The business of Acumen

In 2001, Acumen became one of the first of a new breed of ‘impact investment’ companies providing investment in the developing world. Twelve years on, johnson banks has designed a new identity for the organisation and collaborated on a manifesto for the work it does in tackling world poverty

In 2001, Acumen became one of the first of a new breed of ‘impact investment’ companies providing investment in the developing world. Twelve years on, johnson banks has designed a new identity for the organisation and collaborated on a manifesto for the work it does in tackling world poverty…

Founded by the author Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen has so far sought out business ideas in India, Pakistan, West and East Africa, supporting projects that, it says, deliver goods and services to low-income people – investment that puts social impact before financial return (Acumen calls this “patient” capital).

“For ten years, they were happy to trade as a ‘fund’,” say johnson banks, who have spent 17 months working on the branding project. “And as the organisation gears up for growth it will continue to search for companies that bring critical, affordable goods and services to the world’s poor. But with a growing worldwide network of fundraising ‘chapters’ and a global fellowship programme, it’s become about much more than just investing in companies.”

While the aims of Acumen sit somewhere between philanthropy and venture capitalism, johnson banks has a history of working with campaigning identities, especially within the charity sector. Michael Johnson wrote about how this market has changed in the last 15 years in a post for CR in February (here), where he noted that various rebrands (Shelter, YWCA, the Anthony Nolan Trust, for example) had sought to “clarify” exactly what the aims of a particular organisation were.

“The tipping point in the UK came when large charities began to ‘activate’ their names in a similar way,” Johnson wrote. “Macmillan Cancer Research amended their name to Macmillan Cancer Support, then incorporated it into a series of ‘we’ statements. Backed up by a relatively big adspend, we all soon saw ‘We are Macmillan’.”

To this end, the London studio has helped to devise a new identity for Acumen, as well as construct a manifesto for its aims and objectives – clarifying its purpose in the process.

The text is now being used as the cornerstone of of speeches and broken down into smaller units, say the designers, where “‘mini’ manifestos [below] are embedded into Acumen’s eight different logos that can be swapped in and out at will”.

Having shortened the brand name from Acumen Fund to Acumen, the studio then looked at ways of communicating their work.

“The organisation was widely admired and their brand reputation was great,” say johnson banks. “But their brand identity did not match the strength of this reputation, and how they had evolved. After dozens of drafts straightforward brand ‘narrative’ moved to an altogether higher level and together we produced a manifesto, which has become the key focus of the new brand.

“Their ‘A’ is deliberately left unfinished, to communicate that their work is never complete, that they don’t have all the answers, and that they can’t change the way the world tackles poverty alone. The new brand colours, typefaces and angles are carried across a comprehensive rebrand.”

The incomplete ‘A’ is, for me, a clever way of communicating the daunting task ahead for Acumen, but also that its success is dependent upon collaboration with others. That the ‘mini’ manifestos can sit alongside the ‘A’ offers a certain amount of flexibility, too, in terms of slotting in a particular ambition or aim – dependent on the context.

Here is the text of the manifesto in full:

Acumen: it starts by standing with the poor, listening to voices unheard, and recognizing potential where others see despair.

It demands investing as a means, not an end, daring to go where markets have failed and aid has fallen short. It makes capital work for us, not control us.

It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world as it is, and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be. It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to admit failure, and the courage to start again.

It requires patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that rejects complacency, breaks through bureaucracy, challenges corruption, and does what’s right, not what’s easy.

Acumen: it’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and building a world based on dignity.

According to the organisation, since 2001 Acumen has invested more than $83 million in 73 companies around the world, impacting an estimated 100 million lives.


Brand strategy and design: johnson banks. Animation: johnson banks and Martin Shannon. Web design: Music by Steve Rio

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