Attendance at the 2nd annual Social Capital Markets Conference cleared 1,000 people, representing a 70 per cent increase over last year. Attendance at the 2009 Council on Foundations conference in May of this year was 1,200, a 35 per cent decline from previous years.
Something big is happening at Fort Mason in San Francisco. In just two short years the SoCap conference has emerged as one of the few must-attend events for people interested in social capital markets. SoCap doesn’t feature awards, dinners and vendor booths. Instead it is full of fast-moving breakout sessions where up to half the time is taken up with questions from the audience. At the end of the session at which I presented about building a new narrative for social capital markets, I only half jokingly suggested that I and the other panellist move to the audience and let audience members like Dennis Whittle of Global Giving, Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO, Janice Schoos of Growth Philanthropy Network, and Tris Lumley of New Philanthropy Capital take our place and run the session for a second time with a new take.
One of the fascinating aspects of the SoCap conference is the way the starting point for conversations seems to be for-profit organizations. In fact, my greatest criticism is that it almost seems that someone threw a social change conference and forgot to invite the non-profits and foundations. I don’t believe that ‘philanthropic capital markets’ are separate from ‘social capital markets’.
There is a single spectrum of capital that runs from pure philanthropic grants to pure market-rate investments. But all of that capital results in positive or negative social impact. Personally, my interest is focused on how philanthropic capital can be provided to non-profits to produce social impact. But that’s just my entry point for exploring social capital markets. People like SoCap organizer Kevin Jones might be more interested in how for-profit or ‘low-profit’ enterprises can affect social change, but again that’s just a frame of reference for viewing the integrated social capital markets.
What I found most engaging about the conference was the way it represented a different world view from so many philanthropy conferences. I had a conversation with a leading philanthropy scholar a few months ago about how we might map various philanthropic approaches. He suggested that one axis along which various philanthropic world views fell should be labelled Constrained vs Unconstrained (he was not referring to the definitions of those labels that are circulating in political circles. His use probably more closely reflected the terms’ use in optimization problem solving). To this professor’s way of thinking, ‘Constrained’ philanthropy assumes that there is a set number of inputs we can use to create social impact. Our job is to optimize these inputs to create the most social value. ‘Unconstrained’ philanthropy, on the other hand, believes there is an unlimited number of inputs and the range of potential outcomes has no bound.
To me, the SoCap conference represents Unconstrained approaches to social impact. Almost every session focused on questions of ‘how might we build something that doesn’t yet exist?’ At many traditional, ‘Constrained’ philanthropy conferences, the sessions focus on identifying what the rules are and how we might best play by them.
Sean Stannard-Stockton is CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors and author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog. Email firstname.lastname@example.org