All my adult life, I’ve woven together three passions – cutting edge philanthropy, socially responsible venture capital, and building networks to support innovation. I follow my instincts and move toward people and ideas that excite me, whether I am making a grant, investing in a business or buying tribal art. I am a committed philanthropist, but quite honestly my impact investing has probably created more positive social change than my giving. I have played a critical role starting up more than thirty successful social ventures – businesses that create positive social, environmental and financial returns
After becoming involved with the Haymarket People’s Fund in college and meeting other investors who were searching for positive ways to use their money, I decided to start a new foundation. In 1981 a friend and I organized a gathering of inheritors who were interested in social change, wanted to explore issues of wealth and privilege, and shared a belief in the interconnected of all life. It was a powerful, transformative experience for everyone who attended. That gathering in the Rocky Mountains turned out to be the first meeting of the Threshold Foundation. More than 25 years later, Threshold is still going strong, introducing thousands of people with wealth to social change philanthropy. The Threshold Foundation, which is administered by Tides, has made more than $30M in grants to innovative grassroots organizations working on justice, democracy, human rights and sustainability and has leveraged much, much more through the family foundations and personal giving of its members.
As I began to see that business itself could be a force for social change, I started the Social Venture Network (SVN) in1987 to bring together businesses that wished to create a more just and sustainable world. After SVN I helped found Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) in 1992, which focused on Fortune 1000 companies, and Investor’s Circle (IC), a network for private impact investing, in 1993. These networks have helped thousands of investors and social entrepreneurs develop new tools to make business a force for positive social change.
I build community around ideas that I am exploring, and it turns out other people are often attracted to these same ideas. These communities take on a life of their own as they grow and flourish. Threshold, SVN, BSR and IC have provided thousands of people with fertile ground for mutual learning and growth. The relationships formed in these communities have nurtured innumerable projects creating real change, not to mention deep and lasting friendships.
I probably got hooked on venture capital after some of my early investments did really well. In my early thirties, I put early money into Stonyfield Farms, which was sold to Dannon fifteen years later. I next invested in a Russian phone company, which started out as a non-profit but ended up being listed on the New York Stock Exchange. After that, I decided to put start up money into a joint venture with Grameen Bank, which ended up being the biggest cell phone company in Bangladesh- Grameen Phone. I didn’t have any experience or training, I just figured if you have more money than you really need - do something!
There are all kinds of mistakes to make in venture capital and I think I’ve made them all, from investing in great ideas with no cash flow to getting into investments without an exit strategy, but I have learned from these experiences. In the last six years I have been running a fund called Serious Change LP which has invested over 50 million dollars into early stage ventures ranging from organic fair trade food companies, like Alter Eco and Organic Ave, to Icon, a revolutionary wheelchair company started by designers who are themselves wheelchair bound. Direct investment in business start-ups is risky. If you make ten deals, seven will fail, and hopefully the remaining three will pay everything back with a profit.
My giving is much more consistent than my business income. I give away more than half a million dollars a year from the Joshua Mailman Foundation, which has about a $15 million endowment. My giving falls into about four buckets: human rights, sustainability, women’s rights, and culture & film. My wife Monica and I have been on the boards of many of the organizations we give to, including The Fund for Global Human Rights, Witness, the Garrison Institute and the Synergos Institute, where we first met.
Many philanthropists support large institutions, but I try to find places where the money isn’t flowing. For example, after going to Lebanon with Synergos in 2005 I had an idea to create a project that would promote social entrepreneurship in the Arab world. As a result US AID and Synergos have provided more than a million dollars to seed the Arab World Social Innovators Program, which just selected their third cohort of social entrepreneurs, including Maysoun Gangat, a Palestinian woman who started the first women’s radio station in the Arab world.
Monica and I were married in 2008 and now we have a two and half year old son. My friends wondered if being a parent would make me more risk adverse. For better or for worse, I don’t think so! I have done pretty well trusting my instincts and have learned a lot along the way. The field of impact investing is just coming of age, and I will never be happy playing it safe when there are so many great opportunities to make a difference. As long as I have the resources, I’ll be out there looking to seed the next great idea, whether for profit or non-profit, that can create a more just and sustainable society.