Leaders in social entrepreneurship, from Miller Center, Skoll, Toniic, Acumen and more, take stock of 2016, look ahead to 2017.

The cusp of the new year naturally prompts reflection about the past and speculation about the future. Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship invited some leaders in social entrepreneurship and impact investing to share their thoughts about the current state of the sector and some trends they see for 2017 and beyond.

“As social entrepreneurship evolves, we need to continually be creative about how we address our ultimate goal, which doesn’t change—and that’s to discover the best ways to help social enterprises worldwide collectively lift billions of people out of poverty,” said Thane Kreiner, Ph.D., executive director, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University.

Measuring Impact of Social Entrepreneurship

One of the big challenges is how to measure the impact of social enterprises on the communities they serve, as well as how to attribute what factors lead to particular outcomes.

“Is social entrepreneurship really making a dent in the big problems facing the world today? 2017 would be a good time to talk about this,” said Harvey Koh, managing director of FSG.

Sasha Dichter, chief innovation officer for Acumen, oversees the organization’s work in leadership and the spread of ideas, including Acumen’s work in impact measurement, called Lean Data. He said: “In 2016 we saw huge strides and appetite for impact measurement that was fast, cost-effective and useful to entrepreneurs. My belief is that in 2017 we will start to see widespread adoption of Lean Data and similar nimble approaches to impact measurement—and for the first time we will start to hear, at scale, the voice of the customers we are serving.”

“In any given year, financial returns can go up or go down. Up, we feel great; down, awful,” said Adam Bendell, CEO of Toniic. “Measured impact also has volatility, whether you look for social impact or carbon reduction. But values alignment—the process of aligning our investments with our values, across asset classes—that can go up each and every year, until it reaches 100%. And that steady progress is a source of tremendous psychic income to the conscious investor—one that mitigates the emotional volatility of investing and brings lasting joy.”

On the other hand, Lisa Kleissner, co-founder of KL Felicitas Foundation, observed that the notion of impact washing became more prevalent in 2016. Impact washing is when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “impactful” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices or producing investable products that truly deliver positive social and environmental impact. “To avoid impact washing, impact networks such as Toniic become so much more important—to provide clarity on what is and what is not impact,” she said.

One of the “goal posts” that Miller Center and others have identified for benchmarking the impact of social enterprises are the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs, which celebrated their one-year anniversary in 2016, provide specific goals for ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity and well-being for all.

Marshaling Capital from Across the Investment Spectrum

Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), acknowledged the crucial role of financing in the success of social enterprises. She said: “CRS has taken some bold steps to become an active participant in the impact investing landscape, focused on leveraging resources, taking risks in new financing models, and helping to unlock entrepreneurial capital in the sectors and geographies in which we work. We see a number of trends that continue to inform our forward momentum on impact investing, including an increased interest from our traditional donors to catalyze the sector.”

As an example of these trends in impact investing, Woo described a CRS partnership with USAID to develop a fund that will make grants and loans to community organizations in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. This fund will be paired with technical support for communities to develop robust, inclusive development plans and projects—and it will be augmented by $50 million of additional public and private support for the target communities.

“As we move into 2017,” Woo continued, “we are looking forward to new partnership opportunities to create similar innovative financing solutions. We have also committed our own funds to make mission-aligned investments that create sustainable solutions for the poorest and most vulnerable worldwide.”

KL Felicitas Foundation’s Kleissner noted that 2016 saw “a remarkable uptick across the ecosystem in the increase of financial product offerings, impact intermediaries and new capital moving in. Impact investing definitely arrived in 2016,” she said.

To help explore new ways to address the funding of social enterprises, particularly as they scale, Miller Center has identified the “Transformative Frontier,” which spans the entire investment spectrum from approaches focused purely on investment returns to pure philanthropy.

