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9 elements of a strong social venture pitch

Learn how to present your idea to impact investors.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash.
  • Lumina Foundation is partnering with Big Think to unearth the next large-scale, rapid innovation in post-high school education.
  • Got an idea like that? Enter the Lumina Prize!
  • To craft a good social venture pitch, pay attention to these 9 critical areas.


By Richard Tafel
Director, Social Capital Advisors, Marcum LLP.

Having a clear and concise social venture pitch can be the difference between success and failure.

In my time advising social venture companies, I've met some impressive entrepreneurs who simply lacked the ability to raise funds, and I've also met a few with mediocre solutions who had the advantage of access to a great sales team. The great sales team always wins. Mastering a good pitch to investors is critical to success.

There are ten critical areas for you to include in your pitch. For teaching purposes, I've imagined an education social venture to use as an example to make the point crystal clear. These steps will work well for both for-profit and nonprofit social ventures.

Step 1: Headline

Tell the listener in a succinct way what you are talking about. This is the most overlooked element of most pitches. Social entrepreneurs usually just jump right in to their model, leading the investor to have to guess what they're listening to. A headline statement will frame what you are about to say, allowing the listener to know where this is going.

A good headline gives your investor reasons they should care. A good headline gets investors' attention, for example:

"Thanks for your interest. I want to share our adult education solution that provides adults with simple navigation tools in order to move through the complicated American education system."

Step 2: Introduction

An introduction briefly tells them who you are and the mission of your venture, for example:

"Hi, I'm Sally Jones and I'm the founder of Education Solutions. We match adults without a tradition high school degree to jobs that transform their lives for the better."

Step 3: The Problem

Immediately state the problem you're solving and the opportunity it presents. State it concisely and include numbers if you can. For example:

"Last year, 7 million jobs went unfilled in America. That very same year, 95 million workers reported that they couldn't find meaningful work. This problem has been growing over the past ten years, leaving all sides frustrated – unemployed workers feel depressed facing a loss of dignity which cost taxpayers $2.7 trillion. This gap between those seeking jobs and needing jobs needs to be bridged."

Step 4: System Solution

Impact investors want to fund programs that solve problems and don't simply put a Band-Aid on the issue. Present your solution in terms of systems change, not just symptom treatment. Unlike a VC pitch, you'll have to show how your venture can provide both financial return and meaningful social impact. For example:

"Our model provides skill matching, coaching and cutting edge credentialing to our adult clients, many of whom are homeless. We bring adult workers out of unemployment into a job that will enable them with dignity and respect for a lifetime. Last year, we saved our city $1M by adding new jobs, helping new workers add to the local economy rather than depending on charity."

Step 5: Collaboration

Unlike a traditional VC pitch, where you must identify and beat the competition, a social venture must show command of the field of potential collaborators, such as government, nonprofits, other social ventures, while also demonstrating a knowledge of the ecosystem's strengths and weaknesses. For example:

"While programs to provide adult learning, such as GRE programs, have existed for years, few meet the needs of the gig-tech economy. Our model builds upon existing education networks through smart phone technology and matches workers with jobs that need their skills, allowing for matches to stick. Also, we're convinced our offering of a wrap-around service is what's needed for sustainable change in adult education."

Step 6: Sustainable

Before an impact investor gives to you today, they'll consider whether you'll be back in six months asking for more. They are listening to hear if your model generates a sustainable funding stream. How does your effort address the big challenges and find a way to access recurring revenue or donations?

Address this head on. For example,

"After our initial investment in this model, we will deploy our corporate partnerships where employers pay into our program to gain access to the newly credentialed workers. Our estimate shows that with only 20 corporate partners, we can actually run a profit by the end of just 18 months."

Step 7: Why you?

Impact investors state bluntly that they are investing in the person, not the product. (If your bio is critical to this pitch, consider moving this step right up to Step 3.) You need to show yourself as an expert who is a tenacious leader with a pragmatic vision.

Leadership matters, but no leader stands alone. Tell them who you have on the team and how those players enhance your skills, for example:

"Today, two of our founders actually hold college degrees in addition to certificates and two of us are credentialed in the critical technology for our tech model to work. All of us have created personal income streams in the triple digits. We are living examples that adults can navigate the new educational systems and succeed. We can lead the way for the rest of the nation."

Step 8: Measure return on investment and impact

Social impact investors will want to know what financial return they can expect, along with compelling evidence that you'll be able to provide the return. They will also want to measure how you've made progress toward social impact. Provide as much quantitative support as you can for your vision. For example:

"With your investment of $250,000 we can help 2,500 adult learners get their credentials in just 26 months. In two years, this will generate a profit as we become a vendor to the state and federal government. The state has agreed to engage with us, creating a social impact bond. We can also increase our corporate partnership program. If we hit our numbers as planned, we could see a 7% return on the investment."

