Reflections on the Social Enterprise World Forum 2013

As with every coin in your pocket, there are always two sides to every story.  This could be the very reason life never disappoints in delivering surprises.

Reflecting on the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) 2013 brought up many opposing thoughts and conclusions.  On one hand, the forum was an amazing collision of people, conversations and ideas.  On the other hand, there seemed to be an uneasy undercurrent of skepticism and hesitation flowing through the rooms.  In more than one instance, a fellow attendee shared their worry with a look of exasperation that some of the speakers were just too enthusiastic; too optimistic.

On the other side of the spectrum, optimistic attendees shared concern that some nonprofit leaders seemed jaded and burnt-out from their years of serving in the social sector, resistant or unwilling to try their hand with new (“innovative” to use the word of the hour) approaches.  The attendees’ worry stemmed from wondering how long these leaders, these ‘pools of knowledge’, would remain closed-off and distant before (if ever) conceding to share their years of experiences and learnings with the incoming generation of social leaders.

Now clearly, this dichotomy of thought-trends could have been formed from one-off instances that I happened to witness; but nevertheless, both extremes of thinking were represented.

As with every coin, there are two sides. From my perspective, SEWF 2013 delivered a myriad of pros and cons.  One of the highlights was meeting one of my favourite socent bloggers, Ron Schultz.  It elated me to hear him encourage a group of Gen Y attendees to dig into our social systems and blow up the foundations (of thought – not the money-granting variety, he was quick to clarify).  Another standout was having lunch with the brain behind the design and implementation of the Community Interest Company (CIC) legal structure for social enterprise in the UK, Abbie Rumbold.

Memorable speakers included the Right Honourable Paul Martin, Ashoka Canada fellow Mary Gordon, and CEO of MaRS Discovery District, Ilse Treurnicht.

Paul Martin spoke about his projects inspiring entrepreneurship in Canadian Aboriginal communities.  Mary Gordon shared her simple-yet-profound solution to break the cycle of violence in families.  Her Roots of Empathy program helps young kids learn to read emotions and build empathy skills by having them spend quality time with a baby and his/her mother in the classroom.  Ilse Treurnicht gave a greatly informative talk on innovation’s current global trends and the resulting challenges and opportunities, noting how virtual communities of interest will be necessary to stay on top of global changes as they impact local projects.  She spoke about how innovative solutions to these complex problems will require coalitions of people from all walks of life.

Perhaps my expectations were too high.  But, (somewhat shamefully I might add) one lowlight of SEWF was Pamela Hartigan’s closing keynote address.  The closing felt overly stuck on the semantics of terminology surrounding the proverbial questions “How do you define a social enterprise?” and “What is social entrepreneurship?”, a debate I thought had more or less been put to bed at this point in time.  The partially emptied room due to attendees ducking out early to catch flights didn’t help the mood.

With Pamela’s 40 years experience working with social entrepreneurs I was all for hearing her healthy dose of reality on the sector.  If we take it from anyone, it should certainly be her; however, to me the tone came across surprisingly jaded and critical.  And, as I’ll discuss later, perhaps this is with good reason.

But, there are two sides to every coin.  With the above said, I did appreciate hearing Pamela Hartigan’s  perspective on how she sees social entrepreneurship and social enterprise evolving in the coming years.  She noted how in the beginning, profiling individual social entrepreneurs was important to provide examples and help social enterprise spread.  The teams behind these social entrepreneurs have always been crucial; she emphasized the importance of acknowledging the teamwork that takes place to tackle complex social issues.  She spoke about how corporate business has an entire ecosystem of support for teams, and how a team support system for social businesses will be equally important for social change going forward.  She stressed the role of corporations in driving change from within their hugely powerful systems as a key piece of the social change puzzle.

Perhaps Pamela’s tone and emphasis on definitions (by saying we need to encourage the “entrepreneuring” state of being over the entrepreneur, where few of us are entrepreneurs but we can all be “entrepreneuring”) was due an uneasiness with the recent “trendiness” of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise.  If this is indeed the case, she raises an important point.

From discussions at SEWF, a fear many seem to share is that social enterprise is morphing into an ‘end’ rather than a ‘means to an end’.  Pamela Hartigan echoed this thinking when she pointed to social enterprise as an approach rather than discipline.  She emphasized how social entrepreneurship involves systems change and seeing value where no one else does, then acting on that knowledge to create extraordinary and tangible value.  We can’t all be innovators creating brand new ideas but we do need to execute and improve upon existing work (a thought I wholeheartedly agree with as you can read here).

As co-founder of theSedge.org, it was music to my ears to hear SEWF themes of storytelling, knowledge exchange between peers, and talking about building an ecosystem of support for social enterprise as the next step.

Among what I’ll call the cautiously optimistic crowd (generally with one foot in each of the dichotomous camps described earlier), it was apparent that they wanted the next level of community to allow the practice of social enterprise to be the best it can be.  With theSedge.org’s vision of building a peer network where social organizations can share stories about what’s worked (or not worked) in their pursuits to minimize re-invention of the wheel in business design and execution, I’m biased to pick up on these comments.  Biased or not, I feel that with social enterprise as a means to an end – with the end being systemic social change; let’s not forget this – we should do our best to accelerate learning and become as efficient as possible in our education and execution of social enterprise funding strategies.

It was refreshing to hear people reiterating that we cannot operate our projects in silos; because even as “insert-best-adjective-for-your-project-here” as they might be, they will simply not reach the system-wide disruption that we need without achieving scale and mass.  Hats off to Dan Overall’s (Trico Charitable Foundation’s Director of Collaboration and Innovation) closing statement where he encouraged us all to do a better job of sharing our stories with the purpose of offering nuggets of insight to empower others in their journeys.

Last but not least, I give enthusiastic credit and props to Trico Charitable Foundation and sponsors of SEWF for putting on a seamless and well-thought-out event.  Aside from a few schedule mismatches the attention to detail was apparent, from the pre-engagement efforts online to the Collabatorium hosted by Conscious Brands.  This meeting space next to the main Plenary Hall was set up like a mini Unconference where attendees chose topics and lead small group discussions for anyone who was interested to join in.  Another huge win with out-of-towners and locals alike was showcasing our great Western Canada spirit by white-hatting attendees at a private rodeo event at the Stampede Grounds (beef on a bun and live country music included).

Every coin has two-sides. And when I tossed my Social Enterprise World Forum coin, it landed on “totally worth-it”.

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