“During the toughest times, I sometimes wondered if this was the worst idea I’d ever had,” says Audette Exel, a structured finance and banking lawyer and founder of the ISIS Group, a set of businesses set up to fund and support The ISIS Foundation. Yet, as with all pioneering ventures without similar business models to follow, there is always a degree of uncertainty about the sustainability of a new idea. The ISIS businesses are now in their 15th year and have provided millions in recurrent funding to the ISIS Foundation, which provides service to around 11,000 people in extreme poverty in Uganda and Nepal a year, and has provided direct and indirect support since inception to around 100,000 people in need.
The Bermuda and Australian-based venture was started by Exel and friends in 1997, who realized that business types and non-profit types needed to recognize that they were different – and that if they combined forces with each playing to their own strengths, they could together change the world.
An idea was formed over many years: what if a purely commercial business was set up for the sole purpose of funding a non-profit foundation? After initial suspicions from business colleagues that the business was purely being set up for tax reasons, as well as scepticism from non-profit organizations who didn’t believe anyone would run a business purely for social outcomes and so viewed her business model as having a hidden agenda, Exel proved that by realizing unique strengths of each business model, much good could be achieved.
“One of the biggest challenges was to overcome the very negative attitudes that often exist between the two worlds of non-profit and commerce,” says Exel. “Business people often times view non-profit people as incapable of handling money properly as well as not accounting for their spend in a way that makes sense to big business. Corporations, on the other hand, can be viewed by non-profit organizations as ‘evil capitalists’ who don’t understand development work in complex social environments, especially within the developing world.”
Exel saw the potential for these two opposing disciplines to work together for good, and now has both business and non-profit teams working in the office on a daily basis, each with a separate agenda but a common cause.
The ISIS businesses are the financial ‘engine’ of the venture and has expanded to include a Bermuda law firm, a Bermuda fund administration business, and an Australian corporate finance and placement business. The group has funded over US$3 million for The ISIS Foundation and put to work a further US$7 million received from partner donors since inception.
The ISIS Foundation assists in breaking the cycle of poverty in disadvantaged communities in Nepal and Uganda, with a focus on providing health, education and opportunity for children and their families.
They seek to focus on projects that are remote, not currently popular, or less likely to be funded by large international donor organizations, therefore filling the gaps left behind by the changes and latest global trends in international development. Of the many achievements that ISIS has delivered on the ground, here is an example: a new maternity ward and a new and expanded neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) have been built, funded and supported in a rural bush hospital in Uganda which has built capacity to provide effective care for newborn babies and mothers, reducing the infant mortality rate. ISIS also provides training and capacity building for local staff from expert volunteers. The staff also have access to a medical advisory service over email and are also linked to 10 hospitals in Seattle, US for equipment support and advice on best practice.
What would Exel have done differently if starting over? “In a dream world, it would have helped if we had raised some capital from like-minded individuals, as we grew this business from a zero capital base.
It would also have been less stressful if we had partnered with other businesses to build out the vision. But in the early days, people largely thought the concept of a social business was a crazy one, so we just got on with it and thankfully are still around to tell the tale!”
When talking of key risks after 13 years, she is also aware of a need to dilute her overly-central role in the businesses, to ensure that others take the vision forward and develop the ISIS Group into a sustainable future.
“Real leadership is inspiring others to come with you on your vision,” says Exel. “I believe that finding ways for people on extremes to work together for a common good is the way of the future for our planet. It takes courage to do things outside of models that society expects; but the journey is a fantastic one and well worth the ride.”