The need for guiding lights


Michael Alberg-Seberich


Oslo is a beautiful, welcoming but also a bit dim city at this time of the year. The shrinking amount of daylight hours in Northern Europe in fall made it fitting to use the motto ‘Guiding Lights’ for this year’s European Venture Philanthropy Association’s (EVPA) conference.

The venue, Sentralen, an old bank building turned conference centre and innovation hub was a perfect place to meet for EVPA.

The 13th conference of this kind was another exploration of the venture philanthropy and impact investing sector. It indicated some brighter and darker spots in the movement.

Sean Hinton, Director of the Open Society Economic Advancement Program and CEO of the Soros Economic Development Fund, pointed in his keynote towards a crucial ‘fork in the road’ of the sector. One road is about increasing ‘impact of capital’, the other road is ‘on the scale of the capital directed towards impact’.

He sees the challenge that the later may lower the standards of impact. Hinton’s speech set a tone crucial development for the sector but not one that was always at the core of this conference or at least the events I attended.

A conference with more than 500 attendees overs a rather diverse program. EVPA made sure that some of the sessions were rather interactive. The ‘wicked problem’ sessions allowed the exploration of societal challenges, like unemployment, food security, refugees and social inclusion in the direct discussion with other participants.

The classification of sessions as ‘expert’, ‘exploring’ and ‘general’ allowed for a good navigation of the program for the diverse group.

One component of venture philanthropy that the conference illuminated was the role corporates can play in this field. Especially companies in France, Spain and the Benelux countries have embraced the principles of impact investing.

This development was underlined by a variety of examples of companies from around Europe during the conference. It will be interesting to see whether it is ‘just’ the impact driven approach of the EVPA community that companies find so appealing or whether this is an overall change in the way companies embed their societal responsibilities in their day to day business.

A session entitled ‘Truth or Dare – banks need to re-think their modus operandi to lead the Social Investment sector and remain sustainable’ tried to lighten some of the developments also addressed in the keynote of the conference. It was chance that this session took place in the vault of the old bank building but somehow was metaphorical for the topic.

It was a discussion mainly among the converted. It was not a discussion with the traditional banks and investment funds that have started to deploy substantial amounts of money towards ‘impact investing’. It seems that this conversation needs to be drawn into the light quickly.

EVPA 2017 was again a lively, engaging and thoughtful conference. Over the last 13 years this sector meeting has become the intersection of venture philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, social innovation, impact measurement and other change issues in Europe. It still is a growing community.

The challenge will be to keep it a movement that facilitates dialogue in the increasingly diverse world of venture philanthropy but especially impact investing.

Michael Alberg-Seberich is a managing partner at Active Philanthropy and Beyond Philanthropy.

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