The Art of the Responsible Exit in Microfinance Equity Sales

The Investing in Inclusive Finance program at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion explores the practices of investors in inclusive finance. Across areas including risk, governance, stakeholder alignment, and fund management, this blog series highlights what’s being done to help the industry better utilize private capital to develop financial institutions that incorporate social aims.

When you think about responsible investing, what comes to mind? Finding investment prospects that can deliver social returns? Perhaps diligent monitoring, with an eye to effective governance? How about when you sell an investment? How can investors remain committed to balanced social and financial goals when passing the baton to someone else?

This last question is the focus of a joint project by the Center for Financial Inclusion and CGAP. With several microfinance equity funds approaching maturity, the issue of equity sales is becoming more relevant, and as part of the project, the team has been interviewing many equity investors to understand how they perceive the question of what, exactly, is a responsible exit? A paper detailing the findings of these interviews, The Art of the Responsible Exit in Microfinance Equity Sales, will be released in the coming weeks.

In the course of these interviews, many respondents used the analogy of children growing up. As early-stage or founding investors, they reach a certain point where they have fulfilled their “parental” mission and are no longer best-positioned to provide the MFI what it needs, be it capital, expertise, or market access. From the investor’s perspective, the analogy works. But selling an MFI is less an act of entrusting your child’s future to his or her own good sense, along with whatever wisdom you’ve been able to impart – you are handing the MFI over to somebody else.

Indeed, the better analogy might be that of an arranged marriage: you hire a matchmaker (M&A specialist) to help find a suitor (buyer); you meet with the suitor to find out who he is and what he has done in the past (due diligence); maybe if you’re a responsible parent (investor), you ask your daughter (MFI management) for her opinion. All along, you are nagged by one important question – is this a suitable match for my daughter?

Unsurprisingly, buyer selection is a major part of social investors’ focus during the process and is seen as the most important way to assure continued attention to the double bottom line. However, investors have a few additional options at their disposal to insure that buyers will stick to their promises and will not lead the MFI away from its primary mission. The most common among these is simply selling a minority stake, relying on other like-minded investors to provide continuity of governance. In one case, a seller included one year employment contracts for key MFI management as part of the sale agreement, thus assuring at least temporary continuity in MFI operations. Several investors incorporated specific commitments to the MFI’s social mission and to client protection principles in the shareholder agreement, thus binding the buyer to some degree. Yet another investor was seeking to structure a minority stake with veto power over key institutional decisions, as a means of retaining post-sale control.

Each of these is an interesting exercise in insuring at least some level of continuity or control, even if the suitor turns out to be a dud. However, one institution figured out a way to bypass the process altogether. From the start, it was built on an unusual evergreen governance structure that assured that this commercial enterprise would stick to its social mission. Its initial charter insured that no single investor would have a controlling stake, and gave its board – composed of majority independent directors – veto power over any acquisition that would give a single investor a controlling stake. In effect, the structure gives a purchasing investor a share of the company’s assets and earnings, while leaving governance largely outside investor hands. And thus far, this MFI has been highly successful. In effect, the institution rendered the arranged marriage – or any marriage – unnecessary, by choosing to remain single and independent.

Which MFI is this, and how exactly does its governance structure function? And what are the other relevant lessons to investors seeking to sell their equity responsibly? Stay tuned for The Art of the Responsible Exit in Microfinance Equity Sales.

Have you read?

A $204 Million Leap for Financial Inclusion

Six To-Dos Now for Responsible Investors

A Journey to Understanding Risk as a New Board Director in “Governing Banks: MFI Edition”


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