“The trend line for social entrepreneurship has never been more promising,” said Sally Osberg, president and CEO of Skoll Foundation. “Increasingly, investors across the spectrum—commercial, impact and philanthropic investors—recognize the imperative for innovative solutions to societal challenges, knowing that the very future of democracy and free enterprise hang in the balance.”

Focusing on Replication and Taking a Systems Perspective

One potential avenue for making investment in social enterprises less risky, while creating pools of talent to expand the reach of social entrepreneurship, is to replicate validated social enterprise technology solutions and business models.

“We see strong potential in efforts to scale tried and tested models, while reaching deeper into the strongest pools of entrepreneurial talent. That would be great for accelerating impact, and it should also be interesting for investors,” said FSG’s Koh.

KL Felicitas’s Kleissner expressed a new urgency for impact investing and social entrepreneurship: “It has to be mentioned that the recent U.S. election underscored the importance of our work and that we are not working fast enough to solve domestic issues such as lack of access to education and sustainable job opportunities, both of which are key to a healthy democracy,” she said. “The relative ease with which Russia and social media manipulated U.S. voters laid bare how fragile our democracy is. My hope is that in 2017, the fourth sector—the emerging ‘for-benefit’ sector of the economy combining the private sector’s market-based approaches with the public and nonprofit sectors’ social and environmental aims—will strengthen and become a force in healing our democracy.”

Skoll Foundation’s Osberg highlighted the challenges to social entrepreneurship from larger cultural issues: “Knowing the imperative for innovative solutions to preserve the future of democracy and free enterprise, those stakes raise the ante for social entrepreneurship. If social entrepreneurs are to fulfill the promise of their innovative solutions to social challenges, then more social entrepreneurs must be able to demonstrate results at scale, and more investors must be willing to make bigger and more sustainable bets.

“When one adds in populist uprisings in both developed and developing world countries—fueled by globalization, demography, climate change and automation—it’s easy to see just how much more challenging the task of the social entrepreneur becomes,” Osberg continued. “It’s incumbent upon all of us who seek out and support social entrepreneurs to appreciate that their work has become all the more difficult, to step up our commitments and to join forces for the future we know is possible.”

FSG’s Koh emphasized that “we need to move into systems thinking, which is a departure from the impact enterprise approach. As we push to overcome barriers, we realize that what’s needed is bigger than working with just the social enterprises. It also includes governments, societies and other pieces that are part of larger systems.

“The systems people and the social impact people have different starting points and they don’t interact, but they should be connected,” Koh continued. “For example, the world of governments and big bilateral donors and intermediaries might work to improve agricultural markets—a very systemic, top-down approach. Social enterprises might work from the bottom up with individual farmers. It’s difficult to connect these two ends because they live in such different worlds, but we need to tie them together by thinking about the end goals. Is it to get more social enterprises going, or is it to grow more capital, or is it to have economies that are more inclusive?”

“In my mind, the only effective path forward for social entrepreneurship is through collective action that achieves collective impact: identifying and replicating lots of similar innovations, while aggregating a full range of capital and applying it intelligently so that all the efforts add up to making a huge difference,” said Miller Center’s Kreiner.

Miller Center is a pioneer and leader in this field, having started its Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) social enterprise accelerator programs at about the same time the Skoll Foundation was founded and that Acumen was launched.

“Successful trailblazers see where to go before others know the path,” said Kreiner. “Miller Center has embarked on a number of experiments in replication, new capital approaches, and building a network to spark greater collective efforts across the entire ecosystem. Our hope is that this experimentation, along with thoughtful analysis and continued conversations, will lead to best practices that can be applied to communities in need.

“In the end, this is not just about entrepreneurship or investing or philanthropy,” he said. “It’s also about understanding how societies function, and how societies are affected by ever-changing environmental conditions. The call to action for all of us is to mobilize the capital, the innovation and the passion that will make it possible to achieve our ultimate goal of eradicating poverty on a global scale.”

As Pope Francis wrote in his Laudato Si’ encyclical: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis, which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time protecting nature.”