Interview with Doug Miller, Chair and Founder of Asia Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN): Creating Impact and Positive Change throughout Asia Pacific region

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I had the opportunity to attend the first annual conference of AVPN ( that was held in Singapore in May and it was an incredible platform to understand more about venture philanthropy and there is no better person than Doug Miller to explain the potential of this approach.

Doug has an outstanding career in private equity and he is one of pillars of the venture philanthropy movement worldwide. Doug, an American citizen based in the UK, was also instrumental in setting up the European Venture Philanthropy Association of which he remains Honorary President.

Hope you will enjoy it…

Sometimes definitions are confusing and misleading. How would you define with your own wds venture philanthropy? Can we say that venture philanthropy is a smart way of doing philanthropy?

Individuals and organizations do philanthropy primarily because they want to create a positive social result whether in children, education, environment, women’s issues, etc.  Venture philanthropy is not appropriate in every situation, but the general principles of venture philanthropy can be applied without adopting the complete model.  Specifically:

  1. Be strategic – decide what your objectives are and then construct a strategy as to how you want to give your money away.
  2. Insist on transparency so you know how your money is being spent.
  3. Do considerable due diligence on the organization you wish to back including evaluation of management, corporate governance, specific impact and outcome of the product or services they provide.

I would describe the above as good philanthropic practices in any circumstances.  Venture philanthropy goes further, in that we focus on:

  1. Capacity building and developing a long term relationship with management aiming towards very specific outcomes.
  2. Funding over a 3, 5, 7 year period based on achieving certain performance mile stones.
  3. Having an engaged and active partnership bringing human and intellectual capital into the effort as it’s often more valuable than the financial capital.
  4. Having the focus on sustainability and scalability in order to produce long term impact.

How did you start getting involved in the sector of impact investment and venture philanthropy?

A group of friends and I discovered venture philanthropy in 2002-2003.  It was then mostly unknown outside the US, where it had first started around 1996-97.  Impact investment came somewhat later - perhaps 2004, 2005.  Impact investors follow many of the same principles as venture philanthropy but are also striving to achieve a financial return.

Which were the major milestones that led to the creation of AVPN?

Once we discovered the concept of venture philanthropy and one of the friends founded Impetus (a very successful UK venture philanthropy fund) I decided that the model was interesting enough that perhaps we could roll it out in Europe and later on, globally.  This was based upon my experience from private equity, where I had seen it initially as a US phenomena then spreading to Europe, Asia and eventually globally over the last 35 – 40 years.  This history led 5 of us to establish the European Venture Philanthropy Association in 2005.  I was Founder Chairman until late 2008.  EVPA offices are now in Brussels and we have over 160 members in over 22 countries.  Upon retiring as Founder Chairman of the EVPA, I decided to initiate a similar effort in Asia.  In the initial stages I was assisted by Rob John, who had worked closely with me as the initial CEO of the EVPA.  AVPN was then established in late 2011 and launched for membership in December 2011, presently standing at over 130 members from 21 countries.

It must be emphasized that even though EVPA is now in its eighth year and AVPN in its second year, both are still essentially start-up organizations and the venture philanthropy social investment industry are still pioneering this model.  We have a long way to go.


In terms of sector partnerships and collaborations, venture philanthropy potentially can be a platform for unique synergies among different actors and approaches and a perfect venue for collaborations between for profit and not for profit. How can, for example, venture philanthropy cooperate, influence the traditional aid sector? What’s about synergies with CSR world?

The concept behind EVPA and AVPN is that the desire to create social impact is spread across a number of different actors.  This includes traditional foundations, corporate CSR activities, family offices, professional service firms who bring considerable human capital, universities who bring intellectual capital and promote knowledge sharing, governments (at all levels) and finally multi lateral organizations such as the European Union, World Bank, IFC, ADB etc.  Presently the majority of these groups operate within their own silos and we view our job as creating a platform which helps break those silos, encourages and facilitates collaboration, knowledge sharing, joint efforts etc. 

