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Letter from Jacqueline Novogratz – Fall 2010

Dear Acumen Fund Community,

I write to you just days after our Annual Investor Gathering, a full-day event in which we bring together our community to take stock of the past year and look ahead to the future. This has been an extraordinary year for Acumen Fund, so let me start by giving a brief synopsis of where we stand.

2010 Investor Gathering morning deep dive discussion on rebuilding Pakistan.

When we started Acumen Fund, we were intent on investing in companies that promised to serve at least one million people. It has taken some of our companies six or seven years, but there are now six Acumen investees that fall into this category.

To name a few, Ecotact in Kenya saw more than 6 million uses of its 27 public sanitation facilities in 2010. d.light design brought safe and affordable solar light to more than 2 million. Global Easy Water Projects (GEWP) has sold more than 400 thousand systems to some of the world’s poorest farmers. And WaterHealth International (WHI) has brought safe drinking water to more than 300 villages, and has catalyzed an industry of five other companies bringing water to 1,000 villages. In total, the more than $50 million that Acumen Fund has approved has helped bring services to more than 40 million people and created more than 35,000 jobs in a sustainable way.

Nine years after we launched Acumen, people still ask us what we mean by sustainable. Of course, we are a nonprofit, and we don’t expect to cover all of our costs simply by the revenue generated on our investments.

An Ecotact facility in Nairobi, Kenya

We are driven not by financial returns, but by the change we are effecting through our investments. We hope to see our capital returned to Acumen so that we can reinvest it – and we are on track to do that. However, our most critical metrics are around the number of people we serve on an ongoing basis, the sustainability of the companies we help build and the transformative industries we help create – asking questions such as are they growing? Enduring? Bringing quality services with integrity?

We established Acumen Fund in 2001 to help pioneer a new category of philanthropy, one that focused on investing, on metrics and on merging the best of business practices with the moral imagination needed to serve the poor. In the past several years, 192 new “social impact” funds have registered. When I spoke at the SoCap conference this year, I underscored how important it is for all individuals involved in social investing to be mindful of our ultimate missions. What the world needs is not simply funds that invest and earn a little less than market returns. At Acumen, we are trying to help build a world in which every human being has access to basic, affordable goods and services so that they can live with greater choice and opportunity – and with greater dignity.

The world needs models for understanding what it takes to bring affordable, high-quality energy to low-income rural villages. In Bihar, for example, one of the poorest states in India, the government has declared that more than 20,000 villages “cannot be reached” by extending the traditional grid. An entrepreneur, Gyanesh Pandey, and three colleagues decided that there had to be a better answer, and through great determination and grit they founded Husk Power Systems. The innovative company gasifies rice husk – an abundant resource given that Bihar is located in the rice belt – and distributes electricity in a decentralized, low-cost way to far-flung rural villages.

Husk Power Systems in Bihar, India

Acumen’s patient capital investment is part of Husk Power’s story. Several types of capital were needed along the way: the company got its early start through support from friends and family and from a business plan competition; Shell Foundation, in many ways an unsung hero, provided further grants and significant management assistance; the government of India agreed to subsidize the price of the electricity generated; and we worked with Husk to create a more feasible business plan. Our patient capital investment has now been joined by more traditional investment money, and the company is on its way. Currently more than 130,000 people benefit from safe, clean affordable light – and this in places that previously lived in blackness from sundown to sunrise. Patient capital is one part of the answer. But it must work in conjunction with other types of capital – and partnerships – as well.

Acumen Fund’s community continues to grow and thrive. I want to extend a deep sense of gratitude to everyone bringing so much, financially and otherwise, to our mission. This year we saw more than 100 new or renewed Partners, who are becoming involved through new efforts such as Venture Partners, in which they will spend significant time supporting specific investments. We’ve also seen the growing phenomenon of chapters that support our work: there are currently 10 around the world, with two more, Boston and Japan, in formation.

If I’ve learned anything these past nine years, it is that there is no more profound currency than trust. I was deeply moved at the end of summer by the Pakistan floods, and greatly saddened by the lack of media coverage. My husband and I traveled to the country to see the situation on the ground. We found massive devastation – 21 million people homeless – but we also found Acumen Partners doing Herculean work to bring real support to those most in need. I felt proud to know and be part of them. On our last evening, we shared dinner with our advisors at the home of Partner Farrokh Captain, and we talked about how we might leverage trust to help. While Acumen is not a relief agency, there is much we and our companies and advisors can do to help transfer some of the most relevant goods in Acumen’s global network. We also can convene and connect. We have been suggesting that the U.S. government consider matching dollar-for-dollar what Pakistanis are doing through private sector efforts and philanthropy to help their fellow citizens.

Mairani, a woman I met in a relief camp in Pakistan

Let me end focused more specifically on voice and poverty. The Blue Sweater has been chosen by a number of universities as their Common Book read, which means that all incoming freshmen read the book and then use it as a learning tool. As a result I’ve had the privilege of visiting a number of U.S. campuses this fall. What struck me again and again is how hungry young people are to dive into more complex conversations about the kinds of solutions an interconnected world needs – and how they feel there are too few places to do so.

We are seeing too many of our leaders move from a place of ideological certainty just at the moment when we need to step back together to better understand how we as a world came to a place of such interconnectedness with a rising gap between rich and poor. Our world demands new solutions that start with defining the problems at hand and then using our many resources, including the markets, including government, and including patient capital and philanthropy, to solve them. Doing so will take a more proactive, imaginative and moral leadership.

At Acumen Fund, our commitment to invest in entrepreneurs as well as to invest in leaders and in ideas is stronger than ever. In so many ways we are just beginning. In all ways, we need you to help us use the ideas of patient capital, dignity and interconnectedness to extend the civil rights movement to reach every human being on the planet.

This is no time to think small.

Wishing you all good things,

Jacqueline Novogratz

Fall 2010


Investor Gathering

See video from last week’s annual Investor Gathering.

2009/10 Annual Report

Our first-ever Annual Report, highlights our investments in businesses that change lives, ideas that change the world and leaders that show the way.

Kashf featured in The NY Times

In his column in The New York Times, Nick Kristof writes about Roshaneh Zafar of Kashf Foundation and the impact of her work in Pakistan.

Acumen Fund now accepts business plans online! If your model delivers significant social impact, plans to be financially sustainable, and has the potential to achieve scale, go here for information on how to submit your plan and how we evaluate investments.

Acumen Fund Annual Report 2009/2010


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]

Meet Manjushree Patil, Founder of Aatman Academy

This month saw violent tragedies in Pakistan and Kenya, regions where Acumen works and which five classes of Acumen regional fellows call home. Among them there are dedicated teachers like Acumen India Fellow Manjushree Patil, crusaders against sex trafficking, builders of government, creators of liberating mobile medical technologies, and curators of slum sports programs. The need for strengthening the connections between those who are working for positive change against seemingly impossible odds has never been greater. We at Acumen have never been prouder to be the thread tying together these courageous individuals. Read more about Manjushree and how she is changing her community in India below! [Read More]