Remembering what we know: two landmark social enterprises

We think of social enterprise as a new trend. So, would you be surprised to be reminded that two of the nonprofit world’s most successful and transformative social investments were made more than 30 years ago? Muhammad Yunus started The Grameen Bank project in 1976. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) was founded in 1980.

Both new enterprises got key early funding from “program-related investments” (PRIs) by the Ford Foundation.  Both used familiar financial tools in creative ways to benefit people who were otherwise unable to access financial services. In both cases, that seed funding, given as loans, helped attract many millions more in public and private investments.

Grameen launched a new and profitable global financial services industry serving very low-income people. Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for this achievement. LISC played a pivotal role in creating a powerful national network of local community development corporations (CDCs) in the United States. The CDC movement has transformed devastated and endangered neighborhoods in the United States by restoring millions of homes as well as commercial centers and public amenities.

Program-related investments (PRIs) by charitable foundations, have been around since the Tax Reform Act of 1969. The Act allows foundations to include loans, equity investments or financial guaranties for mission-related purposes (program related investments) to be counted toward their asset disbursement requirements just as they would count a grant.

PRIs can launch revolutionary innovations in meeting social needs and they have clear financial benefits for foundations. Yet, only 173 out of 75,000 U.S. foundations made PRIs in 2006 or 2007, according to Doing Good with Foundation Assets, a 2010 study from the Foundation Center. Why are they so rare?  I’ll take a look in my next post.

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