Philanthropy’s Exit Strategy

Many people view the role of philanthropy as something akin to venture capital. Philanthropy is suppose to find promising new nonprofits and help them grow. But their is a missing piece in this analogy. Venture capitalists eventually sell their investments to later stage investors (who are interested not so much in startups, but in more mature, stable businesses). This is called the “exit strategy.”

So what’s philanthropy’s exit strategy?

One promising way to make the analogy work is to view government as philanthropy’s exit strategy. While the government might be wary to invest in a startup nonprofit with no proven results, they can much more confidently fund organizations that have grown along a path towards sustainable, evidence based effectiveness with the support of philanthropic funders. What’s interesting is that proponents of both liberal and conservative approaches to government’s social assistance responsibility can buy into this argument.

If you believe that the government has an obligation to provide extensive social benefit programs, than it is easy to see the attractiveness of the government locking in a pipeline of vetted social benefit organizations. But someone who believes the government should play a more limited role may find themselves attracted to the idea that private capital is funding the “venture” stage of social benefit experimentation and government funds are being deployed only to vetted, mature programs (and the programs are executed by “private” nonprofits rather than via government programs).

This of course already happens. The government is the major funder of nonprofit activity. But too often this funding comes as a result of effective advocacy from the recipients rather than via an intentional scaling process where early stage philanthropic investors view an eventual handoff to government funding as the exit strategy.

This brings me to an excellent new report from the Bridgespan Group (co-authored by Edna McConnell Clark Foundation head Nancy Roob) titled Scaling What Works: The implications for philanthropists, policymakers and nonprofit leaders.

The report begins:

Included in the $787 billion stimulus package and in the $3.5 trillion budget that Congress passed on April 2 are billions of dollars intended to fulfill President Obama’s commitment to advance government that “works” and “expand successful programs to scale.” The risk is that five years from now we look back and see that billions were spent without clear results. Consider the challenge: National, state and local governments not only have to identify promising programs and help them expand to scale – but they need to do it fast. Such urgency leaves little room, but lots of opportunities, for errors we can ill afford. To avoid these missteps, the public sector and the philanthropic and nonprofit sector must invent new ways of working together in close partnership.

The report examines EMCF’s work (along with other funders) to scale Nurse-Family Partnerships and the successful adoption of the model by the government:

The Obama administration can move forward with confidence because NFP’s leadership and its philanthropic funders have consistently been committed to proving the program works. Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough such evidence-focused investors. And, for the most part, neither government nor philanthropy is immune to favoritism in choosing the organizations and programs it funds. Both sectors, as well as American taxpayers, could benefit from a healthier respect for proven results.

What makes all of this so relevant right now is that this afternoon the Serve America Act will be signed. The Act includes the creation of a Social Innovation Fund that:

…awards competitive matching grants to social entrepreneur venture funds in order to provide community organizations with the resources to replicate or expand proven solutions to community challenges, including a new focus on leveraging public private partnerships in small communities and rural areas. (Examples of service organizations that were launched by social entrepreneurs include Teach for America, City Year, Citizen Schools, Jump Start, Working Today, an organization that provides affordable, portable health benefits to 100,000 Americans, and the SEED school, the nation’s first public urban boarding school.)

This fund is basically a government venture philanthropy fund that will co-fund privately vetted and funded deals (rather than picking the organizations themselves). This vehicle can help the government and philanthropy work together to create a pipeline of vetted, evidence based social benefit programs. The end result is better, more cost effective social benefit programs that are designed using private capital and only funded with tax payer dollars once the programs are mature and proven.


  1. Carla Javits says:

    Thoughtful post, Sean. It is really intriguing to consider a rational system of philanthropic investment which tests innovation and is followed by government backing. While I think it may occur in unique cases, I would respectfully disagree that it’s likely to become routine.

    I wrote a blog post outlining my rationale in more detail – I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. Thanks Carla. I love to see you with your own blog these days! As I wrote on your blog, I agree that most nonprofits will not have the opportunity for a government backed “exit strategy”. But I don’t agree that it only viable in one-off, “unique” situations.

    Readers who are interested can see my full comment on Carla’s blog here.