Saturday, March 5, 2011

Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, Part 1

If there was one theme that emerged from today's installment of the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, it was that the federal government should take on the role of scaling up social enterprises.

Well, that was a theme that seemed to tie the keynote address on the Social Innovation Fund together with the panel on "Social and Policy Innovation in the Obama Administration." The keynote address featured a conversation with Paul Carttar, Director of the Social Innovation Fund, and VPP's President and CEO, Carol Thompson Cole, which was moderated by CNN analyst David Gergen. The "Social and Policy Innovation" panel featured several members of the Obama administration that work on various aspects of his innovation agenda.

Something that clearly emerged from the keynote address was that the Social Innovation Fund does not aim to find or create social entrepreneurs,  but to scale up tested and proven programs. Paul said that if they focus on finding these effective solutions to social problems, the right entrepreneurs and leaders will follow. Similarly, the panelists representing the Obama administration discussed how they seek to find innovations where they are--be they policy innovations, technology innovations, or product innovations--and scale them up across the country, and with the case of international development, across the world. Mark Newberg of the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Small Business Administration noted that without the federal government behind a particular innovation (he gave the example of LEED certification for buildings), it's hard to create any sort of systemic change. This reminded me a lot of the government-as-an-exit-strategy concept of philanthropy.

Carol Thompson Cole, in the keynote, gave an interesting glimpse of how the SIF intermediary funders fit into the broader goals for the initiative. This is something I don't think most people have a good grasp on yet, (but, of course, I'm not sure if that's true since I work so closely with this stuff, as VPP is a SIF intermediary), so I think it was good to get that out there. She talked about how organizations like VPP are mediators between the social service subgrantees and the federal government, and how important it is that VPP has committed to five years of its SIF program, youthCONNECT, regardless of federal funding.

Something that both Carol and Paul discussed, which I've never really grasped before, was the idea that SIF is not just about giving out money to high-performing organizations, but actually advancing a theory of change that isn't typical in the philanthropic or social entrepreneurship field. Paul discussed how he thought SIF would be a success if it can advance the notion of collaborative work towards a shared-outcome framework, either in other areas of the government or in the private world. Carol talked about VPP's commitment to a network for social change, and how this really represents the way forward for the organization.

Completely separate from that, I went to another presentation with four panelist presenting academic research on the social enterprise sector. I was a little skeptical, to be honest, since it included the word "academic" in the title, but it was fantastic. There was a presentation on what organizations should measure for based on their theory of change and organizational services (which had a matrix involved), a presentation on the efficiency of social enterprises vs. corporate social responsibility vs. charity, a study on impact investing, and a presentation on conscious capitalism that included the question "Can you build a business on love?" (Which I think will be the new question I ponder while I meditate.) Unfortunately, these presentations got pretty close to blowing my mind, so I don't think I'm going to be able to summarize them here.

All in all, a great, informative, innovative day. Also, the food at the networking reception was fantastic. Harvard knows how to do it.

More tomorrow.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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