Step 9: The ask

"The ask" is often left out because the speaker thinks that it is clear, or it makes them uncomfortable. Be very explicit. Tell the investor what you need and how you'll spend the money. For example:

"I'm here today to ask you to invest $250,000 in our program to join two other investors already committed at this level. With the three of you, we will have funds necessary to achieve our goal of 2,500 new credentialed adults in our state."

Now stop talking and answer questions! A great pitch is just an opportunity to get your foot in the door. Everything you say must be true and it will be verified, so keep it visionary and keep it honest.

Remember, if you don't ask the answer is always "no" –– so what have you got to lose?

The mock social impact pitch

Let's hear how it sounds together:

"Thanks for your interest. I want to share our adult education solution that provides adults simple navigation tools to move through the complicated education system in America."

"Hi, I'm Sally Jones and I'm the founder of Education Solutions. We match adults without a tradition high school degree to jobs that transform their lives for the better."

"Last year, 7 million jobs went unfilled in America. That very same year, 95 million workers reported they couldn't find meaningful work. This problem has been growing over the past ten years with all sides frustrated – unemployed workers feel depressed facing a loss of dignity which cost taxpayers $2.7 trillion. This gap between those seeking jobs and needing jobs needs to be bridged."

"Our model provides skill matching, coaching and cutting edge credentialing to our adult clients many of whom are homeless. We bring adult workers out of unemployment into a job that they will be able to find dignity and respect for a lifetime. Last year, we saved our city $1M by adding new jobs, helping new workers add to the local economy rather than depending on charity."

"While programs to provide adult learning, such as GRE programs, have existed for years, few are meeting the need in the gig-tech economy. Our model builds on education network that now exist and build on them by using smart phone technology to match up workers to both the jobs and credentials necessary for the match to stick. Also, we're convinced our offering of wrap-around services is what's needed for sustainable change in adult education."

"After our initial investment in this model, we will deploy our corporate partnerships where employers pay into our program to gain access to the newly credentialed workers. Our estimate shows that with only 20 corporate partners, we can actually run a profit by the end of just 18 months."

"Today, two of our founders actually hold college degrees in addition to certificates and two of us are credentialed in the critical technology for our tech model to work. All of us have created personal income streams in the triple digits. We are living examples that prove that adults can navigate the new educational systems and succeed. We can lead the way for the rest of the nation."

"With your investment of $250,000 we can support 2,500 adult learners in getting their credential in just 26 months. In two years, this will generate a profit as we become a vendor to the state and federal government. The state has agreed to engage with us, creating a social impact bond. We can also increase our corporate partnership program. If we hit our numbers as planned, we could see a 7% return on the investment."

"I'm here today to ask you to invest $250,000 in our program to join two other investors already committed at this level. With the three of you, we will have funds necessary to achieve our goal of 2,500 new credentialed adults in our state."

What's the Lumina Prize? You could have the winning idea!

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Chronic stress and captive orcas

A new study lays out the case for the damaging effects of stress on orcas living in tanks.

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  • There are currently around 60 orcas living in concrete tanks globally.
  • Orcas' brain structures and behaviors strongly suggest smart, emotional, self-aware beings.
  • The study provides compelling evidence that the stresses inherent in captivity do damage to these naturally free-roaming cetaceans.

A study, "The harmful effects of captivity and chronic stress on the well-being of orcas (Orcinus orca)" recently published in Journal of Veterinary Behavior is the product of a unique collaboration of experts in marine mammal science, veterinary science, internal medicine and psychiatry. It makes the case for a careful consideration of the impacts of chronic stress on captive orcas, at least 60 of whom are currently in captivity. Most have spent years or decades of their lives in these conditions. 56.7% of these orcas were born in captivity, with 26 captured young. (Orcas are actually the third most commonly confined cetaceans — there are even more bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales held in tanks.)

The study explains how the continual, oppressive stress inherent to a captive orca's life is unhealthy and should be more thoughtfully addressed. Study lead author biopsychologist Lori Marino tells Big Think in an email:

"Our review shows that intelligence, complexity, and awareness are characteristics that make an animal more — not less — vulnerable to the effects of captivity. That seems counterintuitive because a lot of people think that the more mental resources you have the better you are able to cope with various situations. But it is also the case that the more mental capacity you have the greater your needs in order to thrive and the more extreme the impact of living in an artificial environment, that is, an environment outside your adaptive envelope."

While skeptics may consider it a leap to assume that orcas are intelligent and emotional enough to suffer the ill effects of stress, Marino responds, "That would be a claim in search of evidence. Stress is a common phenomenon in all mammals and many other organisms. The effects of chronic stress have been well-studied in mice, rats, dogs, etc." The study provides ample evidence that orcas are exceptionally intelligent, feeling creatures in any event.

The orca brain

Image source: FineShine/Shutterstock

The orca brain exhibits neurobiological traits that are considered prerequisites for complex psychology, emotion, and behavior:

  • a large brain size
  • an expanded neocortex
  • a well-differentiated cortical cytoarchitecture
  • an elaborated limbic system.

