Dr. Judith Rodin's Keynote Address at Acumen Fund


President of the Rockefeller Foundation gave the keynote address at the Acumen Fund's 10th Anniversary Investor Gathering.

Dr. Judith Rodin

Dr. Judith Rodin

New York, NY — Thank you so much, Margo. Peter Goldmark tells a story about sitting with Jacqueline at the Rockefeller Foundation many years ago. At the time, she was running The Philanthropy Workshop, where she recruited and mentored young philanthropists to launch projects in bottom-of-the-pyramid communities around the world. Peter recalls discussing the program with Jacqueline, who at one point admonished him: “You know, Peter, we can go a whole lot further than this.”

Today, reflecting on the past ten years and all that Jacqueline has accomplished, all I can say is: what an understatement. It’s astounding to consider that Jacqueline’s idea, her vision, and her work have already touched 40 million lives.

That’s worth repeating: 40 million lives.

I think it’s safe to say that Acumen has sparked a revolution that is only just beginning. And I have no doubt that over the course of the next ten years Acumen’s reach and impact will expand tenfold. That’s what I’d like to focus on today: what this expanding revolution looks like. Let me start with an observation that Tom Friedman made last month in what was, I think, one of his most insightful editorials: "Something’s Happening Here." That was the title of Friedman’s column. By “here,” he meant “around the world.” And the “something” he was referring to might also be described as “everything” – from the Arab Spring, to global financial turmoil, to climate change, to the Occupy protests, to the tumult we are experiencing across nearly every community, society, and continent. “It’s clear,” Friedman wrote, “that something is happening globally that needs defining.”

He went on to describe two contradictory theories that explain and contextualize this moment of incredible change and uncertainty. The first theory he called “The Great Disruption,” which is the title of a recent book by the Australian environmentalist, Paul Gilding. Friedman quoted a chilling passage from Gilding’s book, in which he writes: “Our system of economic growth, of ineffective democracy, of overloading planet earth – our system is eating itself alive.” In other words, the Great Disruption is an unraveling – it’s the beginning of the end of the world as we know it – an alarming interpretation of current events, to be sure.

The second theory Friedman described as “The Big Shift,” and this is the theory put forward by authors John Hagel and John Seely Brown in their book, “The Power of Pull.” They argue that the instability we are experiencing today is the result of a massive, tectonic collision in which globalization and the information technology revolution are merging, resulting in an earth-changing flow of “ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities.” We experience this flow…this Big Shift…as tumultuous. But in the long run, the authors argue, it will be transformative and overwhelmingly positive.

After presenting these very different theories of current events, Friedman ended his column with two words: “You decide,” he wrote. Of course, what Friedman meant was that the reader should decide which theory she or he subscribes to – the Great Disruption, or the Big Shift. But the reason why this column has stuck with me…and why I want to highlight it today …is because it really is up to us to decide. It is up to us to decide not only which worldview we subscribe to, but which worldview will prevail. Because right now, at this tenuous moment in history, both worldviews are equally valid. In other words, we are at an extraordinary, historic, and yes, a dangerous inflection point.

And we see this in the Rockefeller Foundation’s own research and forecasting. In 2009, we created a global network of forward-thinking research organizations, called Searchlight, most of them in the developing world. Searchlight’s forecasts are constructed by working with multiple partners on the ground to provide a nuanced level of analysis not readily available anywhere else or by any other means.

Through our Searchlight network, we scan the horizon of social challenges and opportunities across four continents in order to identify trends, policies, and technologies that have the power to bring about meaningful change in bottom-of-the-pyramid communities. And Searchlight also helps identify development challenges we must confront to realize that change. Our latest report from Searchlight, identifying significant macrotrends, was fascinating. One dominating trend is the proliferation of information feedback loops – from market prices to social media – that are reshaping the ecologies of daily life for good and for ill. Another is that communities around the world are increasingly experimenting with systems of rules and rulemaking, tweaking and changing how governments work in ways that pose both new opportunities and new challenges when it comes to poverty alleviation and development. And of course, a trend those of us in this room are uniquely attuned to: that new tools, new designs, and new ways of thinking combine local knowledge and global expertise in new networks that we can potentially tap in powerful ways. These are critical global trends, but the Searchlight partners also identified how they are becoming manifest in specific, regional contexts.

In Southeast Asia, Searchlight forecasts that the small, informal enterprises that employ the majority of the poor will need to compete with larger businesses in the increasingly integrated and increasingly regulated regional economy. In South Asia, on the other hand, Searchlight predicts that the major challenge and also an opportunity going forward will be the dramatic increase in the population of that region’s slums over the next two decades. The sanitation and potable water concerns will be immense, but so will the opportunity to create a participatory planning process for the impending low-income housing build-out in these communities.

