My Philanthropic/Social Investment Journey

I began writing this piece by reading previous “journeys”, and became intimidated by the list: Dame Vivien Duffield, Sir Trevor Chinn and Tony Blair!  This is a credit to the persuasive powers of the Philanthropy UK team, but made me very hesitant to use my “moment in the limelight” in what may seem a challenge to the philanthropic model, but I was asked to give an honest account of my journey, so I shall.

It begins innocently enough.  Like Sir Trevor Chinn, my introduction to charity has Jewish roots.  I learned the importance of charitable giving (tzedaka) in Jewish religious school.  This background and Maimonides’ philosophy around giving were explained elegantly by Sir Trevor, so I shall not elaborate.

Despite such hopeful beginnings I drifted to Wall Street.  I felt guilty about it of course, so I supported charities financially.  In time, this proved insufficient and I became a trustee of the House Foundation for the Arts, which backed the performance artist Meredith Monk.  This not only assuaged my guilt but gave me an introduction into the rewards (and frustrations) of charities.

Moving to London with my family in 1987, I was still spending most of my time working, but donated to a range of charities.  In 1997, I ended my career in global finance as the chasm between what I did every day and the things I told my four children were important was just too wide.  I thus began a frustrating journey to figure out what I was actually meant to do in life.  The journey continues, but I now have some ideas.

My path encompassed politics (with the Lib Dems) and the charity world (as Chair of Shelter).  Neither “offered the answer”—with both I encountered bureaucracy, mission drift and a frequent disconnect between stated intentions and actions.  I doubt these large organisations are unique.

I began to learn about social business, where entrepreneurs turn their talents to doing “good”.  Working with these odd characters, I found a refreshing attitude, integrity and an ability to innovate and move swiftly, as only small organisations can.  Along the way I became Chairman of Justgiving.com, a marvellous social business, which has grown explosively.  It is “social” because through it 6.5 million people have donated over £370 million to UK charities since 2003!

Along the way I became involved in many other social businesses and enterprises, including Belu Water, the carbon neutral bottled water company, the interestingly-named Ethical Property Company, which rents commercial office space to social change organisations, The HCT Group, which is involved in community transport and the Green Thing, of which I am proud to be Chairman.  This firm (www.dothegreenthing.com) uses the tools of marketing, media and the internet to creatively engage people to help solve climate change.  These enterprises offered me a route to “doing good” that seemed less wasteful and could be especially effective.

Partly this is because social businesses may raise capital—an option not generally available to charities.  Increasingly investors are taking “extra-financial” returns into account, which social enterprises offer in abundance.  This pool of capital is small but growing, and is related to the socially responsible investment (SRI) fund movement. Inspired by these trends, my company (Catalyst; www.catfund.com) began to fund-raise for social enterprises.  More recently, we have launched a £30 million venture capital fund (with £5 million of initial backing from Barclays) to invest in UK-based profitable, growth-oriented social businesses.  Our aim is to create commercially-viable social businesses which can tap into the enormous pool of mainstream capital.

We felt even more was needed, especially for the thousands of social enterprises not ready for external capital.  In that spirit we spun out www.socialinvestments.com , a website which provides information about 150 social enterprises (hundreds more coming!), enables direct investment in these and provides a “gateway” for the neophyte “social investor”.

In addition to these activities, I have mounted a crusade to “talk the sector into existence”.  This has involved lecturing, writing articles (such as this one), holding an annual conference and keeping a blog (the Social Business Blog).  All of this feels a bit like three jobs, but essential when one is trying to forge a career out of a mixed bag of activities in a new area.  This career is not for the fainthearted, but it is stimulating, rewarding and fun.

This is all not to say that politics and charity do not have their place, I merely expect that over the next twenty years, social entrepreneurship will play an essential role in providing solving social, ethical and environmental goods that neither Government nor the charitable sector will be able to afford.

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