Third Sector | Rod Schwartz on founding ClearlySo and creating 100 JustGivings
"I found how I could make a difference". From investment banking to politics, Rod talks about his journey to generating meaningful social impact and why he founded ClearlySo
Recently I interviewed a candidate for a new role at ClearlySo. During the course of the interview she asked me why it was I came to found ClearlySo, or what was the thinking behind it. She seemed to find the story instructive. It goes a long way to explaining my own personal motivations and the ClearlySo approach, and I thought it would be relevant to share.
After leaving the City, I felt it was important to do something “socially impactful”. I probably spoke in terms of “putting something back” or simply doing something that perhaps my children would be proud of. Roles at UBS, Paribas and Lehman certainly didn’t register on this yardstick. After a few years in conventional VC, I took an early chance, together with some colleagues, to raise an impact investment fund in partnership with The Big Issue. This was back in 2000/2001. Our efforts were not successful so I began to hunt around for other ways to make a difference.
In the 1990s I had been quite active in the Liberal Democrat party and even stood as a candidate in the 1997 general election. Fortunately I lost, and realised that party politics was not the best way for me to generate meaningful social impact. Many of my good friends urged me to stop being silly and carry on in the City. If I felt excessively guilty I should give some/all of my money away. I briefly tried a part-time role at a leading investment bank and realised that was not the way forward for me.
In the mid-2000s I had the opportunity to simultaneously chair a large national charity and a small early stage start-up business. What I found was that the charity, which had only recently considered and then rejected a merger with another organisation, was not wholly to my liking. Although the organisation raises lots of money and had considerable visibility, it was not as focused as I would have liked it to be on the cost-effectiveness of its impact generated. Furthermore, I found myself unable to improve this and other situations despite being Chair. In the end, I resigned.
The early stage start-up business that I had the pleasure and privilege to engage with was JustGiving. With a mere £5-£6 million of angel capital it was able to build the world’s leading online charitable fundraising business and now dominates the sector. From the start, the two leaders, Zarine Kharas and Anne-Marie Huby, were absolutely focused on making the business successful by controlling costs together with a razor like focus on customer satisfaction. Their theory was that if they could build a successful, well-run business it would generate far more social impact. This is something that is too often neglected in the impact investment and enterprise sector. Unless a business is able to be sustainable, it isn’t really a business. To achieve massive social impact it has to be really great – and Justgiving has facilitated about $3.5bn of flows into the charitable sector. The Body Shop is another excellent example of such a business. Or to put it another way, social impact and financial success are positively correlated; this is a central tenet of ClearlySo’s worldview.
So in summary, I thought of how I could make a difference and realise that politics, charity and investment banking were not the path for me – JustGiving had shown me the path. ClearlySo was founded with one simple objective – to create 100 JustGivings.
This post was originally published in Third Sector Magazine.