September 7, 2018 | By Itay Weiss, Graduate Student Analyst

Many of our most celebrated institutions now face historically low levels of public trust. From colleges and universities to Congress itself, the institutions best poised to drive impact at scale appear out of touch with society and hamstrung by partisan divides. Researchers fear these conditions will cripple American democracy even further, as disillusionment leads to apathy — and in turn, to disengagement altogether. But if civic participation among our students is any indication, these researchers might not have much to worry about quite yet.

This past summer, high schoolers visited over 80 communities in 24 different states to advocate for safer gun laws. They took traditional approaches to civic engagement, like rallies, town-halls, and voter registration drives. But they also availed themselves of the best technology had to offer, using consumer-centered design to improve the ways the government serves its constituents. 

March For Our Lives, March 2018

On the one hand, take the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. After an 800,000-strong March for Our Lives, they mobilized supporters to convene over 120 “Town Halls for Our Lives” across 34 states. Strategically, if members of Congress declined to participate, local organizers would invite their opponents to attend in their place. They even launched the “Road to Change” tour to mobilize their peers even further, this time with the goal of making sure that people are registered to vote and will vote for candidates who support stricter gun-laws.

Traditionally, town halls symbolize direct democracy, allowing constituents to engage their elected officials face-to-face. But the 21st century town hall, whether online or in person, comes with its own challenges. These gatherings have increasingly become forums for protest, with opinions and emotions often overpowering facts and expertise. And with little signal amid the noise, translating public conversation into meaningful policy solutions has proved challenging. It’s little wonder, then, that lobbyists exert as much influence as they do, curating pre-packaged legislation packed with one-sided views of private interests — and taking credit for doing so while they’re at it. The news cycle forces legislators to stay relevant and ready to respond, and these kinds of products help keep things moving. But at the end of the day we don’t need policy-based evidence stacked in favor of a privileged class. We need evidence-based policy that serves the needs of all Americans — and that’s where tech can play a vital role. 

Elected officials lack a sustained stream of objective expertise from a disinterested third party. The stand some of them take on guns, for example, is motivated by the same incentives that make them turn to lobbyist legislation: it’s accessible, supported by so-called experts, and will yield campaign contributions. Organized differently, means of civic participation like town halls can amplify the constituent experience and enable elected officials to better represent their constituents. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Arkansas, calls for the creation of a new platform independent of ad-buys that allows for evidence-based discussion. Along the way, he is also asking constituents simply to text him with questions and suggestions — allowing his team to easily collect information, identify key issues, and respond with meaningful reform. CrowdLaw similarly promotes online participation in lawmaking with 25 case studies detailing the best avenues for engagement. 

Notably, the Beeck Center recently hosted an inspiring young leader working in technology and governance — Chris Kuang. Chris and his team founded Coding it Forward, “a student-led 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowering computer science, data science, and design students to create social good by breaking down the barriers to entry in social impact spaces.” They offer the Civic Digital Fellowship, a first-of-its-kind internship for students aiming to use technology to reform practices in federal agencies. 

Looking to the leaders of March For Our Lives and Chris Kuang as examples, what would it take to implement similar reform at the legislative level — minimizing information asymmetries and improving constituent participation across the board? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so go ahead and comment to continue the conversation! 

Chris Kuang (second from right) visits the Beeck Center

This post is part of our Student Summer Series, which highlights the perspectives of students working at the Beeck Center as they engage and explore ways to scale social impact.

August 15, 2018 | By Eunice Jeong, Student Analyst, Georgetown University Class of 2020 

As educational centers serving students as well as larger communities and cities, universities hold great potential for advancing important discussions on modern social problems and the potential for strategies such as socially-conscious investing to help address these issues. Large schools around the world, often with endowments upwards of $1 billion, hold a unique position in the eyes of communities and the media. These schools are developing the next generation of social impact leaders – government officials, educators, and social entrepreneurs – and they have a significant opportunity to shape the future of socially-conscious investing. Through their own investment of endowment funds and the courses they offer to students and executives, universities can lead by example to promote impact investing and build the capacity of the next generation of leaders to do the same.

