Hybrid Model for Nonprofits Hits Snags

Hybrid Model for Nonprofits Hits Snags

Stephanie Strom, New York Times


Since its founding in 2003, the GlobalGiving Foundation has used its Web site to channel more than $30 million to charitable projects like buying seeds for farmers in Zimbabwe and feeding orphaned chimpanzees.


It also sent approximately $10 million in payments and loans that were never repaid to a company, ManyFutures Inc., that was largely owned by GlobalGiving’s founders, Mari Kuraishi and Dennis Whittle, former World Bank executives turned social entrepreneurs.


ManyFutures provided the technology platform on which the GlobalGiving Web site operated, and which it hoped to sell to others. But the company never broke even, even though it paid nothing for the platform, which had been donated to ManyFutures. In late 2008, GlobalGiving converted its loans into ownership of the company, paying Ms. Kuraishi and Mr. Whittle just $12,000 for their stakes.


They had invested $1.4 million. “I lost a large majority of my net worth doing this,” Mr. Whittle said. “It’s been personally very painful.”


GlobalGiving is one of the most prominent examples of the hybrid model of social enterprise that married a profit-making business to a nonprofit organization. Such dual-mission companies have sprouted over the last decade as a means of addressing the financing difficulties faced by many nonprofit groups, particularly as they need capital to expand. “It is virtually impossible to grow a social enterprise in any significant way relying wholly on donated money, earned revenue and debt financing, which are the only sources of financing available to nonprofits,” said Allen Bromberger, a lawyer with extensive experience in nonprofit financing. “These hybrid structures allow social enterprises to tap conventional investors interested in making profits while continuing to pursue their social missions.”


But like Dr. Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, the animal that had trouble moving because its two heads could not agree on a single direction, the hybrid model for nonprofits is proving problematic. On occasion, the need to generate returns for investors overwhelms the social mission. In other cases, the business falters altogether and cannot support the nonprofit.


Within the last two years, several ventures have split up or been dissolved. For example, World of Good’s commercial unit was bought by eBay, and its nonprofit arm is now struggling to stand on its own. Another prominent hybrid, Pura Vida Coffee, almost collapsed. And some, like GlobalGiving, demonstrate how hard it is to “cash out” of a venture that is not purely commercial. It wound up using foundation grants to prop up its losing profit-making partner.


Mr. Whittle said two things drove their decision to create a hybrid. “We looked at the philanthropy and didn’t think we could raise the capital required to support the technology, and we wanted to impose a brutal bottom-line discipline on what we were doing,” he said.


Investors have increasingly voiced concerns about hybrid groups. “This conjoined structure really has problems,” said Kevin Doyle Jones, a partner at Good Capital, one such investment firm. “Embedded in it is an inherent risk that individuals are profiting from donations that were made for public benefit.”


These entities, he cautioned, should avoid engaging in “private inurement,” or providing excessive benefit to a person who is close to or has a controlling interest in a nonprofit — though tax law says nothing about how much is too much.


Even newer models are evolving. Several states have passed legislation that permits the creation of so-called LC3 companies, which can raise money from traditional capital markets but place social benefit ahead of profit, and B Corporations, which are certified based on their ability to demonstrate that their business produces certain social goods. But Will Rosenzweig, a founder of the specialty tea company Republic of Tea and now the managing director of Physic Ventures, another firm that looks to invest in companies that bring social benefit, expressed skepticism of the new models. “I think you really have to make a choice and be a business or be a nonprofit,” he said. “It’s hard to be both.”


Concerns about the hybrid model surfaced in a very public way earlier this year when a tiny nonprofit in Seattle, Unitus, abruptly announced that it was letting go almost all of its employees and no longer accepting donations.


The award-winning nonprofit had helped commercialize the microfinance industry through its profit-making venture capital arm, which had made investments in several microfinance banks that were poised to go public, generating huge returns for investors, some of whom were Unitus board members.


