3 lessons from the SEWF

Last week I shared some initial thoughts on the Social Enterprise World Forum here. Having been overseas travelling for the last few months, getting myself to the Forum provided the perfect opportunity to remind myself of New Zealand’s aspirations in “ka koroki te manu” - creating our tomorrow.

I came to the Forum wearing three hats; one labelled ‘SEWF volunteer’, one done up in the baby blues of PledgeMe and finally one stamped with the logo of newly founded social enterprise Pop Up Business School Aotearoa. I’m a bit of a specialist in the “slash career” movement, so I felt right at home juggling three hats.

Still, I left Christchurch buzzing and somewhat dazed. The energy of 1,600 social entrepreneurs and enthusiasts is not be underestimated. Now that I have had some time to chew it over, I’ve put together my key takeaways from the conference.

1. Social enterprise = optimism

Six years on from the earthquake, Ōtautahi has come a long way in its rebuild. We heard from many silversmiths working to line the cloud cast over Christchurch after the shake. Rekindle, Cultivate Christchurch and Ohu are all examples of social enterprises that sprung up to fill the gaps between the cracks that split the city apart on February 11, 2011.

So it should come as no surprise that the Forum was bursting with great optimism for the future - and the worth - of social enterprise. This was a theme set in the opening session through a quote dating back to the first Forum held in Scotland ten years ago.

“A new approach is needed to address major social and environmental problems of our times because the government can't do it, the market won't do it and charity is a band-aid.” - CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland

But is our optimism enough to accelerate this new approach? Jan Owen, CEO of Foundation for Young Australians, warned that we are facing urgent global challenges; the future of work, inequality, sustainability of the planet and geopolitical instability just to name a few. Jan posed the question:

“Are we curiously, openly and actively shaping the trends and shifts around us? Or are we ignoring them to pursue our personal passion paths or even worse, dismissing them out of hand as the machinations of ‘the oppressors’?”

At first glance, social enterprise seems synonymous with all that is good. After all (in hand with financial sustainability), the whole existence of a social enterprise is to achieve its social mission. Unlike traditional corporates, shareholders are put second to society.

It was refreshing to see some, like Jan Owen, not put the social enterprise sector on a pedestal but challenge it just as we do every other way of doing good and/ or business. It can be hard to question people and organisations who are seen to be carving a path of positive change. But if we want social enterprise to grow into all it can be, we have to be curious - not just about the global challenges we face as social entrepreneurs, but also the challenges that we face within our organisations.

2. Let's not follow the charitable sector

Did you know Aotearoa has the highest number of charities per capita in the world? Yup. That is  a lot of charities. On one hand, that is awesome. We obviously care about stuff. The downside is that the charity model is not inherently financially sustainable. More often than not, charities are relying on donations to survive. In practice, this means we have a huge number of charities competing for a share from the same (very small) pot of money to survive.

But the Forum signalled there is change in the air. I attended an all-female panel discussion that included Michelle Sharp, CEO of Kilmarnock Enterprises. I went to a participatory session and heard Ben Gleisner talk about the funding strategies for Conscious Consumers. As a volunteer, I led a tour that visited Trees for Canterbury. These organisations are all examples of charities that have pivoted into social enterprises.

So what can we learn from the charitable sector? The lesson is not, I think, that all charities should morph into social enterprises. But I do think that the social enterprise sector has an opportunity - right now and while it is still young - to lean away from fragmenting into many parts and lean into a culture of collaboration. Consider this advice from MJ Kaplan of Loomio:

“Radical openness... we all need to think about what bubbles we are in, who we are working with and how we create bridges… what we are each doing individually is amazing but how can we do more than the sum of the parts?”

A good example of this happening at the Forum was when Theresa Grantham from Seed 2 Self reached out to ethical fashion folk in one of the plenaries. Two days later, the Responsible Fashion Tribe was formed.

As for those thinking of starting a charity, the first thought could perhaps instead be “Who can I join and complement?”. The second thought, if the first comes up short, could be “Can I do this through social enterprise instead?”

After all, that pot of funding only stretches so far. And with grants being one of the key ways to help social enterprises start up and scale up, there is sure to be an impact on the charitable sector. Tony Paine (CEO of Philanthropic NZ) has reflected as much after attending the Forum:

“How will we respond to this blurring of business and charity? It may be the best game in town as we struggle with the inherently time-limited nature of grantmaking in a world that demands long term solutions.” 

3. Beware the impact washers

As explained by Daniel Madhavan of Y Generation Against Poverty:

“The biggest worry we have is impact washing… capitalist whacking ‘impact’ as a label onto things that are not necessarily impactful.”

We could see this movement in an encouraging light; corporates see that consumers want to make ethical and environmentally responsible purchases. Win! But is it? Alex Hannan, CEO of Akina Foundation, closed the Forum by urging us to take our work forward with “collaboration, respect, openness, and humility”. Alex has warned that, when any movement gets momentum or a field gets investment, along with excitement and anxiety, potential predation will follow.

To pick on the corporate sector, a question raised at the Forum was whether Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) enables companies to claim they are doing good when really they are simply plundering the juiciest selling points of social enterprise. A session on “Enabling Procurement with Purpose” suggested a way around impact washing. The idea is quite simple: meaningful collaboration between social enterprises and corporates wanting to hit the ‘impact’ market.

Instead of (for example) offering small grants to tick the social responsibilities box, corporates could instead partner with social enterprises that deliver goods and services aligned to their values.

“This is money corporations are spending anyway, and many are not paying enough attention to the social impact they could deliver by simply choosing the right social enterprise suppliers.” - Louise Aitken, GM of Ākina

Not a bad nudge, considering that in the UK the average CSR budget of a FTSE 100 company is £10 million, while its procurement budget is close to £500 million.

Final thoughts

The World Forum has been sold to us as the opportunity for Aotearoa to take social enterprise by both hands and thrust it into mainstream society. For a few days, surrounded by waves of people wearing lanyards and massive grins, I got a taster of what this could be like.

Inspiration lit up the room, for sure. But failure also made some guest appearances, along with its pal the challenger. And for that reason, I left the Forum with great hope. We are creating our tomorrow with eyes wide open - and may it continue that way.