This summer, Cambridge University confirmed its divestment from companies in the fossil fuel sector as part of its new commitment to using part of its £3 billion endowment to address climate change. The Cambridge University Endowment Fund (CUEF) investment plan includes a comprehensive review of environmental impact funds, education for university leaders on the topic, the creation of a university Centre for a Carbon Neutral Future as a center for sustainable energy research and related policy discussions, and a commitment to complete carbon neutrality on campus by 2050.

Closer to home, Georgetown University’s board of directors announced in June 2015 that the university will no longer invest its endowment in companies whose principal business is mining coal for energy production. They came to the decision after mounting pressure from student and community groups such as GU Fossil Free, which set up pickets on campus demanding accountability from the Georgetown board and presented its proposal in multiple meetings with the board of directors and President DeGioia. In addition to this divestment, the university is committed to evaluating topics related to socially responsible investments and endowment management. While Georgetown’s financial disaffiliation from coal companies is not yet as extensive as Cambridge’s commitment to actively investing in sustainable energy options, divestment itself is an important first step in impact investing on a campus scale.

Socially-conscious investing is starting to catch on in similar ways in other schools as well. Many consider socially responsible decisions to be part of a university’s obligation to its students and larger community. As students and staff demand that school directors and advisory boards tackle relevant social issues, university commitments to impact investing are starting to become more common. Efforts in campus impact investing can be seen in the boards of other large universities across the country, such as Harvard, Brown, and Boston University. For Georgetown, addressing fossil fuel companies’ effect on climate change problems can be considered to be part of the Jesuit mission of the school – in an official statement, DeGioia remarked, “As a Catholic and Jesuit university, we are called to powerfully engage the world, human culture, and the environment – bringing to bear the intellectual and spiritual resources that our community is built upon…The work of understanding and responding to the demands of climate change is urgent and complex. It requires our most serious attention.”

In addition to promoting impact investing with their own endowments, schools can also provide opportunities for their students to learn about impact investing and tools to apply in their careers. This year, the University of Cape Town will launch its first course on impact investment for lawyers through its Graduate School of Business. The course will be convened by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Program convener Susan de Witt remarked, “Impact investment is growing at a rapid pace, both globally and in [South Africa], and as more international funding becomes available with demands for better social and environmental as well as financial returns, there will be a need for legal expertise to craft the kind of agreements and deals that will ensure these outcomes are realised.” Other universities should consider implementing similar programs so that students can learn to implement social impact investing practices in their future careers. This program is similar to other established programs such as the Social Impact MBA program at Boston University aimed to teach business management with a social impact mindset, aimed toward students interested in the nonprofit and social sector.

How else can schools promote impact investing for students outside the classroom? Socially conscious investing efforts can come directly from the student body in the form of student organizations like the Wharton Social Venture Fund – similar projects exist at the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and the University of California, Berkeley. Students interested in learning about the subject can create or join clubs like Net Impact, a student organization based off the national nonprofit which aims to support business-minded students in pursuing social and environmental impact causes. The organization has chapters in universities across the country. Schools can also host conferences and speaker events featuring impact investing experts and give students the opportunity to learn and network with leaders in the field.

Looking forward, university-sponsored impact investing, whether it’s directly through endowment investments, or indirectly through student education, has significant potential to make a difference in communities and in the next generation of leaders. Schools looking to follow in the footsteps of Cambridge, Georgetown, Wharton, and Cape Town must carefully analyze their priorities and the needs of the surrounding community so that the investments that they produce lead to real returns and social impact. In this way, universities today are in a position to leverage their significant power to create lasting social finance solutions and build the capacity of future leaders.

This post is part of our Student Summer Series, which highlights the perspectives of students working at the Beeck Center as they engage and explore ways to scale social impact.

