VisionSpring, vision entrepreneurs

Several years ago, thanks to an innovative class pioneered by my MIT Sloan colleague Simon Johnson, MIT students had a chance to partner with finalists in the World Bank Development Marketplace business plan competition. Student teams worked directly with promising entrepreneurs, mostly from the developing world, to address a development challenge posed by the World Bank team: the MIT folks assisted finalist entrepreneurs. It was a formative experience for the students involved–and for me, as a one-time collaborator. I learned about Scojo, an early winner (their 2003 winning entry) and we just took a look at the organization they have developed into, now called VisionSpring. VisionSpring supports microentrepreneurs in selling low-cost eyeglasses to low-income consumers in India and elsewhere. Some entrepreneurs work with other organizations and get VisionSpring’s “business in a bag” alongside their other products and commodities; others work only with VisionSpring. This model has been called “microfranchising.” Take a look at this working paper, Microfranchising at the Base of the Pyramid, for more.

By the way, Development Marketplace is still going: the World Bank Institute sees value in the bottom-up model for socio-economic development fueled by social entrepreneurs.

For a story of how Scojo went from an idea to a growing organization, see this recent INSEAD story.  A recent piece, What Works: Eyeing Talent, from the Stanford Social Innovation Review adds more, describing how VisionSpring picks promising social entrepreneurs to restore the eyesight of poor people. A recent VisionSpring blog post entitled Needs vs. Demand: Social Marketing Strategies in India explains the importance of demand generation as part of the organization’s strategy.

We learned from our research that VisionSpring sought investors via a process known as a growth capital offering. Here’s VisionSpring’s 2008 Growth Capital prospectus. To learn more about what this process entails, the Nonprofit Finance Fund explains their Sustainable Enhancement Grant (SEGUE) approach to accounting for nonprofits. According to a recent Fast Company piece, SEGUE

tracks growth capital separately and does not count it towards general revenue. As capital is used, the funds are moved back into the revenue line. This allows a nonprofit to distinctly account for money going to build the organization’s platform.

“We’re trying to decriminalize sound financial practices for nonprofits,” explained Craig Reigel [Partner of NFF Capital Partners, who just succeded George Overholser as Managing Director.]

For social entrepreneurs seeking to develop their capabilities, the non-profit equivalent of an IPO offers a vehicle for raising needed investments–and gives us a chance to learn more about the organization’s performance and plans. We were glad to find the VisionSpring Growth Capital Offering. Take a look and tell us what you make of it.

And note that US-based non-profits, possibly with the exception of some faith based organizations, need to report annually to the IRS in what is called a form 990 and disclose revenue, expenses, assets, directors and some salary information along with some other info.  The 990s tend to have a year or two time lag but can be publicly accessed via a website called  You have to register, but it is free. Thanks to Nicole Zenel for sharing this resource!

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