Who is the Boldest Impact Investor of Them All?

Most impact investors achieve no long-term impact because they’re not bold enough — here’s why they’re so timid

“When Steve Jobs said that the goal of every entrepreneur should be to ‘put a dent in the universe’ — he wasn’t talking about inventing the next Angry Birds.” 
― Peter H. Diamandis, Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World. Photo by Pete Lambert.

TED announced The Audacious Project at their Age of Amazement event in Vancouver in early April. It’s a new philanthropic effort that provides significant capital to entrepreneurs and activists addressing the great social challenges of our time. It works as follows:

  • Invite the world’s change-makers to dream like they’ve never dreamed before;
  • Select ideas that are truly bold and truly actionable, with the potential to affect millions of lives;
  • Present them to the public, inspiring groups of donors and supporters to come together and get them launched.

The initiative is backed by some of the most trusted names in philanthropy: TED, Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite, The Bridgespan Group, Dalio Foundation, ELMA Philanthropies, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

Their tagline is:

“Let’s change the way we change the world.”

However, as audacious as the project appears to be, there is a disconnect between their 2018 portfolio of solutions and what the world so desperately needs: systemic change.

Systemic change is a redesign of all parts of humanity’s operating system, taking into account the interrelationships and interdependencies among the social, economic and ecological crises threatening our common future.

Let’s take a look at how the first seven Audacious contenders fail at achieving long-term systemic change:

  1. The Bail Project wants to end the injustice of automatic jail time for those who can’t afford bail, but doesn’t address the system that causes many to turn to crime because their basic needs are not met;
  2. The Environmental Defense Fund wants to hit the brakes on climate change by tracking gas emissions from space, but doesn’t address the suppression of viable alternative energy solutions that would decisively end our reliance on fossil fuels;
  3. GirlTrek wants to help a million Black women launch a health revolution, but they don’t address the root cause of obesity: depression and a lack of purpose created by a system designed to encourage consumption as a short-term fix for happiness;
  4. Living Goods + Last Mile Health want to digitally empower thousands of community health workers to make care available to all, but they don’t address the biggest cause of our planet’s ill health: highly processed foods;
  5. One Acre Fund wants to support millions of African farmers in growing more food, but they don’t address the system designed to keep them in poverty;
  6. Sightsavers wants to eliminate trachoma, one of the world’s oldest diseases — an agonising eye infection that causes blindness, but they don’t address poverty and lack of proper hygiene, the underlying cause associated with trachoma;
  7. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution wants to explore the ocean’s vast twilight zone, while doing nothing to prevent the dumping of more than 8 million tons of plastic into our oceans every year.

There is no question that these passionately dedicated teams of caring individuals have the best intentions in the world. There is no doubt that every person touched by these initiatives will be blessed beyond measure. The talks given by the inspiring founders are undeniably moving.

However, it’s also undeniable that, 10 years from now, the underlying cause that led to the rise of these initiatives will not have been addressed. If the underlying cause isn’t addressed, the impact investment will have had absolutely no long-term impact. It’s like treating cancer with chemo: the symptoms are reduced in the short-term, with often long-lasting negative consequences.

The only way impact investing will have a lasting effect on super-wicked problems is to address systemic change. But getting an impact investor interested in systemic change is really, really difficult for these reasons:

  • Systemic change is ridiculously complex, because it involves unravelling traditions which have served humanity relatively well for more than 200 years;
  • Systemic change doesn’t provide any short-term economic return;
  • Systemic change doesn’t have any precedent, because never before has the human race had access to the tools required to coordinate a citizen-led, grassroots redesign of humanity’s operating system;
  • Systemic change recognises that the UN’s Sustainable Development agenda (SDG’s) is fundamentally compromised by corporate interests, and this represents a conflict for some investors, since they don’t wish to be seen challenging these corporate interests.

Does that mean that impact investing is doomed to address merely the symptoms of humanity’s deep cultural malaise? Not necessarily.

A small team recently convened to find answers to the following questions:

  • What meaningful milestones could be tracked in a systemic change project which, if started this year, would likely only start bearing fruit by 2030?
  • What significant Return on Investment would sufficiently excite an impact investor to consider a longer term systemic change project?
  • Apart from financial returns and outside of the SDG’s, what results would sufficiently excite an impact investor capable of systems thinking?
  • Which bold impact investor is best suited to lead an investing syndicate dedicated to designing a new operating system for humanity?
  • Would it make sense to work with The Audacious Project to better define the submission criteria in a way that encourages systemic change?
  • How viable is Project 2030 as a truly audacious, yet achievable project?

If we can find answers to these challenging questions, we just might find a way of enabling humanity’s next evolution.

“Science suggests the next step of human evolution will be marked by an awareness that we are all independent cells within a super-organism called humanity.” Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman. Spontaneous Evolution.

If you are an impact investor or know an impact investor bold enough to challenge TED, Skoll, Virgin, Bridgespan, the Gates and the MacArthurs to come up with a truly audacious impact plan, please reach out.

If you have impact experience and are willing to coach us through this process, please also reach out.


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