The business of doing good: time is still money, it just takes a really long time

Time and patience, that is. And trail making.

Elizabeth Eagen
6 min readOct 28, 2017

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In all the interviews I’ve conducted for this project, one insight sticks out: businesses in the business of doing good need more time to prove they can go into the black, and more patience from their shareholders or stakeholders to see how it all pans out. Activist stakeholders operate on a shorter time horizon and with lower tolerance for non-quantitative measurement of success. So we’ll never know the impact of a more forgiving time horizon for Etsy’s vision to be socially-conscious and publicly traded. But whether publicly traded or not, businesses trying to do good can get moved off course by activist stakeholders. From an investment standpoint, it seems like the type of investment that’s happening as VCs search for the “next unicorn” is giving folks a lot of bad advice on how to go public, and on what to build.

The Zebra Manifesto puts it this way:

When VC firms prize time on site over truth, a lucky few may profit, but civil society suffers. When shareholder return trumps collective well-being, democracy itself is threatened. The reality is that business models breed behavior, and at scale, that behavior can lead to far-reaching, sometimes destructive outcomes.

The nonprofit and philanthropy world has struggled with time and patience for a while now. The field tries to deal with short-termism by more open-ended support for core activities, rather than projects; foundations and organizations alike are writing longer strategies that have more appropriate metrics on when and how to pivot. “Foundations can go long”, said Rob Reich, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University (Reich on why foundations exist is worth reading in full). But the need for provable and testable results in a relatively short time frame can do more than just make changes happen too soon. Short-termism sets the goalposts in the wrong place. The perspective it brings can skew the pipeline of projects that even make it to consideration in any of the big arenas for funding, be it government, philanthropy, or business. Shortsighted investments drag down our pursuit of the difficult questions of what is value, and what is a meaningful outcome.

Timing and patience is in many ways a proxy for what should shareholders or investors expect in return, and when they expect to get it. Is it impossible for a business to triangulate between doing good, being profitable, and achieving scale?

I’m not the first to ask these questions, but the truth is there seem to be no definitive answers yet. Instead, the ecosystem is still one of experimentation. Efforts to measure impact and value seem to be working on definitions. Support structures to achieve them still feel like they’re in the startup phase. I think that we are waiting to see a critical mass of investors, a shift in consumers, and policy turn toward the acknowledgment that stable civil society and public sectors mean a better business environment — a tall order.

What is happening now is trail making. A growing number of institutions and models are taking on these challenges, with different financial instruments, organizations, accelerators and incubators trying to make that happen. They are marking the way forward, clearing obstacles, setting down the tread surface, and signing the trail for the next group to follow.

Travel on Durable Surfaces: trails that support the business of doing good

The best strategy to creating a tread surface is not to have to create one at all — by building trail on soils that will stand up to trail use. But even the best laid trails may require hardening in places where they become muddy or eroded, or where the trail needs to be well-defined to protect the surrounding ecosystem.[1]

Accelerators: I’ve mentioned 1776, focused on “the digital transformation of critical industries” and their location in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Social impact space is rich with contributions to getting the model right. One NGO, Conveners.org, has taken a meta approach and created a tool to help social entrepreneurs pick the right accelerator. As the group’s Executive Director noted in an interview, entrepreneurs might pick by name brand rather than what they need. Well-known accelerators, like Echoing Green and Ashoka, provide broad platforms and assistance to entrepreneurs. The Points of Light Civic Accelerator “CivicX” and investment fund focuses on bootcamp for “profit and non-profit early stage ventures that include people as part of the solution to critical social problems.”

Social Impact Bonds: the Nonprofit Finance Fund makes loans to nonprofits and pushes for financial literacy in the sector (strategic plan PDF here). They’ve been in a multi-year experiment with social impact bonds, which are multi-stakeholder partnerships to scale innovation in the social sector. In this type of financing, impact investors put money up front for someone to deliver a social service, and are then repaid by someone invested in the outcomes — usually a government. Repayment is based on the services achieving a contracted set of positive outcomes.

Conscious capital: this is one of the labels for investing with a mission. A good discussion of this can be had over at the Motley Fool — they ended their “prosocial” stock portfolio a few years ago (reflective piece here) but have kept a sustainable investing forum open. Impact investors and funds like Bridges Management Fund look for ways to build financial instruments where “a focus on tackling big societal challenges creates commercial value. It helps to find opportunities that others might miss. It helps to build better relationships with staff, customers and other key stakeholders. And it helps to drive stronger, more sustainable performance.”

Alternative structures in investment strategies: Some investors believe that (similar to social impact bond contracts) the structure of the initial investment from a VC not only affects the success or failure of a social impact model, but also affects the pipeline of projects that an investment firm sees. One model, championed by Village Capital, is to invest not as equity owners, but in a revenue sharing agreement. This puts fewer limits on investors, because they don’t need rapid growth to justify having a company in their portfolio; and it changes the pressure on startups to seek “growth at all costs” in order to make the next round.

Benefit Corporations: these remain high on the list for their clarity and support networks for committed founders. An excellent, recent guide lays out the steps for entrepreneurs, and the ecosystem of support is robust.

Deliberate checks and balances: Bridges is an interesting case in itself because the Fund has also created the Bridges Impact Foundation, funded by 10% profits from the senior team to do philanthropic work. But Bridges has also given the Foundation 30% ownership interest in the management company, which means it can veto changes to the founding mission.

Alternatives to startup culture: the newest of these, the Zebra movement, believes that alternative business models are the whole game, and the dividing line between nonprofit and for profit, and the verticals of impact investing, create limits on what a sea-change in business culture could provide to the business of doing good. “Developing alternative business models to the startup status quo has become a central moral challenge of our time. These alternative models will balance profit and purpose, champion democracy, and put a premium on sharing power and resources. Companies that create a more just and responsible society will hear, help, and heal the customers and communities they serve.”

What each of these pathways share is in taking the existing ways to invest and turn a profit (through firms, startup support, etc.) and cooking that up together with different forms of socially responsible support for the economy. Smart trail builders are also interested in making those pathways protected — getting some longevity to the investment, so it’s got real legacy to it. Trail builders acknowledge explicitly that the best candidates to solve a problem aren’t always the ones that will be profitable the soonest, and that the forms of support a social entrepreneur need aren’t the same. And finally, they’re interested in how to tell the story to others — signposting a way forward for consumers and entrepreneurs alike.

[1] https://mylandplan.org/content/building-trail

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