Of course there are differences in strategies, skill sets, networks, experiences but if the ultimate aim is to improve education, improve environment or address whatever nature of social problems, then there must be substantial benefits of working together.  We are not naïve and appreciate this is hard but we think the benefits outweigh the challenges.

In only a very few cases have we gotten to the point of addressing the “traditional aid sector”.  Clearly there are a number of global issues and organizations and generally lots of financial capital, so I would agree that it’s a good objective.  Once we grow larger and have the resources, we will take this step.


In May AVPN organized its first annual conference, “Creating Social Impact: Blending Philanthropic and Investment Capital”. I believe that the theme itself of the conference helped a lot to clarify the confusion surrounding the area of venture philanthropy. What was the main message of the conference?

We were very pleased with AVPN’s first international conference.  We attracted over 330 delegates from 31 countries, frankly exceeding even our own lofty expectations.  To us this proved the interest in VP and one of our main objectives is to convert interest into engagement.

The conference itself had many messages:

  1. We focused on pioneers – by that we meant people, who were prepared to take risks go out and identify opportunities where the venture philanthropy model would be appropriate (see answer to question 1) and then proceed to implement.
  2. We were also promoting collaboration i.e. breaking silos and working together.
  3. We specifically also wanted to emphasize that venture philanthropy is just a model of engagement to increase social impact and it could be used for both non profits and social enterprises.  Which line of business an organization followed, depended upon the opportunities available and being able to find the right management teams to implement.
  4. We didn’t get deep enough into the interface between philanthropic and investment capital, but we believe there is a significant role for both either individually or in some cases blended together.  Although there is a considerable amount of philanthropic capital available, investment capital is 1000 time larger and if innovative structures can be organized that blends these two together, then you can bring more capital to any particular organization or issue.  One of the big challenges to overcome will be cultural as philanthropists and investors often approach issues from totally different directions.


I am aware that AVPN is in a road show in several key nations of the region. What do you want to achieve through these visits? For example in a huge country like India, how do you think venture philanthropy can support and help the most traditional NGOs driven aid sector?

In order for AVPN to achieve its mission  we need to inform the market of what venture philanthropy is and get engagement with those role models and leaders initially and then more broadly later.  Coupled with that we need to educate the market in the “how to” and best practices of execution - for instance in performance measurement, due diligence and bringing human capital effectively together to interface with non profits and social enterprises.  Road shows are about both seeking engagement and educating the market.

With specific reference to India the numbers are not totally clear to me, but estimates range between 1.2 and 2 million NGO’s I am sure that most are led by honest and hard working and committed individuals, but the simple fact is that almost all are sub-scale and don’t have the financial, human or intellectual capital to make a significant impact beyond their direct activity.  Venture philanthropists in India and in almost any country will only deal with a very small percentage of the overall market (I estimate between 1-3% --- and presently much much less than that).  The point is to find the ones with the best potential and provide the financial, human and intellectual capital to help them become much larger serving more people with better directed and higher quality outcomes.


What would you like to achieve in Asia Pacific region in the next five years?

Five years is much too short a period, although we measure our progress actually at six month intervals.

Our plans are:

  1. To roll out in the next 12-18 months specific local operations in India and China.  Both are huge countries and need dedicated resources which are specifically adapted to their local conditions, culture, tax etc.
  2. To replicate the Knowledge Center that we have at the EVPA, in Asia – i.e. create a sister Knowledge Center.  We think lack of knowledge sharing is a huge waste of available resources and results in groups reinventing the wheel and also practicing venture philanthropy without access to sufficient knowledge around both VP practices and also sectors such as education, environment, etc.

With regard to the five year period, I point out that corporate CSR as a concept has been around for at least 25 years or longer, as has Socially Responsible Investment.  We are obviously impatient to see success, but it takes a very long time to substantially influence how sectors operate.  Our ultimate goal is to have a major impact upon the philanthropic sector as a whole.  This means a significant presence in as many Asian countries as possible.  It means bringing people together and it means significant financial and human capital being deployed to produce positive outcomes.


