Impact Investing in Oregon: The Private Fund: NW Social Venture Fund

October 22, 2013 at 12:16 pm 1 comment

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We continue to explore the state of impact investing in Oregon with an interview of Carolynn Duncan on the role of private funds in catalyzing successful  social ventures. Read our earlier posts in the series to learn about the definitions we use and how other local actors are shaping the space:

Interview with Carolynn Duncan, founder of, Social Venture Society, and the NW Social Venture Fund


Impact Entrepreneurs: What’s the purpose of the NW Social Venture Fund?

Carolynn Duncan: Our fund’s mission is to reduce global suffering through impact investing and scalable social entrepreneurship. We want to target huge problems that negatively affect the world, and as the White House Grand Challenges initiative which we are committed to states, work with engineers, entrepreneurs and other fund managers to tackle “ambitious yet achievable goals that capture the public’s imagination and that harness innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology” to drive solutions for humanitarian objectives.

What personally motivates you to create social impact through investment?

I am personally way too frustrated by the deluge of solvable problems that exist and create unnecessary suffering for vulnerable people in the world, and the slower pace of well-meaning organizations that have to meander through organizational politics, infrastructural inefficiencies, and a dilution of purpose through how those organizations are structured.

Throughout my career I’ve spent time working on special projects in juvenile probation, foster care, teen moms, deaf, blind & disabilities empowerment, juvenile sex offenders, ESL, low-income business training & lending, at-risk youth, unemployment, financial literacy, distance learning, homelessness, and other aspects of social justice initiatives, for example. It just kills me that a skilled social worker, nonprofit administrator or program officer, or social services activist is literally trapped in their ability to scale the volume of kindness that’s available in their soul to reach out and relieve humanity’s afflictions through appropriate programs, services and products — largely because of the absolute bullshit of slow operations, personnel or resource constraints, and a lack of innovation and entrepreneurial problem solving.

Startups don’t have room in their operating habits for these kinds of things because of the compression of lean infrastructure, the blank slate they have to work with, the need to find and scale an effective business model as quickly as possible, and the founders’ inherent motivation to build value so the business can be sold. This creates a powerful type of organization with which to look at and solve humanitarian problems that can be addressed with market-based solutions.

Like the Gates Foundation, who saw that polio had an effective cure, yet millions of people continued to suffer from polio; they have successfully applied a venture philanthropy approach to corral partnerships, funding and talent to close the gap so that polio is now 99% contained. I lack the patience to endure or observe senseless, systemic suffering for no reason, and I don’t personally have the human capacity to do enough by myself; so contributing my time and abilities to the field of venture philanthropy is the only thing I have found that is a strong enough vehicle to identify large-scale humanitarian problems, develop solutions, and scale relief. Just knowing that is possible is an instinctive motivator — and being able to contribute in these ways helps me to sleep a little better at night, too. I feel so grateful for everything that I have and can do, and I try to run as lean and effectively as possible so that I can direct any surplus energy, resources and time toward high impact areas.


What size and type of business would be a good fit for investment through the fund?

Our target investments range from $500K–$3MM — a standard Series A investment. We also are catalyzing angel impact investments through the Fast Pitch competition, through training and partnering with private impact investors who can provide earlier-stage seed capital, also through the mentorship programs of our accelerator, If a social venture is in the $0K–$1MM revenue range, then we want to see it.

How will you measure the social impact of your investments?

To start, we are inviting social venture founders to participate in our annual Hacking Social Impact unconferences, to learn directly from B Lab, Social Venture Partners, and other entities that have great tools for quantifying some of the intangibles and positive benefits they seek to develop. We encourage founders to use lean startup tools, like the Business Model Canvas, to target focus areas and pain points in the markets they wish to serve.

Finally, we use our hybrid venture capital approach — social impact indicators, industry tools like GIIRS, HIP, and startup metrics tracking — to monitor the performance and outcomes of our portfolio and deal flow. Providing opportunities for social founders and the impact community to learn best practices and tools in these areas is really the focus of Hacking Social Impact, coming up this Nov 18-19, led by our kick-ass organizing team, Stasi Baranoff, Simone Wren, and Andrea Bailey – more info at, or by emailing

Would you tell us a little about the Fast Pitch competition and different ways for people to get involved?

Fast Pitch is an investment forum (like OEN’s Angel Oregon), started by Social Venture Partners, highlighting scalable ventures aiming to generate high social impact. We welcome both for-profit and not-for-profit ventures to apply; dates to keep in mind are late January for Fast Pitch finals, with applications open now through early November, and due diligence and coaching/mentorship beginning November 4.

For-profit companies compete for an investment of up to $100,000 and the opportunity to present cutting-edge ideas to some of the most engaged social impact leaders, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and investors around Portland.

Not-for-profit ventures will compete for professional and capacity development. Like the for-profit teams, not-for-profit teams will receive feedback, mentorship, and the discipline of improving fundraising skills. This includes financials, impact reporting, presentation skills and pitching.

Impact investors and private angels, students, and social impact professionals can also get involved in the specialized impact investing training and hands on investment & due diligence program we are offering through Fast Pitch. We also welcome participation from the community for sponsorship and volunteer roles – our fabulous organizing team, who have done an amazing job on all aspects of the event, led by Julia Bromka, along with Andrea Bailey, Lin Lu and Melissa Bockwinkel, can help folks find the right way to get involved –

The Fast Pitch application and event info is available at

What would you like our readers to know that we didn’t already ask?

Investing is about developing and maintaining economic assets that continuously produce financial resources, perpetually into the future — why not do similarly with cultivating high-performance social venture organizations as humanitarian assets whose primary interest is to tackle and buffer the problems and sufferings of humanity’s worst issues? [Here’s] One quote I really like, that I found this summer while touring the LDS Church’s Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City: “A man [or woman!] filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.” I think that describes the way that social impact founders see the world, and it’s such a wonderful experience to be able to work with, invest in and empower folks with these values, to be able to do more and to scale their vision. Through managing the NW Social Venture Fund, I want to set fires with founders and visionaries who feel as driven as I do, to do meaningful things that support the well being of as many people as possible.

Contact info:

Twitter: @SVSociety
Email: &


By Jacen Greene, Program Manager, Social Enterprise Intiatives at Portland State University’s Impact Entrepreneurs

Entry filed under: Events, Funding, Impact Investing, Social Entrepreneurship. Tags: , , , .

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