Impact investment

Impact investment

“Technology is a big driver of social impact, particularly in India. ... Because of that, businesses are able to reach consumers they could never reach before. People are using mobile phones to access necessities such as education, healthcare and job marketplaces.”

ROOPA KUDVA, Omidyar Network
“Technology is a big driver of social impact, particularly in India. ... Because of that, businesses are able to reach consumers they could never reach before. People are using mobile phones to access necessities such as education, healthcare and job marketplaces.” ROOPA KUDVA, Omidyar Network

In the past, giving back to society was a fairly simple process: write a cheque, give away some used supplies such as toys and clothes, perhaps start a food drive.

But it would usually stop there. After the money and other supplies were given, few donors -- if any -- would follow up to ensure their resources were being used responsibly.

Today, an increasing number of philanthropists and individual donors have become more strategic about the causes they support, keen to see how their resources will be used.

"Rather than just giving away resources, people want to know how the money is impacting the organisation," said Nikki Kinloch, the CEO of SimplyGiving, Asia's largest fundraising platform.

But what if there was a way to measure all the progress being made with each donation?

The philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network is aiming to do just that through a personalised form of "impact investment". The firm, created in 2004 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, focuses on "market-based approaches with the potential for large-scale, catalytic impact", according to information published on its website.

Omidyar Network was one of 411 organisations represented at this year's Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) conference in Bangkok.

Since its creation, Omidyar Network has managed over US$1 billion in funds for non-profit and for-profit endeavours around the world. It is responsible for investing or channeling funds to projects, social entrepreneurs and startups including Khan Academy, Wikia, and Teach for India.

"Impact investment" is intended to generate not just financial returns but also create a positive social impact, explains Roopa Kudva, managing director of Omidyar Network India Advisors. For example, a firm could invest in a small hospital in an Indian village. Over time, the hospital could make a profit but would serve a much more significant social purpose: to provide local people with access to modern medicine and treatment facilities.

"If you are looking to achieve impact investment at scale, very few structures can scale up as much as a business can," she told Asia Focus. "That is why we believe that in addition to giving grants, we should also invest in for-profit companies. Any profits we then make are reinvested into the business."

Currently, Omidyar Network focuses its core investments on five sectors: education, financial services, emerging technologies, governance and citizen engagement, and property rights.

Working in the field for over a decade, Ms Kudva has witnessed positive change for social entrepreneurs. More funding is available, government policies are improving, and a growing number of philanthropists want to be more strategic about their donations.

About 24% of Omidyar Network's committed financial aid goes to Asia, with the bulk of it going to India. Explaining why so much aid goes to the country, Ms Kudva says it comes down to rapidly increasing use of technology.

"Technology is a big driver of social impact, particularly in India," she said. "Today, three out of four Indians have phones, amounting to about 300 million smartphones in the country. Because of that, businesses are now able to reach consumers they could never reach before. People are using mobile phones to access necessities such as education, healthcare and job marketplaces."

According to Ms Kudva, India's unique talent pool and ability to scale up businesses help set the country apart. The country is the world's third-largest hub for startups.

Yet India also has certain limitations. Much of this talent, she says, is concentrated in specific industries and only in particular industries areas of the country.

"There are extraordinary talent gaps in fields like marketing and product management," she said. "However, the moment you go outside the three to four main cities, the quality of talent dips."

One of the main challenges India faces now is creating opportunities for its people. "This is a country where more than 50% of the population is below age 30. Also, there are one million people entering working age every month alone."

Thus, Omidyar Network has turned to impact investment, to create more opportunities by supporting entrepreneurs in various industries. One of these projects is the Akshara Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that works with government schools to help students better learn subjects including mathematics and English.

"One of the biggest problems in India is that almost every child goes to school but learning outcomes are terrible. Children go to school, but they don't learn," Ms Kudva said.

Since 2000, the Akshara Foundation has helped over one million children in Karnataka state and now runs multiple programmes to increase school enrollment, lower the number of dropouts and improve learning outcomes and overall development.

Indus OS is another campaign Omidyar Network has supported. The world's first regional computer operating system, it currently supports 12 local languages, and aims to "digitally connect the next one billion people in the emerging markets".

As India's second most used operating system, Indus OS has encouraged more users to get online, making it easier for them to pursue education and find jobs.

Akshara Foundation and Indus OS owe their success to their ability to focus on a specific group of people to accomplish a set of goals. But the key to success is the determination and passion to create change.

"We've always seen that purpose-driven organisations tend to do much better in the long term. They keep their employees engaged, while also attracting funding and creating value for shareholders," Ms Kudva told Asia Focus.

A non-profit looking for investment from Omidyar Network must also give the firm a seat on its board to monitor progress and ensure funds are being used effectively.

For those who wish to try their own forms of impact investment, she has some tips for both non-profit and for-profit ventures.

For for-profits, Ms Kudva suggests doing something concrete. "There should be some proof of concept, it can't just be an idea."

Finding what makes a for-profit venture unique and innovative is extremely important, as is thinking about what problem the for-profit will try to solve.

On the other hand, when it comes to starting a non-profit, critical thinking is a must. "What's the problem you're trying to solve? What is the vision? How are you leveraging technology? These are all questions to consider," she said.

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