Meanwhile, the challenges and opportunities are of very different nature in Latin America. Searchlight forecasts that corporate infrastructure could provide a platform for investment in social missions and the chance to scale micro-financed enterprises. However, at the same time, there will be an increasing need to create markets and production structures that drive increased wages.

A final region of focus for Searchlight was Africa, where it identified the need for grassroots political structures to advance democracy and to empower women, who bear the economic burden in many African households, and who in some African nations account for more than half of migrant workers. Searchlight has further illuminated for us the reality and complexity of this historical moment that Friedman so aptly describes, and that we will all confront head-on in the next decade – the inflection point that we are experiencing, and that we must steer in the direction of a Big Shift, rather than a Great Disruption.

Easier said than done… But we do see a path forward. Or rather, we see the continuation of a path that has repeatedly given us safe passage through previous periods of inflection. The path, in a word, is innovation. Innovations born of new ways of thinking have always pushed global society in exciting and eventually promising directions. Innovation has always been decisive during moments of change, and today is no exception. We see this so clearly in chapter after chapter of the Rockefeller Foundation’s century-long story, including Jacqueline’s brilliant creation of Acumen. It was a process of innovation during a moment of great inflection that led to the creation of the field of public health …and the discovery of a vaccine for yellow fever …and the eradication of hookworm in the United States …and the Green Revolution in Asia…and so on.

Clearly, if we hope to achieve impact of similarly dramatic scale in the 21st century, we must do what our predecessors did so well: see the world anew; experiment based on new and different perspectives; and find, fund, and then scale the innovations that emerge. This is a critical point. Our 21st century goal at Rockefeller is not only to find a specific new invention or to deploy a new product that will be world changing. Our goal is also to facilitate a process of innovation that will lead to a global revolution in the way we mobilize and deploy capital for social impact. And most often, the innovation process that is fundamental to social change and market transformation alike is recombinant innovation.

Consider Apple. Many were saddened by the passing of Steve Jobs last month. We memorialize him as a brilliant inventor. And Jobs is certainly credited with dozens of patents. But when it comes to the products we associate most with his genius, his talent was not invention – it was recombinant innovation. For instance, Jobs didn’t invent the personal computer. He built on and perfected existing inventions, including a graphical user interface pioneered by the Xerox Corporation years before the first Macintosh ever rolled off an assembly line. And Jobs didn’t invent touch screen technology or mobile communication devices. But the iPhone and iPad are examples of a process of recombinant innovation that took existing elements and reassembled them in truly unprecedented ways to create entirely new product categories that revolutionized modern society.

Indeed, double-bottom-line investing is a prime example of a recombinant innovation. It takes Wall Street financing models and applies them in powerfully new ways to social problem-solving. Some of the first players in this space were recombination experts, you might say, in sectors like microfinance and community development. Consider Jacqueline looking at patient capital and starting Acumen; or consider Willy Foote of Root Capital looking at trade financing for rural cooperatives. But the process of recombinant innovation needs acceleration. And acceleration requires intermediation and the building of critical infrastructure, which the Rockefeller Foundation has recently stepped-in to help facilitate.

To this end, we collaborated with institutional investors like TIAA-CREF and JP Morgan to create the Global Impact Investing Network, or GIIN, which serves as a forum for identifying and addressing systemic barriers that hinder the industry’s efficiency and effectiveness. GIIN now has over 40 members ranging from banks to pension funds to family offices. And, of course, Acumen Fund was a founding member of GIIN’s Investors’ Council, which brings together top people to build-up the industry. Acumen was also a founding member of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs, or ANDE – another collective platform that we supported, where member organizations come together to promote investing in entrepreneurship in emerging markets.

We were also an early supporter of the Global Impact Investing Rating System, or GIIRS (“gears”), to provide objective and credible third-party ratings of the social and environmental impact of investments. Twenty-five impact investing funds, including Acumen, have been rated “GIIRS Pioneer Funds.” They will direct their investments to GIIRS-rated funds and companies.

And now we’re working with Acumen and other partners on a new global reporting standard, known as IRIS, for measuring and communicating social impact. Twenty-nine leading impact investors signed a letter of support for IRIS, encouraging funds and their portfolio companies to use it for social, environmental and financial reporting. Each of these is a critical catalyst, and taken together, this infrastructure has helped to accelerate the process of innovation in the field of impact investing.

Another area of acceleration and recombination in the impact investing field has been the creation of new types of public/private partnerships around the use of both public and private capital. For example, Rockefeller helped create the New York City Acquisition Loan Fund – in which a group of foundations put up the first, high-risk tier of $36.2 million in capital for new affordable housing projects. This allowed commercial lenders such as JP Morgan, HSBC, and other large banks with lower risk tolerance to provide the second tier of debt, some $190 million. As a result, in only a few short years, this partnership enabled the city to build thousands of units of affordable housing.

