Snowflakes, Plumbing and Other Takeaways from the 2017 Social Impact Exchange Conference

This blog post was originally published on the website for UPenn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and is being reposted with permission by the author.


“It’s neither the first nor the last,” said Leslie Crutchfield, author and Executive Director of the Georgetown University Global Social Enterprise Initiative (GSEI). “Rather, it’s the collective weight of all the snowflakes that breaks the branch.” During the closing plenary, Crutchfield used this analogy to urge philanthropists to fund movements, not just programs. According to her research, movements only last when they have bottom-up support from a variety of different groups. For example, the successful movement to reduce smoking in the U.S. did not have one leader in particular. Rather, a groundswell of philanthropic leaders, citizen activists, lawyers, and others came together to push the movement forward—thus “breaking the branch” together. Philanthropies such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation played a crucial role in this movement, yet they alone cannot claim credit for its success. “There’s often ego involved in philanthropic funding,” Crutchfield remarked, “but funding movements doesn’t give you credit because you can’t attribute success to yourself.” For funders who are willing to forgo such credit, funding the “backbone” of movements can facilitate the involvement of the multiple stakeholders needed to make strong, lasting change.


During Women and the Future of Impact InvestingLauren Booker Allen described how Omidyar Network seeks to bring more funders—and their capital—into the space of impact investing. As Senior Manager of Impact Investing, Allen helps Omidyar build market infrastructure. “We’re doing the plumbing for the industry to catalyze more investments in this space,” she explained. This “plumbing,” or field-building work, includes creating a network of thought leaders and spreading knowledge of how best to engage in impact investing. In particular, Allen has seen demand from female and millennial investors change the field for the better. She encourages women especially to take control of their assets and seek out financial advisors who can help them achieve both financial and social returns. “We’re seeing a lot of paralysis, or hesitancy to act,” she said. “But I encourage you to be bold.” Fellow panelist Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Founder of theBoardlist, closed with additional practical advice. “Even if you don’t have financial capital to invest, you can invest intellectual capital,” she suggested. “Volunteer, be an advisor, join a board, etc. Or, you can invest small amounts of money to get experience. Don’t be afraid to take more risks and learn early by investing in things with low ticket sizes.” Better to start small than not at all!


“Partnership” was a hot topic at this year’s conference. But what does that mean, practically speaking? During the session Strategies for Breaking Through, Founder of Dermalogica Jane Wurwand explained the difference between collaboration and partnership. “Collaboration is blue-sky thinking to figure out what you want to do,” she explained. “But with partnership, you already know what you want to do. Now you’re seeking people to join you and bring the pieces you need.” In other words, partnership is like a party, and we all contribute something. For example, Dermalogica engages in philanthropic work through its Financial Independence Through Entrepreneurship (FITE) initiative, which supports women entrepreneurs via microloans, education, and job placements. FITE partners closely with microlending nonprofits such as Kiva, as well as private companies in the U.S. that can provide jobs for women with limited educational attainment and professional experience who wish to work in skin care. Wurwand challenged both funders and nonprofits to think creatively when it comes to partnership. “There’s lots of talk about scaling and partnership,” she said, “but we have many practices driven by funders that are at odds with what organizations need to scale their impact.” Such practices include short grant cycles and reluctance to fund overhead. And her advice to nonprofits: “Look to the private sector for support. Don’t be shy to approach companies whose brand is aligned with your mission.”

Thank you to Social Impact Exchange for hosting. We’re looking forward to next year’s conference!