There are, of course, examples of pushmi-pullyus whose two heads have learned to collaborate. In a structure reminiscent of mutual insurers of yore, members of the nonprofit Freelancers Union own the profit-making Freelancers Insurance Company, and both are affiliated with the charity Working Today. Board members of the nonprofit sit on the board of the profit-making company, and employees of both determine how expenses are allocated among the three organizations.


“It’s complicated but necessary,” said Sara Horowitz, who often jokes that she is the lowest-paid chief executive of an insurance company in America. “The structure ensures that there is no way that Freelancer’s Union could be sold for the benefit of any individuals or that the nonprofit could be abused for the benefit of the company.”


That allows Freelancers Insurance to focus on lowering the price of insurance than a conventional company could, she said.


For many hybrids, however, neither partner is achieving its mission and, as Unitus found, pulling them apart is tricky. “These tiered capital structures where you have some mission-oriented capital combined with commercial capital can be challenging,” said Laura Callanan, a consultant in McKinsey & Company’s social sector office. “When everything is going well, everyone is getting along and interests are aligned. But when financial challenges hit, the fact that there are different objectives creates questions about how the pain is shared.”


When World of Good Inc. was sold to eBay and the GreaterGood Network this year, its nonprofit half was effectively orphaned, stripped even of its name.


World of Good Inc. had been established in 2004 to help connect small artisans around the world to major retailers. World of Good Development, its nonprofit partner, was charged with developing a free online tool to help calculate a fair wage and improve negotiating power with buyers.


“Those activities needed to be done in the public interest, and so we put that tool into open-source space,” said Priya Haji, chairwoman of the nonprofit board and a founder of the company.


Traditional venture capital supported World of Good Inc. The nonprofit held a 5 percent stake in it and was to receive 5 percent of its profits. “The nonprofit’s work never benefited the business,” Ms. Haji said.


Nor did the business’s operations ever benefit the nonprofit. “They were never profitable, so we did fund-raisers to support the organization,” said Holly Boyer, a board member of World of Good Development and its former executive director. “The business would host a fund-raiser and sell products where we were part of the event and would speak and talk about our work and get half of the proceeds from the sales.”


When World of Good Inc. was sold in February, the nonprofit got a $100,000 grant from eBay and its shares were retired. Ms. Boyer said the grant was intended to help the nonprofit rename itself, since eBay purchased the World of Good brand.


Whether the nonprofit got a fair deal for its stake in World of Good Inc. is unknown. “The transaction was private, so I’m not at liberty to talk about it,” Ms. Haji said.


Pura Vida Partners, the nonprofit partner of Pura Vida Coffee, also is changing its name, the result of a similar divorce imposed by Jeff Hussey, a no-nonsense investor who took control of the company in 2009, having sunk more than $3 million into it to keep it afloat.


“The business model was flawed,” Mr. Hussey said. “Whenever you have an organization of human beings with a blurry mission you get blurry results.”


Pura Vida was created in 1998 by John Sage and Chris Dearnley, former classmates at the Harvard Business School.


They set up a foundation, Pura Vida Partners, and gave it ownership of the company. But when the company needed money to grow, it could not get access to traditional lines of capital because of its ownership structure, a problem that led it to embark on a series of complex financial transactions involving wealthy private investors, including Mr. Hussey. “There was a lot of pretzel logic and gymnastics to create financing vehicles and structures that would let us continue to grow and continue our social mission,” Mr. Sage said.


Those transactions diluted the nonprofit’s stake in the company to 9 percent by 2009, when Mr. Hussey took over. “We could either agree to the dilution or lose the business — and all the funding streams for the nonprofit that had been established through the business,” Mr. Sage said.


Mr. Hussey purchased the nonprofit’s final shares for $200,000. “I overpaid,” he said. “I had to because of the laws governing nonprofits.”


Today, the Create Good Foundation, as the nonprofit will be known, is a stand-alone charity that supports clean water and economic development projects in the areas where the profit-making company, Pura Vida Create Good, buys its raw materials.


“Our goal now is to sell coffee, wine, tea, chocolate and other things and do it profitably,” Mr. Hussey said. “There’s nothing blurry about what we do and why we do it.”