As another example of recombinant innovation, governments, private markets, and NGOs are beginning to collaborate on social impact bonds, which generate new investments from philanthropic and private sources to scale proven, effective interventions for pressing social needs. One of the first social impact bond pilots is currently underway in Peterborough, in the UK, with Rockefeller support. This particular pilot focuses on reducing recidivism in adult males, who have served short-term prison sentences. But the social impact bond model can be applied to many issue areas where government holds a responsibility for the wellbeing of its citizenry, but where municipal bond markets do not currently apply. I think we’ll see an expansion of the social impact bond market in the coming years that will prevent future costs for government and problems for society by creating a financial incentive for better service delivery.

In fact, we hope to see these bonds deployed in the near future in the US. Earlier this year, Rockefeller invested $400,000 in the Nonprofit Finance Fund, who are spearheading the creation of social impact bonds here. And the White House recently announced it is working on its own $100 million social impact bond pilot. In addition to social impact bonds, another example of innovative new partnerships among public and private institutions involves social enterprises leveraging private balance sheets through guarantees or other credit enhancement structures.

For instance, the Gates Foundation recently backed a $90 million bond issuance by Aspire, a CA-based charter school, through an unfunded guarantee backed by the strength of Gates’ balance sheet. A third widely deployed impact innovation model has been the proliferation of competitive crowd-sourcing. One example was Rockefeller’s recent funding of a crowd-sourced competition last year that allowed the G20 to search for new, game-changing ideas for how to give small and medium sized enterprises the financing structures they need to grow and scale most effectively. Using the Ashoka Web-based platform, we presented this problem to the world, and in response G20 country members received hundreds of ideas. They picked 17 winners and then committed $528 million to fund them. One finalist was an organization called the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, which is pioneering an alternative to traditional credit scoring models in developing countries where credit information is unavailable. Instead, they’ve developed a statistically proven tool that assesses risk by looking at an entrepreneur’s intellectual and psychological characteristics.

Let me mention a final area of impact investment innovation and acceleration: new social impact models being developed by large corporations that are no longer satisfied with corporate social responsibility as a means to move the dial and create systemic social change. Hybrid value chains in particular are a wonderful example of how businesses and social actors can transform markets, and how they can begin to redefine value in game-changing ways – by designing win-win alliances between corporate and nonprofit partners, authentic value propositions, and multi-faceted returns on investment.

Consider a hybrid value chain partnership in Mexico between an NGO, the Mexican Association of Social Sector Credit Unions and Zurich Financial Services. Together, they’ve developed a market-based solution to the enormous challenge of financial security in Mexico by creating a life insurance product that will help end a major contributing factor to the cycle of poverty in these communities: the costs associated with a wage-earning relative’s death. Zurich sells affordable insurance policies, for which it assumes financial risk. The Association provides on-the-ground know-how and their distribution networks. The result has been an astounding 50 thousand policies sold in 2009 alone. And more importantly, this particular hybrid value chain has created a low-cost, high-volume model for the rural micro-insurance sector. So the opportunity is tremendous…not only for Zurich ...not only for impoverished communities in Mexico …but also for this proof of concept to inspire large corporations to establish many other hybrid value chains in many other development contexts around the world.

All these examples become part of the movement we must now commit to build. As Antony Bugg-Levine put it recently, product building is a five-year task. Movement building, on the other hand, is a generation-long challenge that requires much bolder vision, patience, and ambition. What this moment of inflection demands is exactly such a movement – a movement that creates a fundamental mindset shift in how society mobilizes resources to address our social and environmental challenges. Which brings me back to Acumen, to this tenth anniversary celebration, and to Jacqueline’s inspirational example.

At the beginning of my remarks, I described our Searchlight process. It is indeed a powerful tool. It has given us tremendous insight into emerging challenges, opportunities, and trends. But some trends can’t be predicted. They have to be created. They have to be set. They have to be set by leaders like Jacqueline, and amazing institutions like Acumen. They have to be set by foundations like Rockefeller. They have to be set by investors like you. They have to be set by communities rich and poor…near and far…today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

“You decide,” wrote Tom Friedman. And indeed we must decide, as a global community, to embrace fundamental systems transformation. We must decide to transform education systems around the world, to provide equal access and equal opportunity for student learning, growth, and achievement. We must decide to develop new ways to measure value, so that we can incentivize the financial transactions that truly improve the lives of individuals, the fabric of communities, and the health of our planet. We must decide to change how we save and invest capital, from the largest corporations to the individual consumer with modest savings, so that our capital can be put to work to create not just financial returns, but social returns. We must decide.

And thanks to Jacqueline, and Acumen, and the people in this room, I’m convinced that we will.


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