I recently attended the Social Finance Forum, organized by the newly minted MaRS Centre for Impact Investing. A worthy event, to be sure, it provided me with much to ponder while offering a fascinating snapshot of this at-times-dynamic-at-other-times-stagnant social finance space.
Full disclosure: this past year I decided to limit my conference attendance, a step that proved most refreshing. Instead, I put renewed energy into building up SEE Change, along with my other businesses, and meeting like-minded people across this country and the world, to ensure what I had to offer remained fresh, interesting – and interested. It was one of the better ideas I had in a long time.
But when I was invited to the Forum—with an agenda that looked promising—I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did. The speakers were insightful, topics refreshing and the takeaways were many. To be sure, good old “stuck conversations” still made their appearance, but that’s to be expected. What are stuck conversations? They’re the all-too-popular discussions that keep us entrenched in circular arguments, under the false pretense that only when we find resolution will we engender movement forward. But all they really do is keep us immobile, going nowhere fast.
To wit: I sat in on a roundtable discussion on social enterprise activities. The members of our energized table were eagerly chatting about all things social enterprise, the work they were doing, the goals they were setting and the difficulties they faced along the way. The conversations were inspired, enlightened, even offering pragmatic resonance. But then we hit a “stuck” discussion around the definition of social enterprise. Sigh. Next came the circuitous arguments, followed by tangents – many of them. Our table leader finally reined the conversation back to the practical but it wasn’t easy. As they say, the more things change…
Thankfully there was a lot of forward-moving discussion too. One session that really whet my journalistic appetite was entitled Good Deals: Pitch Presentations. It basically involved pitches from social entrepreneurs whose ventures received guidance by MaRS advisors and other experts earlier in the day. The ones who made it out alive presented their businesses (many in early stages of development) to our room full of “judges”.
Some of the ideas I heard that hour re-affirmed my passion for the field to which I’ve dedicated so much of my time and energy these past few years: Social entrepreneurs at their finest, brightest and most zealous.
The one that stood out most for its ingenuity, practicality and clever business model was Eco Laundry Room (ELR). Located in Toronto, ELR is a self-serve laundromat with a focus on water and energy conservation as well as convenience (clients can be in and out in an hour or less). With free WiFi, a reading centre, TV lounge and reasonable price point to boot (Some argued it should be even higher. I agreed.), ELR can easily prove the wave of the future for every environmentally aware and time-crunched laundromat-goer. If only it offered an ironing machine…or one that cooked a meal or two…I’m just sayin’.
Finally, as far as calls-to-action go, Amit Bouri offered a good one. Director of Strategy & Development at the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), the New York-based nonprofit was launched to increase the scale and effectiveness of impact investing with a particular focus on the investor. “There’s been lots of work around social entrepreneurs but little on investors,” he explained, adding the missing link has made it extra hard for entrepreneurs to succeed.
Interestingly, Bouri shared the results of a survey asking investors how they’d define the impact investing market today, with 75% claiming it to be “in its infancy and growing.” When asked if they would sacrifice financial returns for greater impact, 62% said yes, with 40% stating tradeoffs are necessary, predicting 5-10% of social investments will be found in portfolios in 10 years’ time. “They had a very bullish and optimistic outlook despite challenges they know lie ahead,” Bouri offered.
GIIN has been receiving a lot of attention since its inception a few years ago, but Bouri makes it clear there’s still a long way to go. “We made great strides in developing infrastructure for the space, each initiative is achievement in itself but it’s not enough.” What’s needed next is growth, he said, which, by necessity, relies on the activity of practitioners. One inevitably pushes the other forward.
The real question for the industry, said Bouri, is one of leadership. He took the words right out of my mouth.
What do you think? Who do you consider to be the top leaders in this space?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts,