own 5 major takeaways. Here are the ideas that we felt circulated often throughout the conference, both explicitly and implicitly:

1. Collaboration is no longer an option — it is a necessity. Unlike traditional market spaces, one of the defining qualities of the philanthropic/impact investing space is that we’re not profit-driven. We’re not all fighting to gain market shares, scrambling to acquire each other’s companies, or constantly looking for ways to outdo our competition. We’re in it for the impact. So if we want to be more efficient with our limited resources, it is imperative that we learn to collaborate. We must do so often and deeply — not just pay lip service to the spirit of team work. To paraphrase from opening keynote speaker Amit Chandra of Bain Capital, who has committed 90% of his wealth to philanthropic causes, there is power in coming together and pushing the envelope. Collaboration can work in multiple directions — it can be between funders, looking to diversify risks in their investments; or it can be between social enterprises, individuals, and funders, leveraging each other’s intellectual, social, and human capital to achieve common goals.

2. Finding the right partner is a lot like dating. If we are to collaborate more, then we also need to find the right partners to work with. This can be a tough process, but Dr. Chris West of the Shell Foundation says it’s a lot like dating. A paper application can only tell you so much about a potential partner — you have to actually sit down with them, have a meal with them, talk to them. Find out about your compatibility. Do your interests align? Is your partner in it for the long-run, or are they just looking for short-term funding? As in dating, finding the right partner involves a lot of intuition. Sometimes, after sitting down with an entrepreneur or enterprise, you will know within half an hour if the partner is right for you.

3. Forget the silos, focus on the ecosystem. “Systems” was the word of the conference, as many of the tweets from conference delegates below will tell you. It’s no longer about funding individual projects, but creating sustainable impact by changing the very process by which we think about and try to achieve our goals. This means working between sectors, recognizing the value of talent in social impact work through competitive salaries, building organizational capacity, and investing in intermediaries that connect and build platforms among different social agents.

4. Take a long-term view. Ruby Shang of the Clinton Foundation says that it takes at least seven years to see a project to its full fruition. If we want to affect real social change, we have to be willing to commit over multiple years. And this doesn’t just apply to projects and organizations, but also in how we work with people to prepare future generations of social leaders and entrepreneurs. Sati Rasunato of Endeavor Indonesia shared the importance of mentoring and connecting through a rather comical anecdote: One of the entrepreneurs in Endeavor’s program started out by selling cooking oil on the streets before eventually finding success in the housing industry. Endeavor then connected this entrepreneur to an older, more seasoned, highly successful real estate tycoon as a mentor, who gave the young entrepreneur a critical piece advice: Don’t go into real estate development, because if you do, you will compete with me. And if you compete with me, you will lose. Stay in affordable housing instead. And so that younger entrepreneur was able to carve out his own path in affordable housing. Part of the ecosystem building process is having one generation of entrepreneurs mentor the next.

5. Good philanthropy is all about people, but working with people in philanthropy won’t always make you feel good. It’s fair to say that most people in philanthropy and impact investing lean optimistic. We believe we can change the world, at least in some small way, so we enter the social space with high hopes and aspirations. But we must learn to temper our idealism to help us think more clearly through problems, and put aside our do-gooder egos to confront the harsh social realities that we face. The issues we engage with — be they poverty alleviation, human trafficking, or environmental conservation — can be extremely demoralizing, and the pace of change can often feel glacial. Moreover, we cannot just think of these issues as abstract problems to solve, because they are the lived experiences of real people. Amidst the sometimes relentless (but welcomed) positivity of the conference, Stephen Nairne of the Lundin Foundation spoke frankly about his frustrations working in the social space, about the partners who have not lived up to expectations and projects that did not go as planned. He reminded us that this can be a lonely and difficult space to work in, with few advocates and many critics. But as the saying goes, few things worth doing in life come with little effort and difficulty. And so we persevere.

Next post, APF will look at some of the answer to the conference’s big question: what’s worked in social investing? Check out our AVPN 2014 tag for complete conference coverage.

Updated: Here’s our second post!

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