by John Trybus, Managing Director
The Acumen Fund has a bold model for tackling poverty.
It’s called patient capital and the approach seeks to “bridge the gap between the efficiency and scale of market-based approaches and the social impact of pure philanthropy.”
Traditional charity this is not.
Founded by social innovator superstar Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen Fund has made $73 million worth of approved investments in 65 breakthrough enterprises that serve the poor around the world. From affordable drip irrigation for farmers in Pakistan to a non-surgical circumcision device that helps combat HIV/AIDS in Rwanda, the organization has had amazing impact in the past ten years.
This week’s social strategist is Yasmina Zaidman, the organization’s director of communications and strategic partnerships. Yasmina is no stranger to focusing on innovative ideas that benefit the social good. Prior to her current role, Yasmina was a portfolio manager at Acumen Fund where she saw the journey of these enterprises firsthand. She also worked for Ashoka.
“I really started out seeking ways to use my skills and interests, and this underlying passion I had for social change in the best way possible,” Yasmina explains of her career journey. I wanted to “learn from the best of business, the best of social change and do things in a new way; when I found out about the Acumen Fund I felt as if I found what I was looking for.”
Here are a few key take away’s from my interview with Yasmina:
- Not all innovators are created equal. Wanting to make the world a better place is not enough. It takes skill and not all “innovators” are created equal. That’s a constant refrain that we hear in the Social Strategist Project, but Yasmina puts that idea in a new light. “We look at probably 100 different opportunities for every one person we invest in,” she explains. “Finding these innovators is tough, but we know they’re out there and when we find them we’re so committed to helping them succeed so we want to make sure they’re the right fit.” It’s that balance of skill and will (mentioned in more detail below) for which Acumen Fund is searching.
- Celebrate a dynamic founder but build a sustainable organization too. To many, Jacqueline Novogratz, the charismatic founder and visionary behind Acumen Fund, is inextricably linked as the face of the organization. This fact creates both unique opportunities and challenges. “It’s such a huge asset to us to have someone who is so through-and-through dedicated to this work and who happens to be a great storyteller and a great listener,” Yasmina says. But it’s also a “balancing act” to “leverage the voice and the vision of a great leader but at the same time really convey the depth of what the institution represents.” Organizations must be about more than one person alone.
- If failing is not an option than you have ruled out success as well. Let’s hear it for risk-taking! “For any organization that is focused on innovation and entrepreneurship it goes with the territory,” says Yasmina. “As we build our portfolio it means that not all companies we invest in will succeed. We know that as they grow they will face moments of failure, and then learning and growing.”
Arguably, the Acumen Fund has been successful in large part thanks to its focus on the balance between skill and will.
“We’re looking for entrepreneurs who have the skills to build a business,” Yasmina says. “But more importantly, who are driven by their desire to create social change. We talk about the balance between skill and will. Skill is essential. But we’ve also got entrepreneurs who have really developed that skill in their business. The will – the desire to create change in the lives of poor people – in some ways is a non-negotiable.”
Listen to my interview with social strategist Yasmina Zaidman to learn more about Acumen Fund’s approach to tackling poverty and the balance between skill and will in driving social change.