Francisco Noguera

Net Impact: 2,400 Reasons to Be Optimistic

WhartonIt has been a fascinating morning, not without a funny feeling of nostalgia. A year ago I was logging in to read about the happenings at the Net Impact conference during my breaks writing essays and completing business school applications. In all of them, I tried to make sure to state my interest in joining a chapter and become part of this community.

A year later I am at the conference, not as a student but with my colleagues from WRI. I’m also running into familiar faces like the remarkable folks that were going to be my classmates at Michigan’s Ross School of Business.Take Nina Henning, for instance. I met her back in January when I went to visit Ross and to attend a Forum organized by their Net Impact chapter. Although I ended up not going to Ross, we have been able to keep in touch, even during her summer internship at Acumen Fund. She is a strong leader and I very much look forward to seeing her whereabouts once she finishes her dual degree next year. She will ignite significant change in the world, there’s no doubt in my mind about that.

Now that’s only Nina, and she’s far from being alone. There are many (many!) like her this weekend in Philadelphia; more than 2,400 of the world’s best-prepared people, business students, engaged in discussion about ways in which business can be an engine for social and environmental sustainability, for hope, for justice. That is the Net Impact Conference and this NextBillion’s first post from it. In the next few days you’ll be reading about these discussions, directly from the students who are the main characters of this venue.

The conference kicked off with an interesting opening keynote panel with the CEOs of Coca Cola and the World Wildlife Fund. After that I rushed to get a seat at a panel about philanthropy and social entrepreneurship.

Sitting a few meters away are Matthew Nash, the session’s moderator, who leads the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. The first panelist to be introduced is Peggy Reid, from the Lemelson Foundation. Lemelson plays a role in promoting invention and high risk ventures based in technologies that improve the lives of the poor. They do so through grants and program related investments, while working with other foundations and organizations in this space once the ventures they support take off beyond their early stages.

The second panelist is Lisa Hall, from Calvert Foundation. Calvert raises funds through an innovative mechanism that offers a return to investors. Although lower than market rates, the foundation are incorporating this “community investment note” and has so far gotten ca. 5,000 investors. Kris Prendergast, President of the Social Enterprise Alliance is also a panelist and began by explaining their role in this space. In stead of making direct grants, they provide a voice for all those interested in social enterprises and a community-building venue called the Social Enterprise Forum.

The last panelist is Dan Crisafulli from Skoll Foundation, a well-known and undisputed trend setter in the social entrepreneurship space. Besides the in kind support and the investment provided by the foundation, the media promotion and story celebration aspect of their work makes the Foundation distinct. Indeed, Social Edge is a great community for all of us in this space. However, Jeff Skoll’s belief in the power of communicating compelling stories to motivate change is most evident through his involvement in Participant Productions.

Philanthropy and the economic crisis

The first part of the conversation focused mainly on the trends that these leaders are observing in the philanthropy/ social entrepreneurship space, especially in the midst of an economic downturn like the current one.? Dan Crisafulli, for example, mentioned that there are ever growing symptoms that social entrepreneurship is far from losing momentum. In stead, events like Skoll’s forum are constantly over subscribed and the recent Investor Circle conference registered record applications for investment as well as record enrollment of potential angel investors.

However, beyond these anecdotal evidence, Peggy Reid acknowledges that philanthropy is going through a period of caution, like every market in the world. In response to this, philanthropists are considering investments rather than pure donations. These take place in two fundamental forms: mission-related investments and program related investments, varying fundamentally in the return foundations are able to make. The rise of new corporate structures that go beyond the traditional for and non-profit distinction is a step that has helped this trend to materialize.

Scale, scale, scale

Crisafulli made strong emphasis on Skoll’s approach to seeking scale in the social enterprise space. He mentioned that the foundation is now part of the Global Impact Investor Network, an initiative sponsored by Rockefeller Foundation. In his own words, philanthropy has traditionally focused on small and beautiful and now wants to find ways to maximize the impact of donations and investments.

As way of example, Skoll Foundation has been instrumental in the new avenues that are being pursued by Santa Clara University’s GSBI to boost scale through deepening knowledge on sectors (for more info on that, check out Al Hammond’s post earlier this week about our work on community scale water treatment with GSBI entrepreneurs).?

Finally, and before opening the panel to the audience, Crisafulli urges students in the room to go and work in the field in stead of searching jobs at Foundations! This is exactly what students seem to be looking for: tools and opportunities to engage in social ventures early in their career. Again, Nina Henning will be part of a panel tomorrow focusing exactly on that question, so stay tuned as we may cover it here on NextBillion.

This panel and the energy of the audience (ca. 130 people, 95% of which are MBA students) are making for a great start of the conference. I must go now, grab a bite and continue to have these interesting conversations.

More soon!