May 4, 2020

CEO of the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA), Steven Serneels, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss how venture philanthropy is manoeuvring in light of COVID-19

We hear how five venture capitalists met in London approximately 15 years ago and explored how philanthropy could embrace more of an entrepreneurial spirit, and how venture capital assets could blend with philanthropy assets. Those were the origins of the EVPA.

 

There are many ways of defining venture philanthropy, and Steven likes to think about it along three dimensions: 1) yes, giving is good but it’s even better if you can measure your results and you know what you’re after; 2) as in venture capitalism, you need to go beyond the funding by exploring the value that one can provide by opening one’s networks, by providing capacity-building etc; and 3) being creative enough to provide tailored financing that is flexible and fits best with a given situation.

 

We hear how the EVPA is active in over 30 countries and has more than 300 members.  They are an ecosystem builder and provide diverse services, from peer group convening to research and working closely with all stakeholders.

 

The EVPA also has a strong relationship with the European Commission and connects closely with academic institutions and policymakers.  The typical profile of an EVPA member is mainly a European, cross-national organisation. Foundations and social investment funds are two of their main membership constituents, along with organisations such as NGOs and social enterprises that are more on the demand side of the equation.

 

While traditionally their members were organisations, more recently they have also started including high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) and philanthropists in their membership – individuals who can bring key resources and expertise to the mix.

 

Steven notes that COVID-19 is presenting serious challenges and he views this pandemic in three phases:

 

1) The survival phase – ensuring, for instance, that liquidity challenges don’t lead social enterprises to failure.

 

2) The revival phase – say the next 6 to 18 months – how best to stabilise and get things back on line.

 

3) The building resilience phase – being much better prepared for whatever future crisis might be looming in the horizon.

 

Foundations are struggling right now as they consider how to address the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus; they’re being prompted to ask some highly consequential questions, such as:

 

1) Should I redesign my programme, perhaps by moving away from a traditional focus on, say, the arts to a new focus on health or tackling COVID-19 in refugee camps?

 

2) Should I shorten my investment horizon from a multi-year approach to a more short-term focus, right now, to support organisations with immediate funding to address their liquidity challenges? and

 

3) How should I react if my foundation’s endowment has taken a serious hit?

 

Steven notes that the EVPA is suggesting to their members that they become a bit more relaxed about the rigorous reporting requirements they’re traditionally asking of grantees and to be more flexible with the management of grants; they should ideally open up a little bit about where and when to use the money; become a bit more relaxed because it’s urgently needed now.

 

When asked about how the EVPA member organisations and industry stakeholders all share information with each other, Steven mentioned that they have just gone live with Unitus Europe – a European philanthropy and social investing impact hub – a joint initiative the EVPA was very involved in launching.  They’re joining forces to ensure that the whole sector can have visibility on the different actions and initiatives that are being taken and, in the process, connecting supply and demand.

 

Steven also sheds light on the challenges being faced by social investment funds at this time and the partnerships that the EVPA has developed with various universities that are focused on applied research, such as ESADE in Barcelona, ERASMUS in Rotterdam, Catolica in Lisbon and HEC in Paris.

 

Steven talks about his background in the private sector and how he ended up running the EVPA. He always had a conviction that there should be a sweet spot where you can both do business and you can also do good at the same time.

 

When considering what success looks like in the next 10 years; a time horizon that aligns well with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Steven notes that using regulated accounts to measure the success of a business is something we’ve started doing approximately 150 years ago.  Before that there really weren’t any regulated accounts.  Yet, today, the financials are the key metric everyone looks to.  A similar thing happened with risk – looking at risk and return is something that is relatively new. Therefore, what Steven sees now is a third element coming into the picture, which is 'impact'. Societal additionality – there are loads of debates on how to measure impact yet, in 10 years’ time, he’d like to see a state of affairs where impact is a tangible and integral part of this risk-return-impact dimension.

 

Steven’s key takeaway for listeners: these unprecedented times in light of COVID-19 mean there are big dangers and big opportunities out there. He sees that in times of crisis, we tend to take measures that are not temporary but are often here to stay. Right now he’s following a current discussion on privacy and whether we should deploy smartphone apps to track what we’re doing, who we’re connecting with etc [within a COVID-19 context]. From an immediate perspective, for sure, there is a benefit of implementing such a system.  However, we need to be mindful of how best to implement things that have a short-term value while also keeping in mind that once implemented it may not be so easy to remove them when required. We should be very aware that the actions we take now in this time of crisis will probably be around for a much longer time. Democracy is at stake – we should not take light-hearted decisions and we must keep our long-term values front and centre when taking action now.

 

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