As impact investing starts gaining momentum across Asia, one organization at the forefront of overseeing its growth is SOW Asia. Launched shortly after the 2008 global financial crisis, SOW Asia set out to invest in sustainable change–the kind of positive, social and environmental change that could help avert a future global crisis. Now, SOW Asia invests and incubates social businesses while also building a network to shore up the impact investment field in Asia.
APF caught up with Athena Lam, Program Manager at SOW Asia, to find out more about what’s big in impact investing and what the outlook for the future is. If you aren’t yet familiar with the impact investing field, we encourage you to check out Kordant’s recent overview report first!
APF: SOW Asia launched just 5 years ago, and impact investing is still a relatively new field in Asia. What kind of response have you received from the communities you serve–donors and social entrepreneurs?
Athena: The responses have evolved over the past 5 years. It has remained a cultural challenge to conceptually blend philanthropy and (social) investment capital. In Hong Kong, impact investment is just picking up as a term now, and as such 5 years ago, it was a model that fundamentally did not fit into the traditional Hong Kong views of social organizations or investment.
In general, SOW Asia has straddled the two communities of impact investment and venture philanthropy. As we take donor funds to deploy as investment capital in social businesses, we are targeting a specific niche of social businesses that address a real social/environmental need and have a business model, but cannot get access to commercial capital or grants because they do not have quick returns for investors and are not traditional NGO’s. Usually these businesses are just beyond blueprint and piloting, which is still high-risk and involves a lengthy time commitment and non-financial support from investors and other supporters.
APF: Given the organization’s role in the social ecosystem, SOW Asia is in a unique position of being able to see the thought process behind both donors and entrepreneurs. How do you see the values/interests of the two sides aligning?
Athena: SOW regularly interfaces with these two groups and there is a persistent gap in expectations between them. In recent years, there have been adjustments on both sides. Donors are recognizing that East and Southeast Asia need greater early-stage support for social innovations, of which social enterprises are one, rather than solely traditional NGO models. We are optimistic that more donors will increasingly shift to venture philanthropy and impact investment that focuses on early stage social businesses once there are enough ‘success cases’ generated in the region.
On the other hand, we are helping to support social businesses to better understand what donors and impact investors are looking for. With impact investors in the region stepping into earlier-stage investments and providing crucial capacity building support, there will likely be success cases within the next 5 years; nonetheless, it is a long-term investment, and in the interim we must actively help social businesses in financial and non-financial ways.
APF: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in trying to engage these two communities?
Athena: For donors, the challenge is largely a cultural and attitude issue. Donors have generally accepted philanthropy as a 100% loss grant to a social cause, and investment as profit maximizing; to blend the two seems a double loss: making high-risk, low (financial) return investments as an investor, and taking advantage of the recipient of the funds by using a debt mechanism. Event donors who appreciate the concept are wary of the model’s implication on their public image, as the motives of making an investment might be questioned. The last cultural barrier is that Hong Kong investors and donors are risk adverse, and operate in a society that has low tolerance and long memories for failure.
For social businesses, the challenge has largely been finding the ideal blend of an organization that has both the social mission as well as strong business acumen. Social businesses that have strong business models often can attract commercial capital and therefore it is not appropriate for us to deploy philanthropic capital. Social businesses with founders whom come from social rather than business backgrounds often do not meet our business requirements. Oftentimes the best social businesses do not even identify themselves as social enterprises and are focused on proving their models, so we do not come across them.
APF: What are some of the projects SOW Asia is working on that you’re particularly enthusiastic about?
Athena: As impact investors, we have two investments: GIGAbase (based in Shanghai) and Bonham Strand (based in Hong Kong). Watching GIGAbase grow in China is exciting. Bonham Strand’s team is also an impressive blend of private-sector individuals with a social heart.
Apart from our portfolio companies, we are particularly excited about two initiatives. “The Roundtable” is a platform that SOW Asia hosts to bring together the ‘do-ers’ and leaders who run their own companies, programs, activities, and events around the social sector, start-ups and youth. Rather than the usual discussion platform, this is a select cross-sectoral action platform for young leaders as well as experienced professionals. We are going for quality by nurturing a small community based on our cross-sectoral networks and referrals by members. Together, we can have a greater collective impact on society, while each continuing the specific projects that we are passionate about.
The second initiative is an open-source and partnership-based incubator. We have applied for grant funding for this pilot, which will be a total of 12 months, targeting businesses in validation stage. The incubation program will offer the capacity building support for social businesses that will prepare them for investment by the end of the 12 months. The different components of the program offer partner organizations entrepreneur mentorship networks, corporate sector-specific advisors, business development ‘curriculum’, pitch training, investor pairing, and venue support. We believe that, rather than reinventing the wheel, we should leverage the resources that leaders in various sectors have.
Why is it “open-sourced?” The concept is that the entire program, from planning to post-program, will be documented: the incubatees will be case studies regardless of success rate; the mentors will have feedback, and all program partners will have feedback mechanisms and measurable deliverables. This will make the program iterative, and the information on the various components can be released so as to be used by other stakeholders in the region. We would like to have a structured program so that cases can be comparable and be better analyzed.
APF: What has to happen next before impact investing reaches its full potential in Asia?
Athena: Consolidation, collaboration, and professionalization. We need to consolidate the past 5 – 10 years of practitioners’ knowledge and increase collaboration between all players for pipeline sourcing, co-investing, capacity building for social businesses, ecosystem building, and best practice development. With regards to professionalization, one key is to better communicate “success” cases and develop impact measurement. Measurement is crucial to “proving the model,” and also not lowering the business standards for those who want to do social or environmental good. Social businesses have to become a viable source of livelihood to attract and retain talent.
About the Author
Anh is the communications and development coordinator at Vietnam Health, Education & Literature Projects (VNHELP), a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of Vietnam’s poor. Prior to her current position, Anh worked with Give2Asia in the business development department to research and develop material for Vietnamese American and corporate philanthropy. She also served as managing for Vietnam Talking Points (part of OneVietnam Network), where she wrote about Asian American identity and culture.