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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.