If the CEO of a small medium size traditional charity working in the region would approach you asking for some suggestion on how to embrace the new thinking embedded with venture philanthropy. Which advices would you give? Where to start?

Firstly, I would thank them for the efforts they are making and their commitment to effecting social change.

Before giving any advice, I would ask them to tell me what were the major issues they were facing (beyond lack of money) and what efforts they were making to overcome these issues.

I would then ask them how much they were collaborating with others, where they thought their organization could be in 3, 5, 7 years and what it would take to get there - incidentally I see in a number of occasions that organizations are so focused on day to day delivery or even survival, they don’t take or have the opportunity to look ahead.  No matter how busy you are, you have to stand back and look ahead or you just blindly stumble into more and more obstacles.

I would ask them what help they had available to them and what were their priorities for obtaining help.

The problem that exists now, is that there is no specific eco system, not sufficient transparency or sign posts to show where an organization can find help.  On the other side there is clearly not enough organizations that could provide help either. We view our job with the EVPA and AVPN as building up the supply side of financial, human and intellectual capital and simultaneously injecting more transparency, where high potential organizations can find help.

What Asia Pacific can learn from European experience of venture philanthropy and what Europe can learn from Asia Pacific?

Social issues are in fact global and affect every country although the degree might be somewhat different depending upon the location.

Educational issues, children’s issues, environmental issues, old people, empowering women, the list is endless.  You do see examples of cross border social purpose organizations and also organizations that provide cross border learning in various social sector issues.  Much more of this is necessary and I think there are huge opportunities in learning both ways - we are just addressing a very small percentage of that.


How could a government of the region support the growing of venture philanthropy in its own country?

The US and the UK are presently the market leaders in getting government engagement in the venture philanthropy social investment space.  Over the last 24 months we are seeing growing interest in government from many countries.  Some of this is driven by tight budgets, but another factor that’s driving it, is the necessity for finding effective solutions as huge amounts of money are presently being spent very ineffectively. 

Government can function in a number of different roles:

  1. Ensuring the tax and regulatory environment is conducive to philanthropy, venture philanthropy and social enterprises.
  2. Helping promote new ideas to incubate start-ups (see UnLtd model in the UK) and promote new structures - see community interest companies and pay for success models.
  3. Doing some co-funding (but remember the sector is small and don’t swamp it with too much capital which is used ineffectively).

AVPN is very happy to engage in specific discussions with governments and we are presently doing so in two countries.  We are also facilitating visits to the UK and the US, where other people can learn directly.


What would you like to see in the next annual gathering in 2014? Would you be able to anticipate some key points that will define the main theme of the gathering?

We will be holding the second AVPN annual conference also in Singapore on 14-15 May.  We will have a collection of international as well as Asian speakers covering all the main social sectors.  We purposely try to keep our conferences a reasonable size so the main plenary room will only accommodate 300 delegates. We will cap attendance at between 330 and 350.  The policy is also “the right people in the room”, which from our perspective means suppliers and providers of financial, human and intellectual capital.  Last year we were sold out by end of March, although we allowed and extra 25-30 sign ups as there were people we didn’t feel we could turn away.

The objective for the conference is knowledge sharing, networking and promoting collaboration.  Specific content and themes will change, but in fact most people come to meet other like-minded people, share experiences and learn specific techniques.

Do you believe that soon there will come the time for an African Venture Philanthropy Network?

Our goal is to roll out the venture philanthropy model globally.  We are presently considering whether Africa or Latin America will be next.  We are also getting inquiries from the Middle East and some interest of a national VP organization was even expressed from the US, where the whole concept actually began.  This expansion in my view is inevitable - it’s just a matter of when.  That requires some additional financial and human capital to “make it happen”.  I am very optimistic about the future, but also recognize the challenges.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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