What if there was a way to invest in a nonprofit and earn a financial return based on impact? What if donors made performance-based donations that catalyzed investment capital and unlocked impact data? These are just some of the questions that San Francisco resident Lindsay Beck asks herself as she sets up NPX, a company that’s transforming the way impact is financed in the nonprofit sector, along with her cofounder Catarina Schwab. Similar to social impact bonds in that participating ventures would be able to expand much faster than usual, the infusion of private dollars would come from citizens making investments on the exchange. Beck, a Wharton business school grad who founded her own nonprofit for cancer patients, spoke with NationSwell about combining the private and nonprofit sectors.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
What I see in others that I aspire to be most like is presence in a moment. We’ve all been in meetings where someone runs in: they’re late, they’re scattered, they spend 15 minutes telling you how busy they are and then finish by telling you all the things they have to do next. By contrast, I have had meetings and personal experiences where people come in and don’t bring any of that with them. We sit down, conquer whatever the agenda is, and I feel like the center of their universe. To me, that is the most powerful and very hard. It requires behind-the-scenes systems, a mindset and help to get there.
What’s on your nightstand?
I am trying to read three books a month right now, so I currently have “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson, which I’ve been told is amazing and is teaching me more about recidivism in the U.S. justice system. I also have “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future,” by Steve Case, which is brand-new and everyone’s raving about. And then I have “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims. She’s the former Stanford dean who wrote the book about how we’re all ruining our kids and how to fix it.
What’s your favorite movie of all-time?
The movie that had the biggest impact on my life was “You’ve Got Mail.” This might sound funny, but when I saw it, I was recovering from surgery. I was a cancer patient [Beck is a two-time cancer survivor], and I had just been told that chemotherapy would render me sterile. I didn’t know what to do about that. In the movie, one of the characters goes off to freeze her eggs. Literally because of that movie, I started calling every [in vitro fertilization] clinic in the country and found a way to freeze my eggs before I started chemotherapy. It was not necessarily my favorite, but it changed the trajectory of my life and many people’s lives after that.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
I am excited about all of the blended finance — some people call it social finance, and it can be grouped with impact investing — that are linking capital with impact. We’re finding new, creative ways to fund and finance solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. Up until recently, the nonprofit sector (or more largely, the impact sector) had been very opaque and inefficient. There’s been a lot of money flowing without knowing what works, what doesn’t and where something’s better. We haven’t applied some of the traditional free-market principles to that sector: there’s not robust information flow or sufficient capital flow tied to impact. That’s changing. With increased transparency and efficiency, I think we can better identify and fund what works and more quickly stop what doesn’t.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
I feel like everyone told me it, I just didn’t hear it: it is going to take a long time. Relax, be patient, slow down. Don’t rush it. Being an entrepreneur there’s a sense of urgency, but it’s exhausting, and everything takes twice as long as you think it will. It’s okay to slow down and wait for the world to be ready.
What inspires you?
On a micro level, I want to see this change in the world. I’m really driven not to sit back and hope other people do it, but to play an active role in creating the change I want to see in the world. On the macro level, I am motivated by having a purpose larger than myself and my own little world. In my past job and past career at Fertile Hope, a nonprofit telling cancer patients of the risk to their eggs and providing them options, I had the perfect nexus of passion-driven career that left a positive legacy and I was able to get paid for it. In the Jim Collins Venn diagram, at the center, that is utopia. I had that, and I created that in the nonprofit. Now I’m in the place where I’m trying to re-create that.
What’s your biggest need right now?
Our biggest need at NPX is an innovative philanthropist who’s willing to try something new. Everyone says they are both innovative and willing to try something new, but the reticence to act is surprising sometimes. We need someone who is ready to try and experiment, in terms of how they give. Whether it’s a person or foundation, they need to feel, “I’m tired of the existing playbook, and I’m ready to jump in the ring to try something new. I’m ready to act.”
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
It’s a little bit of a mix between personal and professional: becoming a mother, having my first child, because everyone told me I couldn’t have everything and all I had to overcome to do it. I created the organization in that spirit — to live it and believe it and preach it — but it was another thing to actually realize that dream. It’s an extraordinary day-to-day impact on my life, being a mom, especially after being told that’s not going to happen for you.
What something most people don’t know about you?
Once upon a time, I was a taxi driver. (You’d never know by reading my LinkedIn profile.) On Martha’s Vineyard, I was there for a summer in college, and that was supposedly the most lucrative job on the island. A bunch of my guy friends decided they were going to be cab drivers, and I said, “If you can do it, I can do it.”
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This interview has been edited and condensed.