On December 4th, Lotus Impact, Spark Center for Social Entrepreneurship Development (Spark), and Center for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) co-organized the Vietnam Social Investment Forum (SIF) 2014 at Novotel Saigon hotel. This forum brought together social enterprises, local, regional and global investors, policy leaders, and other intermediaries to showcase the emerging social investment field in Vietnam.
SIF 2014 aims to contextualize the social investment landscape in terms of both global trends in social finance and the broader spectrum of finance being deployed at present in Vietnam in support of social impact; inform participants about current policy, actors and innovations in the sector; and catalyze future development of the space by connecting social enterprises with impact investors and identify as well as dialogue honestly about the barriers to future growth of the field.
The forum organized 4 plenary sessions together with 4 breakout sessions. The plenary session number 1 discussed the context for impact investing. The guest speakers shared their experience of building double and triple bottom line social impact funds which invest in innovative organizations that support microfinance and other unique financial tools to impact impoverished communities. They repeatedly emphasized the impact measurability of the invested projects.
The plenary session number 2 discussed the role of philanthropy in social finance. The participants spoke about the overlap between and complementary nature of impact investing and philanthropy. In particular, the panelists discussed how investors could leverage philanthropy to catalyze innovation, how philanthropy could afford investors and social enterprises a big-picture view, and that philanthropy can be utilized to extend the impact of impact investments. The iterated point of this session is that people should do philanthropy like they invest in business.
One of the two breakout sessions in between the plenary sessions was the social enterprise showcase. During this session, three leading social enterprises in Vietnam had an opportunity to “pitch” their product or service to two of Vietnam’s leading impact investors. The first SE was Phuc Thanh Co., Ltd which provides a model for supplying drinking water on tap at a reasonable price for the poor living in the saline areas. The second SE introduced their solar cookers and clean cookers which were sold for poor and ethnic minority families with a low price. The third SE showcased their service is Vexere – the biggest online coach booking and information gateway in Vietnam.
The plenary session number 3 discussed various elements and actors that together make up the social finance ecosystem. The intent of the conversation was to frame the deployment of financing to social initiatives as the outcome/output of a set of decisions made and frameworks established by a range of individuals and institutions, and not something done in isolation by philanthropists or investors. The panelists both reflected on existing initiatives and spoke to gaps that they identified in the ecosystem in Vietnam in its current state. The common model that the panelists have experience of is the social enterprise has to pay for technical assistance from the investor if they are successful with the provided services, which will change the inherent mindset of SEs as well as philanthropists, from charity to investment.
Before heading to the final plenary session, the breakout session number 3 identified various obstacles and barriers that inhibited the growth of impact investing in Vietnam, either currently or in the immediate future. The main hurdle was that NPOs and SEs lack business spirit, prefer the status quo and rely too much on donations and grants. All of these circumstances make it difficult for NPOs and SEs to find funding resources while impact investors require clear business plans, measurable social and financial impacts and willing to improve organizational operation methods.
The panelists of the final plenary session responded to and suggested possible solutions for the various obstacles and barriers that participants in breakout session #3 see as inhibiting the growth of impact investing in Vietnam. In particular, the panelists drew on their experience in impact investing and the social sector in Vietnam and abroad to advise actions that can be taken to further the development of the field in Vietnam.