Venturing into public good: from venture capital to the creation of state-supported venture philanthropy and its implications for third sector financing

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Isserman, Noah Jacobsen  ORCID logo

Over the last three decades, scholars in management, policy, and geography have examined the growing economic, social, and spatial impact of the financial sector. Venture capital firms have been a focus, generating a contested but deep literature around the roles of such “value-adding” capital providers in supporting the growth of firms, industries, and various territorial innovation models. In parallel, there has been substantial government support—financial, regulatory, and otherwise—of these private sector financial intermediaries, despite scepticism.

The past twenty years have seen the emergence and rapid growth of analogous funders in the third sector, itself the realm of substantial experimentation and growth. These new intermediaries, “venture philanthropists”, have become important players in shaping, structuring, and channelling funding to the third sector. The activities and effects of venture philanthropists are underexplored, as are their growing interactions with governments—despite intentional and striking similarities between the evolution of venture capital and that of venture philanthropy. This dissertation addresses these gaps by systematically examining the emergence, evolution, and operational practices of two influential British venture philanthropy funds: the first such fund in Europe (Impetus Trust) and the first fund in the world co-created with the state (Inspiring Scotland).

The two venture philanthropy organisations (VPOs)—one with roots in venture capital, the other with roots in the voluntary and government sectors—both conducted the venture capital-inspired operational model of venture philanthropy in similar ways. That said, the VPOs reflected the logics and practices of their founders and funders. Impetus Trust more closely resembled early-stage venture capital, with a reliance on London-based networks, funders, and service providers—and a heavily London-focused portfolio. Inspiring Scotland evidenced the logics of government rather than charity in several instances, with substantial original research into social issues, heavily structured portfolios on set timelines, and regionally-distributed staff. This approach broadened access, allowing support of SPOs and their clients across various (and underserved) geographies, but limited options for opportunity-driven or expressive functions of philanthropy.

I surveyed the CEOs of most organisations supported by the two venture philanthropy funds (82 of 98 charities and social businesses), supplemented by interviews of selected CEOs and the founders and staff of the two funds. I find that, overall, the two VPOs each engaged in seven core activities of venture capital, intentionally adapting them to the third sector: sourcing and selection, due diligence, an engaged relationship, provision of funding, provision of non-financial support, creation of network linkages, and intentional exiting of relationships. As in venture capital, this process had broader effects: providing signals of investee quality, preparing investees for subsequent funding, and expanding networks. The combination of long-term relationships and high formal reporting requirements imposed significant costs for SPOs—and also created a virtuous cycle of trust and collaboration between VPOs and SPOs. The venture philanthropy model also had broader societal effects, creating data regarding individual organisations and the efficacy of responses to social issues, which in both cases informed policy. As intermediaries, venture philanthropists decreased power differentials and improved the flow of (oft-anonymized) information amongst funders, statutory bodies, and funded organisations, facilitating several types of collaboration.

SPO managers indicated that they received, on average, approximately ten different types of non-financial support—like strategy consulting, human resources support, or legal counsel. These managers reported in interviews and surveys that the non-financial services provided by venture philanthropists were highly valued, on average. Further, managers believed these services provided more value than it cost the VPOs to provide them. Likewise, managers highly valued most forms of new networking connections (though not all services or linkages were found to be valuable). Smaller SPOs valued services and network links more highly than larger SPOs, although all sizes of SPOs indicated both were valuable, on average. Importantly, this data was provided by SPO managers and focused on the SPO-VPO dyad—rather than provided by VPOs and focused at the portfolio or trust level. This filled an important gap in the literature: academics and practitioners often lament that the voices of charities supported by foundations are not often enough heard, which limits our understanding of many aspects of organizational philanthropy and its effects—in particular the burdens and benefits for recipient organisations.

I documented the co-creation of the first government-supported venture philanthropy fund through eleven interviews with founding managers and government officials. This model, in which state, private, and civil society actors collectively founded and funded a value-adding capital provider, militates against neoliberal assumptions of an ever-diminishing state, as does the leveraging of private resources in alignment with state aims—though it raises concerns around democratic processes, accountability, and local control.

This work helps inform the changing nature of the voluntary sector and its relationship with the state. I focus on the increasing interaction of actors between and across systems—sometimes in new roles and coordinated by new intermediaries—in the allocation of resources and delivery of services in the public interest. These new interactions inform broad bodies of work that seek to understand changing sectoral roles, most notably discourses surrounding neoliberalism(s), financialisation, and public management.

Overall, I find privately- and publicly-funded venture philanthropy playing a role in the third sector analogous to the role of venture capital in the private sector, with similar practices and concomitant effects in data generation, network formation and strengthening, facilitating partnerships, and signalling the quality of supported organisations. By examining two such emerging models of capital provision, I contribute grounded understanding of the way such systems are created and function across the private, public, and third sectors.

Gray, Mia
venture capital, social venture capital, public administration, philanthropy, venture philanthropy, social enterprise, social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial finance, entrepreneurship, social finance, growth capital, capacity building, organisational development, public-private partnership, nonprofit, voluntary sector, charitable trusts, foundations, impact investing
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Scholarship E.C. Commager Fellowship Gonville & Caius College