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Interview with Peter Heller, Founder and Executive Director of Canopus Foundation

Peter W  Heller

July 19, 2017

 Peter Heller, Founder and Executive Director of Canopus Foundation 

Canopus Foundation has been a member of EVPA since 2008 and you have participated at several conferences in the past few years, what was for you the added value of our conference? What are you looking forward to this year in Oslo?

My motivation to attend the conferences had always two sides. The first one is my interest in the sector from an intellectual, theoretical point of view. I meet colleagues that work in the same sector as I do, and I get inspiration for my occasional writing, all these in a common VP spirit. The second side is related to experience sharing. VP has to keep a delicate balance between doing good and doing business. Also, the relationship between investors and social entrepreneurs is important, and it is always good to get feedback from my colleagues how they deal with our partners on the other side of the table.

Compared to the last conferences this year is a more active for me. I am involved in two sessions, and I am looking forward to make a contribution and have valuable sessions for the participants

What would you advise newcomers?

It depends a lot on their expectations, but as a veteran who has been attending the conference for many years editions, I would advise newcomers to come and participate with open eyes and ears. An EVPA conference is a place of many opportunities to get involved and connect with peers on a variety of thematic topics that they might find useful.

One of the sessions you are involved in is on how we can incorporate SDGs in our model for impact. How do you think the venture philanthropy/social investment (VP/SI) approach can support reaching SDGs?

First, there is a bit of history behind the SDGs. They replace the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000 which replaced the Agenda 21 of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. In essence the SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. They are not a concrete tool for VP, but they offer an important conceptual framework that does not cover only single segments of our activity, but create an overarching, general approach to sustainability . That is their core value, they are bridge builders between the social, economic, and environmental spheres that are most of the time tackled separately.

As VP practitioners, on the other hand, we are also bridge builders between capitalism and responsibility for society. Thus, SDGs are a useful tool to provide a cover of what we do to have a meaningful impact beyond white- or greenwashing. So far, we have not addressed this topic in previous EVPA conferences and it will be intriguing to build a convincing argument for VP to look and use SDGs in its communications strategy.  

How should funders make use of SDGs when deciding which organisation they invest in?

Let’s start with an example. When you are a VP organisation investing in an enterprise working in a local context, you might not fully understand the context of the local environment. You create jobs and have an economic impact. You can look at the job creation itself as having impact, or you can go much deeper, and understand what is beyond this first level impact. This is the role of SDGs. They can help you explore beyond the immediate impact, and look in more depth at other elements that create impact.

SDGs can help us frame our mindset looking at the local context, and transfer their holistic thinking towards practical, concrete examples, which can be challenging both for the investor, as well as the social entrepreneur.

What are the main objectives of “SDGs: the bridge between Planet and People” session?

The purpose of the session is to promote a more holistic approach and position what we do as VP practitioners in a societal and political context. And this political context is internationally primarily given  by the SDGs.

VP is at the intersection of the public, private, corporate, and not for profit sector, we play an important role as moderators, bridge builders in society. Experienced venture philanthropists understand the interlinkages between the economic sphere, and the social and environmental context. Most of the time, even large VP organisations look at a particular topic, and SDGs can challenge them to look beyond that, and understand what are the synergies and complexities of their actions.

You will also participate in a session on Emerging markets. Why is this topic important for you and VP/SI space?

We had a session on this topic at other EVPA conferences and we keep on coming back to it because of the recent developments in the sector. In the session, we would like to address three main thematic segments.

The first topic is: the time of the “one way” North – South impact investing is over. There are many organisations practising VP in Asia, and more recently Africa, that would like to work South – South: Asia investing in Africa and vice versa. Also, new investment platforms are developed in Asia, such as Sankalp. As European practitioners, we need to understand what our role in this new geographic layout is, and to make up our mind how to promote this rapidly emerging South – South collaboration.

Secondly, as already mentioned, we want to talk about the lack of knowledge about local culture and contexts. Is there more ground where we can learn from the South - South cooperation? They know better their continent, and for us it could be a good source of inspiration and learning.

Thirdly, we will also look at the prons and cons to work together with young fintech companies which are challenging the traditional banking sector.

In the last years, we have seen a rapid development of fintech companies in Europe and America, but as well in Asia and in Africa. They have addressed the investor side and developed crowd-investing platforms. At Canopus, we are currently testing  a partnership  with such a micro-investing online platform. We see an interesting  potential for VP organisations collaborating directly with crowd-investing platforms to unleash private money (usually between 500 and 10,000 euros each) from the “crowd” and channel it to social impact project finance.

Venture practitioners are risk-takers, movers and shakers. Our mindset is closer to fintechs than the traditional banking sector. It will be interesting to discuss that hypothesis with fellow VP practitioners.

Find out more details about the Annual Conference here.

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