10 November 2011

Acumen Fund's 10 Lessons Learned About Getting Beyond Poverty

Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen Fund
Five years ago I sat down with Jacqueline Novogratz to talk about Acumen Fund. She was just about to leave for a trip to Africa and I was just beginning to think about leaving The Nature Conservancy.

To my mind at the time the Conservancy had moved away from its core strength of supporting work on-the-ground and in-the-water -- we were more focused on large-scale global planning.

We had moved to the side of the "Planners" versus the "Searchers," to use William Easterly's nomenclature from his critique of Western efforts to "Aid the Rest," White Man's Burden. 

"Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand," Easterly wrote. "Planners apply global blueprints [emphasis mine]; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out if the customer is satisfied..."

Acumen Fund was on the side of the Searchers, the entrepreneurs. I wanted to get back to working with entrepreneurs who were doing real work.

There were three things I really liked about Acumen Fund:

1.) They were investing not donating -- and they were all about results.
2.) They thought like a Venture Fund, only with a more patient, long-term view.
3.) Jacqueline. She was direct and didn't beat around the bush.

I need to explain that last bullet.

I was coming from a big, non-profit corporation, which operated in many ways like a Fortune 500 company.  Five years into its life Acumen was still more like a small and nimble start-up fund.

As entrepreneurial as I was -- I'd started several print and online media ventures over the years -- and despite how intrapraneurial I had been in my time with the Conservancy, Jacqueline saw that I wouldn't fit into Acumen at that time.

"Have you thought about starting something on your own?" Jacqueline asked.

(I ended up going to Ashoka as their vice president for global development before moving on to start my own endeavors.)

I continue to follow, support, and be impressed by Acumen's progress.  They have an impressive record of success.

Tonight and tomorrow Jacqueline and Acumen Fund are celebrating 10 years of creating a world beyond poverty by investing patient capital in social enterprises, emerging leaders, and breakthrough ideas.

Since 2001, the fund has invested more than $65 million in enterprises providing access to water, health, alternative energy, housing and agricultural services to low-income customers in South Asia and Africa. Their global community of emerging leaders combines the tools of business and philanthropy, making the world a better place.

Here are 10 Things Acumen Fund has learned over the past 10 years:

1. Dignity is more important to the human spirit than wealth.
2. Neither grants nor markets alone will solve the problems of poverty.
3. Poverty is a description of someone’s economic situation, it does not describe who someone is.
4. We won’t succeed in the long term without cultivating local leaders, local money, and strong local communities.
5. Great people, every time, no exceptions.
6. Great technology alone is not the answer.
7. If failing is not an option, you’ve ruled out success as well.
8. Governments rarely invent solutions, but they can scale what works.
9. There is no currency like trust, and there are no shortcuts to earning it.
10. Patient capital investing is built upon a system of values; it is not a series of steps to be followed.

You can learn more about Acumen Fund here and download their Lessons Learned here.

Congratulations Jacqueline and Acumen Fund on ten years of success -- and here's to the next ten years!