A Report Back from Revisioning Value 2011: Integration, Intersection, Innovation

The Revisioning Value 2011 conference (REVV) held in Portland, OR on March 7 and 8 provided yet another excellent opportunity for those interested in social entrepreneurship and social finance to come together. This is the second annual REVV conference; both have been hosted by Springboard Innovations, a non-profit in Portland developing a social entrepreneurial ecosystem in order to catalyze local social innovation. This year, the conference both continued and broadened last year’s focus on social finance.

Amy Pearl, director of Springboard, laid out three themes, or what she referred to as “three I’s,” for REVV 2011:

  1. Integration from social innovation to enterprises that increase both social and economic wealth;
  2. Intersection of cross disciplines such as entrepreneurship, finance, design thinking, and engineering for solving problems; and
  3. Developing local and national ecosystems to nurture and promote innovators that pursue the previous two I’s.

Regarding the first “I” (integration), the keynote address by Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, argued that philanthropic support for social impact will never be sufficient as long as foundation assets “get invested in smoke stacks in China.” Tasch’s contribution to addressing this problem via the “slow food” movement promotes “a revolution [in which] lots of people invest one percent of their money in local food.” A workshop by Drew Tulchin (Social Enterprise Associates) and Stephanie Ryan (B-Corp) gave attendees some practice applying SROI and B-Corp rating criteria to their own organizations. Justin Conway (Calvert Foundation), Esther Park (RSF Social Finance), and Mark Van Ness (real_lenders.com) led a discussion on evaluating whether a non-profit meets their lending criteria or not. Beyond the particular mission of each lender and their investors, the lesson was that criteria and due diligence were largely the same as those in the for-profit world (consistent with how Amy Pearl defined “integration”). Drew Tulchin, Amy Pearl, and Anne O’Malley (AO Non-Profit Services) offered new strategies to help non-profits develop or enhance revenue streams.

“I’m not sure why I’ve been invited to speak at a conference on social entrepreneurship,” remarked Henry Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University and author of The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, early in his keynote for the second “I” (intersection). What is striking, however, is how much overlap exists between engineering and entrepreneurship. For instance, Petroski described how opportunities for engineering innovation are “driven by failures” in design, much as social entrepreneurs recognize failures in the design of policies or markets as opportunities for social innovation. Quoting Theodore von Karman, Petroski suggested that “Scientists seek to understand what is. Engineers seek to create what never was.” It seems that social entrepreneurs (and their investors) might learn from the engineering approach to designing new solutions in complex systems with highly uncertain outcomes. This “I” featured presentations by a distinguished panel (representing Equilibrium Capital, Calvert Foundation, 21 Acres, Natural Investments, Upstream21, and svn.com) on the role of impact investing in promoting social innovation; another on using design thinking to enable social innovation by Heather Fleming (Catapult Design) and Abby Sarmac (Lemelson Foundation); Rob Wiltbank’s (Willamette University) innovative research on effectual entrepreneurship; and Jenny Kassan (Cutting Edge Capital/Katovich Law Group) helping attendees understand the complexities of the legal side of social finance.

Keynotes for the third “I” (innovation), Louise Pulford (Social Innovation eXchange) and Tim Draimin (SiG at MaRS), discussed their roles in “building a national innovation ecosystem” in their respective nations. Draimin described “four C’s” for creating an innovation ecosystem:

  1. Raising consciousness by elevating the identity of social entrepreneurship),
  2. Encouraging co-creation by engaging various stakeholders to develop together better and more innovative solutions
  3. Having the courage to help design, launch, and provide community support for new business models that address systemic issues, and
  4. Building capacity for scaling and/or replicating solutions that prove themselves.

This “I” included Mike Van Patten’s presentation on Mission Markets and how it provides infrastructure for sourcing capital; Amy Pearl, Skip Sponsel (Emerging Innovation Accelerator), Dave Moffenbier (ATI), and Paul Osterlund (Abundance Farming Project) on new platforms for integrating social ventures and their investors; and Lewis Hower (University Impact Fund), Scott Stein (Net Impact), Ian Fisk (William James Foundation), and Louise Pulford on educational and experiential approaches to developing millennials into a new generation of leaders.

Beyond the excellent panels listed here, there were many others I could not attend that attendees were buzzing about (more information at the REVV website). I must admit to being rather partial to this conference; the 2010 version was my first social finance conference, and essentially from the start, I found it far more enjoyable than the academic conferences in economics and finance I had been attending the previous 10-15 years. I eagerly await REVV2012.

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