Even more important than sheer brain size is its size in relation to an animal's body. This is captured as the organism's encephalization quotient, or EQ. Says the study, "Odontocetes, and in particular Delphinoidea [the superfamily to which orcas belong], are the most highly encephalized nonhuman taxonomic group known … except modern humans."

Orcas also have the most highly convoluted, or folded, neocortical surface of all mammals including humans, and their ratio of neocortical surface to brain weight also exceeds the human brain's, suggesting an organ well-suited to higher-order functions.

Among a range of other clues presented by the study that suggest orcas are highly intelligent creatures are these:

  • Areas associated in the human brain with high-level cognitive and social functions including attention, prediction, social awareness, and empathy are all highly developed in orcas.
  • Orcas have a well-integrated mammalian limbic system that supports having emotions, memory, motivation, reasoning, learning, and abstraction.

Supporting behaviors

Image source: Willyam Bradberry /Shutterstock

Observations of orca behavior richly supports the implications of their neurobiological structures. Marino says, "Free-ranging orcas live in tightly-knit social groups that are necessary during their long juvenile periods and afterwards. They support each other, help each other when in trouble, and grieve each other. Mothers and calves are very tightly bonded. In some groups, male orcas stay with their mom their whole life and if mom dies [the male offpsring] may go into a deep depression and die as well. Family and social group are everything."

Orcas also demonstrate culture, with vocalizations and even hunting methods unique within groups and passed from generation to generation.

"Orcas at Punta Norte, Argentina, hunt sea lion and elephant seal pups by beaching themselves and capturing the pups, typically in the surf zone," according to the study.

Captivity morbidities

Image source: Peter Etchells/Shutterstock

In the wild, free-ranging female orcas live an average of 46 years — some live as long as 90 years — and males 31 years, or as long as 50-60 years. Captive orcas rarely live more than 30 years, with many dying in their teens or 20s. Their medical histories can be difficult to access due to facilities' desire for confidentiality. Nonetheless, some morbidities, or causes of death, have become clear over time.

One review from 1979 identified infectious disease as the culprit behind the death of 17 captive North American orcas who'd died since 1965 prior to the report's writing. The new study cites publicly available documentation revealing that between 1971 and 2017, SeaWorld parks alone have experienced 35 documented orca deaths, and that, "When causes of death were available, the most commonly implicated conditions were viral, bacterial and fungal infections, gastrointestinal disease, and trauma."

Infections such as these may not in and of themselves have necessarily been lethal, but when combined with orcas' "weakened immune system, chronic exposure to chemical irritants or trauma to the skin, excessive or improper use of antimicrobials, and an imbalance in the microbiota of the body or environment (which may exist in tanks)," they become deadly. Common fungal infections may also especially dangerous in this context "as a result of long-term and aggressive antibiotic treatment, overtreatment of water for purity, or both." The same is true for untreated dental infections.

Another frequent cause of orca death: gastrointestinal ulceration — ulcers — caused by prolonged exposure to stress.

The destructive power of stress

Image source: eldeiv/Shutterstock

"Importantly, the poor health and short lifespans of captive orcas are most clearly understood as connected elements in a cycle of maladaptiveness to the conditions of captivity that involves behavioral abnormalities, physical harm and vulnerability to disease."

The paper shows, says Marino, that "when you examine the totality of the welfare findings for captive orcas the whole picture fits best within a larger common framework of evidence on how stress effects captive animals. We know that, when confined, other animals show the same kinds of behavioral and physiological abnormalities that captive orcas do. This is not mysterious or even controversial. It is basic science."

Marino cites as especially damaging the manner in which captivity prevents orcas from making social connections. Tanks also deprive them of places to retreat, making conflicts inescapable even temporarily. Finally, captive orcas are likely to become bored and chronically demotivated by the frustration over their loss of autonomy.

The study also notes physical effects brought on by long-term stress, including:

  • the release of too much cortisol by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis, causing elevated blood sugar, suppression of the immune system, as well as metabolism and blood pressure issues.
  • alterations of the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex due to prolonged stress, potentially leading to Increased anxiety, post-traumatic stress, cognitive impairment, depression, and mood dysregulation.
  • organ degradation in response to unrelenting stress.
  • a loss of natural sensory information, about which, says the study, "a growing body of research has found that exposure to excessive or unnatural levels or types of acoustic input can cause a number of impacts to cetaceans, including but not limited to … accelerated aging, suppression of the immune response, as well as premature hearing loss."

A valuable conversation

Marino explains why it was important to conduct this study, saying, "My co-authors and I wrote this review to bring all of the available information on captive orca well-being together in one place and to suggest that we might all best be able to understand the effects of captivity within a very familiar and well-researched model of how chronic stress effects all organisms. We want this paper to be a catalyst for dialogue and further scientific exploration based on data as to how we can better understand who orcas are and how we can identify the important elements needed in a captive environment for them to thrive."

The Whale Sanctuary Project is hosting a free public webinar to discuss the study and the effects of stress on captive orcas with three of the study's authors Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

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