Features | May 11, 2020

Visa Foundation’s Graham Macmillan doubles down on small and micro businesses – run by women

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ImpactAlpha, May 9 – A parade of philanthropic foundations will report this week on their journeys toward aligning their assets with their missions, as the biennial Mission Investors Exchange gets underway online.

ImpactAlpha will check in on the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Heron Foundation and others that have been working for years to point more of their endowment assets, in addition to grants, toward social impact.

As a new foundation without a legacy approach to unwind, the Visa Foundation has moved quickly to deploy all the tools in its toolbox.

“It was clear to me that in the 21st century, for a corporate foundation with $400 million in assets to not consider how to optimize those assets, to utilize those assets fully, would be a lost opportunity,” Visa’s Graham Macmillan says in an interview for ImpactAlpha’s Returns on Investment podcast.

Last month, Visa Foundation committed to invest $140 million over five years with fund managers and other intermediaries generating positive social and financial returns for small and micro businesses. That’s on top of another $60 million in grants to non-governmental organizations with the same mission, and $10 million in grants for efforts to provide immediate relief efforts in the COVID-19 crisis. 


Macmillan joined Visa last June from the Ford Foundation, where he was part of the effort to carve out $1 billion over 10 years from the foundation’s $13 billion endowment for “mission-related investments.” The smaller asset base of that Visa Foundation makes the all-in approach even more important, he says.  

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The foundation was created in 2017 as part of the reorganization of Visa Europe. With $400 million in assets, the endowment is unusual among corporate foundations, which are mostly funded with annual contributions. One early initiative was a $20 million, five-year grant to Women’s World Banking to support women-led small and micro enterprises.

Macmillan arrived with a mandate to expand the small and micro-enterprise strategy, with a focus on women. The foundation estimates that such businesses account for more than 90% of businesses worldwide and more than half of global employment – and suffer from a $300 billion annual deficit in credit and financing.

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Then COVID hit. “The strategy we had thought of made alot of sense,” Macmillan says. “Women in the response phase make up so many of the healthcare workers. In the recovery phase, women who are running those businesses are so central to the recovery. If we put women at the center of the recovery, the recovery will be more durable and inclusive.”

The coronavirus crisis has further exposed gaps in a financing system that was already in urgent need of improvement. “These are businesses that didn’t get access to capital to begin with and now they’re even more at risk,” Macmillan said. The recovery process will involve tough choices between institutions on life-support and those that will be able to lean in when the health crisis and social lockdowns ease. “You need viable institutions that will be there to support them when they get up, when they raise their hands and say, ‘I’m ready to go.’” 

Small and micro businesses, Macmillan said, are a proxy for human aspirations. 

“While we talk alot about how critical these businesses are, not nearly enough money goes to these businesses, and not nearly enough support, from policy and regulatory standpoint to capacity building and training,” he says. “Out of this we may have a better outcome for the support of these really critical businesses, that really are us.”

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