This question will be on everyone’s mind when the European venture philanthropy and social investment community gathers once more for the annual conference of the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) on 26 and 27 November. 400 delegates are expected in Geneva, Switzerland, to converse on this year’s principal theme: “Responsible Leadership: Inspire and Act!” But what exactly makes a responsible leader? And how can we ensure that those leaders are supported and promoted thus allowing them to contribute to solutions to current and future societal challenges? We have asked some of EVPA’s members and conference speakers these questions. Here are their reflections on responsible leadership.
Olivia Leland, director of the Giving Pledge and one of the keynote speakers of the EVPA annual conference, focuses on the importance of pooling different interests and knowledge in order to act responsibly. Olivia says: ‘Similar to EVPA, we at the Giving Pledge believe that bringing together people from different backgrounds, with very different areas of interest, can accelerate learning and drive bolder, more effective philanthropy – which is just what we need to solve today’s most difficult problems. So I look forward to sharing our experiences with a European audience – and to entering into a dialogue with European philanthropists and social investors.’ The Giving Pledge is an effort founded by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to help address society’s most pressing problems by encouraging billionaires to commit the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.
Our second keynote speaker is Rodrigo Jordan, an acclaimed mountaineer from Chile and an expert on leadership. He argues that leaders are not born, but need to learn to connect to the societies they serve in order to contribute responsibly to the common good. He explains: ‘I do not believe in innate conditions of leadership. Nobody is born with a “leadership genetic magic wand”. Leadership is an exercise and thus it can be done by anyone with proper knowledge, mindset, social skills and a devoted heart.’ He adds that ‘no leader is going to be successful if he or she does not empathise with the people he intends to serve. Through empathy a true leader can stand in the shoes of the poorest in this world. Present leaders will have a greater chance of success if they allow their mindsets to reframe problems proactively as opportunities. And they also need to exercise their innermost empathy. This means being empathetic with their teams, with their clients, their end-users, their suppliers, and every human being in their surroundings.’
The BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt, based in Germany, supports a programme of Young Leaders Forums that take place in Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Africa. Bringing together leaders from different geographies and sectors to discuss economic and social changes as well as political transformations, the forums allow participants to exchange experiences and learn from each other, something that becomes increasingly difficult in times of high social mobility, as Markus Hipp, executive director of the BMW Stiftung, explains. ‘It is a hallmark and a problem of modern societies that the interaction – and thus the mutual understanding – between members of different social groups is on the decline. Highly mobile leaders in particular often do not feel like “citizens” where they live and are said to retreat into privacy. Yet given their know-how and their role as thought leaders, they in particular could make a difference and a special contribution to social cohesion and become responsible leaders. When leaders recognize that their experiences, knowledge and networks are in demand also outside of their personal and professional environments, and that they are able to shape society by working for the common good, they get involved. By abandoning their usual ways of thinking and reasoning, they also broaden their professional horizons and their leadership skills.’
For Suzanne Biegel, senior adviser to ClearlySo and member of the advisory board for Investors’ Circle in the US (where she was previously CEO), responsible leadership comes with an obligation to question situations and activities and if necessary change them. She says: ‘Responsible leadership for venture philanthropists means asking questions and being prepared to face the consequences of the answers. For example, are we looking at diversity (gender, racial, ethnic) in the board, staff, and suppliers of our enterprises? Are we holding ourselves accountable to all relevant stakeholders? Are we looking at the most relevant metrics for each organization, but then also looking at subsidiary metrics appropriately?’ Suzanne also co-chairs the values-based investment group of Women Donors Network, and runs Women in Social Finance in London. She is thus looking at the topic with a gender lens: ‘I think that responsible leadership among both investors and investees is to notice where we are having unintended consequences. And where we are not looking clearly at issues and opportunities of governance, of workforce, of environmental impact. “Responsible” to me also means speaking truth to power, or speaking up when it is uncomfortable. As venture philanthropists, I believe that if we are working to create a better world, by supporting the best and brightest stars amongst the entrepreneurs and enterprises we care about, we need to both support responsible leadership amongst ourselves as a community as well as our investees. It might incur costs, it might incur more risk-taking to discover what works, and it might incur balancing the need for action and the need for thoughtfulness.’
Even though the above answers vary, what becomes clear is that the ability of leaders to recognise their own strengths and use these to serve the sector and its beneficiaries is essential in acting responsibly. This remains true whether we are talking of leaders on the investor level or leaders on the investee level.
What does responsible leadership mean for you? Do you agree with the definitions above? Join us on 26 and 27 November and let us know! In addition to plenary sessions and in line with EVPA’s mission to support venture philanthropy and social investment organisations, participants will also have the possibility to choose from 24 breakout sessions on lessons learned, tools and best practices.
Confirmed speakers of the conference include André Hoffmann, private philanthropist and vice president of WWF International; John Kingston, senior advisor at Social Finance Ltd and chair of the Association of Charitable Foundations; Caroline Mason, COO at Big Society Capital; and Kristian Parker, chairman of the board of trustees of the Oak Foundation. We will also hear from social entrepreneurs such as Dai Powell, chief executive of HCT Group, and Jürgen Griesbeck, founder and CEO of streetfootballworld.
Julia Meuter is communications and events coordinator for EVPA