July 30, 2018 | By Caprice Catalano, Student Analyst, Georgetown University Class of 2020 

Impact investing is a hot and trending topic. In fact, during the past year, the estimated value of the impact investing sector has doubled, with assets under management rising to $228 billion. So, what exactly is impact investing? 

Before joining the Beeck Center as a summer student analyst, I was asking myself the same question. I was surprised to discover how little I knew about impact investing, given the massive amount of assets held in this sector and my undergraduate studies in finance in the business school. Over the past two years, I have been immersed in learning about stocks, bonds, and other financial investments. I learned to seek investments that provide the most “bang for your buck,” but I failed to consider the fact that an investment can do a whole lot more than generate profit. 

In addition to profit, financial investments have the power to achieve positive social and environmental impact. Impact investments are investments made in companies, organizations, and funds with this multi-faceted intention in mind. The Beeck Center has helped me realize the full potential of investments by providing me opportunities to participate in conversations on impact investing, such as at Alley’s Impact Investing Panel Discussion and Demo Night.

At this event, I engaged with individuals who live and breathe impact investing. The panel discussion consisted of venture capitalists who invest money into startups that produce positive social and environmental impact, along with strong financial returns. I also had the chance to speak with multiple social entrepreneurs. Unlike most business executives who use social impact to gain good publicity, social entrepreneurs consider catalyzing social change from the outset.

In the panel discussion, the venture capitalists provided great insights into the impact investing field. They commented on the upsurge in impact investing funds and the motivation behind it. Several panelists attributed the rise in funds to consumers’ desire for businesses to become more accountable, transparent, and action-oriented towards social problems.

The panelists moved on to challenge one of the major criticisms facing the impact investing field, which is the concern that impact funds do not generate robust returns. Hallie Noble, the head of Village Capital’s U.S. FinTech Practice, contested this criticism with the fact that 50 percent of venture funds do not even make their investment back. How can we disparage impact funds for not providing robust returns when essentially no venture capital makes a robust return?

An interesting conversation on identifying and measuring impact also emerged among panelists. One way that Village Capital strives to generate impact is by eliminating the bias present in venture capital funding access. The firm invests in entrepreneurs who might otherwise be overlooked by traditional early-stage investors. Venture capital cannot be restricted to white, male entrepreneurs from the Bay Area. These funds must be accessible to all entrepreneurs – with no prejudice against gender, race, socioeconomic status, or any other factor.

I had the pleasure of meeting a social entrepreneur who is directly challenging this funding bias. In 2015, Fonta Gilliam founded Sou Sou, a financial technology company, with the goal of helping female borrowers build their credit score, cash collateral, and financial acumen. The app is open to all users, but it was specifically designed with women and minorities in mind due to the harsh realities they face in obtaining finances. Women are two times more likely to be denied a loan at a bank and are four times less likely to receive venture capital funds. In 2017, only 2% of venture capital funds were given to women, with women of color receiving less than 1%. Gilliam, a woman of color herself, is defying these statistics and her app is working to inspire more women to break through this tough barrier.

Not only was Gilliam’s technology designed for women, but it was inspired by women. Sou Sou, both the name and the company itself, stems from the word, “susu.” Susu refers to an informal savings and loan tradition pioneered by women in West Africa. In this tradition, families and friends lent money to each other when receiving money from a bank was infeasible. Although this tradition began in West Africa, it is used all over the world under a variety of names.

Fonta Gilliam is just one of many individuals utilizing business to tackle social problems. Her work and pursuits demonstrate the importance in companies, investors, and consumers coming together to find investments that can unleash social change. Together, we must push businesses to shift from operating under a single bottom line to operating under a triple bottom line – one that considers the planet and people in addition to profit.  

In the short span of two months at the Beeck Center, my knowledge on impact investing has risen exponentially. I greatly encourage other finance-driven students or financial service professionals to seek out opportunities to learn about and engage in this fast-growing and important sector. Learn a way to get an even better and more meaningful bang for your buck.