Acumen Blog


Net Impact: Scaling Nonprofits

I arrived at Net Impact Philadelphia with a duffel bag, laptop bag and an umbrella only to discover the Wharton did not offer coat or bag check – though they did loop a goody bag on my one free hand and slung a free t-shirt over my shoulder.  With over 2,000 attendees, the conference was beyond capacity.  This posed some logistical problems, but it was a huge testimony to the dedication of students and professionals to creating environmental and social value in their business enterprises.

After the opening keynote, I headed to the first session of the day – Scaling Nonprofits.  (Choosing break-out sessions is harder than you might think: the conference guide book provided 140+ pages of descriptions and information about the speakers).

I choose the scaling panel largely because of my interest in panelist William Foster’s philosophy about the need for philanthropies to reward high achieiving nonprofits with growth capital (I wrote a few months ago about William’s thoughts on this topic here.) In addition to Bill Foster, a Partner at Bridgespan, Mora Segal, Chief Strategy Officer at College Summit and Aaron Hurst, founder and CEO of Taproot Foundation also spoke.

The panelists discussed the dynamics of the philanthropic sector, specifically addressing fact that the environment is not conducive to financing the best and brightest nonprofits out there.  Bill pointed out that there are only 144 nonprofits that have reached $50 million in size, and only 10 nonprofits that have raised growth capital funds.

“There is a limit to what philanthropy can do,” said Mora, who mentioned that College Summit just reached the $20 million dollar mark in large part because of a school fee system that covers the organization’s variable costs.  College Summit started a growth capital fund five years ago and successfully raised $15 million in the first six months.

“We need to talk about how we get foundations to stop giving inefficiently,” said Aaron, who likened the multitude of nonprofits with similar missions to the hundreds of Chinese restaurants across New York City. “All the restaurants serve dumplings, lomein”…to be efficient, “they should all be one Panda Express.”

Some may disagree with Aaron’s proposed monopolization of Chinatown, but his point in well taken.  The philanthropic sector could improve the net social impact by rewarding mergers and partnerships between nonprofits with similar competitive advantages who realize they could achieve economies of scale by working together.

Hopefully College Summit and others who are raising growth funds, like VisionSpring, will continue to speak about their ability to overcome some of the barriers to achieving scale posed by the current philanthropy model. It’s still early to tell if the growth capital model will work for all nonprofits, regardless of their mission, but it’s certainly encouraging to see the impact organizations of those who have been successful in crossing the ramp-up threshold.


Four Emerging Leaders Building the Future of Pakistan

With 60% of Pakistan’s population living under less than a dollar a day, the external narrative of Pakistan is characterised by what the country lacks; a lack of security, a lack of women’s rights, a lack of access to education, and the list goes on. What this narrative ignores are the individuals who work tirelessly to plug those gaps. From human rights to education to food security, Acumen Pakistan Fellows are affecting change through organizations committed to tackling poverty. Their work is truly inspiring, promising a hopeful future for Pakistan. Here are four fellows that are building this future for Pakistan and come together periodically to share learning experiences and grow as leaders. Through five seminars, the fellows have strengthened skills of adaptability, communication, empathy and problem solving through listening. If you are committed to creating change in your community, apply now to be an Acumen Pakistan Fellow. The deadline is 29 September. [Read More]

Acumen Partners with AlphaSights to Better Access Global Expertise

In our work investing in social enterprises that deliver critical goods to the poor, there is a substantial amount of work to evaluate each investment opportunity. A critical part of the diligence process, particularly when it comes to emerging markets, is speaking with industry experts who can provide reliable information about sector trends, market dynamics and public policy – all of which affect our evaluation of potential investment opportunities. [Read More]


Our manifesto begins, “it starts by standing with the poor.” Yet for good reasons, the sector has found it challenging to measure which customers are actually being served through social impact investments – getting accurate data on incomes is notoriously difficult and the logistical challenge and cost of conducting surveys in person prohibitive. [Read More]

Questions for Aspiring Leaders

Bavidra Mohan, Acumen’s India Fellows Manager, attended this years Aspen IDEAS festival as a Scholar. The Scholarship program was established to invite guests from around the world to bring a diverse set of experiences, voices and perspectives to the rich conversations that take place at the IDEAS festival each year. [Read More]

Give Impact Investing Time and Space to Develop

Impact investing has captured the world’s imagination. Just six years after the Rockefeller Foundation coined the term, the sector is booming. An estimated 250 funds are actively raising capital in a market that the Global Impact Investing Network estimates at $25 billion. Giving Pledge members described impact investing as the “hottest topic” at their May 2012 meeting, and Prime Minister David Cameron extolled the potential of the sector at the most recent G8 summit.  Sir Ronald Cohen and HBS Professor William A. Sahlman describe impact investing as the new venture capital, implying that it will, in the next 5 to 10 years, make its way into mainstream financial portfolios, unlocking billions or trillions of dollars in new capital. [Read More]

10 Books We’re Reading This Summer

What are you reading? It is a common question here at Acumen, an organization full of avid readers constantly trading favorite book titles that discuss leadership, impact, development and branding. Here are 10 stellar books we’re reading this summer. These books and others provide a framework of thinking, a spark of new ideas, a platform for debate. So, what are you reading? [Read More]

How Acumen Brought Back my Fire

Eda is an East Africa Regional Fellow from Nairobi, Kenya and is the Founder and Director of Halisi Trust, an organization that seeks to challenge the vices that plague society and encourage transformational development in Kenya’s youth. When Eda applied for the East Africa Fellows Program, she felt disillusioned and stuck. Below, Eda discusses how Acumen’s Regional Fellowship Program brought back her fire. Now, Eda has engaged nearly 6,000 people through outreach events and the Mkenya Halisi movement continues to grow. Acumen is currently accepting applications for the next class of East Africa Fellows. APPLY TODAY! [Read More]

Imagining the world as it could be

Christine Gitau is an East Africa Fellow and an enterprise coach at Craft Afrika, which provides business support services to craft entrepreneurs, enabling them build viable and thriving businesses in Kenya. At Acumen we often use the term “Moral Imagination” when talking about leadership. Christine wrote a reflection on how this concept has shifted her thinking. We could not be more proud of what she is building! [Read More]

How two Acumen Fellows are disrupting the education model in India

Whether its running youth soccer programs, providing vocational training services, or transforming the education system in India, Acumen India Fellows are driving real change in their communities.  Abbas Dadla and Abhilasha Sinha are India Fellows who are addressing the teacher shortage in India through the use of technology and peer collaboration. Find out what they are building below.  If you have grit, resilience and a commitment to creating change in your community in India, East Africa or Pakistan, we encourage you to apply for the Regional Fellowship Program! [Read More]