SEWF2015: Heat. 80 Taiwan delegates. Coffee and cakes. So many speakers. Profit and purpose. Scaling up or scaling out. Great networking. Buzz.
So that’s my tweet-length digest of a conference which was fairly overwhelming but full of purpose and clearly on a path of change.
Animated by a high-energy speech by Peter Holbrook of SEUK, the Social Enterprise World Forum was dominated by two themes: the role of profit in the social economy, and the best ways to achieve scale.
Mohammad Yunus set out his view on profit and returns to investors: they’re not for him, though he acknowledges they might be for others. His concern was not about the many individual social entrepreneurs or investors who might do it right, but about the few new players who could undermine a hard-fought social enterprise reputation. Kevin Lynch from the US Social Enterprise Alliance took a different path to the same end-point, saying that initiatives like the US B Corp, with accredited performance metrics, but no mandatory social mission, could sideline social enterprises.
But many others took a different view. It was apparent that the sharp withdrawal of government funds in the host country of Italy had led many social enterprise and coop leaders to review their position. In the absence of subsidy, more commercial approaches may be the only solution, they said.
Sophie Tranchell of Divine Chocolate argued that returning profit to investors would be fine if the investors were the people you are trying to help – in her case, farmers in Africa, as well as social investors like Gordon Roddick. Other participants noted that millennial-generation philanthropists are model-neutral, focusing on a cause, and just getting on with it. Participants from several countries reported work underway to create hybrid legal formsi. The profit-with-purpose concept, developed as part of the Social Impact Investment Taskforce, seemed to go down well alongside the UK Community Interest Company model.
The format of the event – too many podium speakers and too little time for discussion – meant that ideas from one event rarely moved on to inform the next. With at least four events devoted to commercial approaches, and with each coming to distinctly different conclusions, that was a shame. But then, just a few years ago, the topic would not even have been allowed airtime. Now, it’s a key issue, subject to advocacy and scrutiny. That’s progress.
The question of scaling up has been pondered rather longer than that of financial returns on social investment. Participants argued for the value and human touch of having many micro, community- level social ventures. Others argued the need for scale to tackle the immense size of the world’s problems, and the need for speed in claiming new sectors as social territory.
Karen Lynch of Belu Water said ‘you can copy my model and help me achieve my dream.’ Her mantra: ‘we are here for the solution not just for our enterprise’ gained wide support. All good points, but haven’t we debated this issue enough? The answer is both, not which: there are roles for micro ventures and roles that can only be taken by giant organizations. I love the fact that there are socially led banks, mobile networks, pharmaceutical companies and even a steel works. And I also love my local corner shop social enterprises too. The world is big enough for us all.
One theme was mostly missing in the event, and that was wonderful. We were over a day and a half into the conference before anyone asked about definitions of social enterprise. Phew. Douglas Adams said there were three phases of civilisation: how can we eat, why do we eat, and where shall we choose lunch. Social enterprise got stuck in the philosophy section, defining roles, way too long.
In the end, one speaker after another said we must help social entrepreneurs get going from all backgrounds, including from the poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, who understand the problems they seek to solve so well. Music to my ears.
The event ended with a parade of young social entrepreneurs: passion, talent and drive a-plenty. Fabio de Pascale said, ‘let’s get to grassroots with ground-level incubators to help the poor to achieve as social entrepreneurs’. For me, Fiza Farhan from Pakistan said it best: ‘there is a duty on those of us who have succeeded, to support the disadvantaged to step up and succeed next’.
Thank you Fiza!
Cliff Prior is chief executive officer of UnLtd
i A one year on update for the Social Impact Investment Taskforce notes work on legal forms for the mix of enterprise and social mission in Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, USA