Originally written by Antony Bugg-Levine, for Stanford Social Innovation Review.
As the impact investing landscape becomes more fertile, how do we stay focused on the forest before the trees, considering ROI in the context of problems we wish to solve?
Last week in Rio de Janeiro, (during the Social Enterprise World Forum 2012 (SEWF2012), hosted and organized by NESsT) Hundreds of social entrepreneurs came together with an engaged group of impact investors.
While you can still tell the groups apart (not too many social entrepreneurs wear suits in Rio’s spring time), social entrepreneurs and investors are increasingly united by a common understanding that they need each other to succeed.
SEWF2012 felt palpably different from early convenings, in which social entrepreneurs approached investors with mistrust and investors regarded social entrepreneurs with some disdain.
The conversation has also become more sophisticated. Those who worry that impact investing will cannibalize philanthropy and force social entrepreneurs into an inappropriate embrace of revenue-seeking models will be heartened to know that both sides emphasized that impact investing is only one tool among many. The recent Acumen Fund and Monitor Institute paper on the role of “enterprise philanthropy” in impact investing also resonated in Rio—a session called “Philanthropy First” explored the role of philanthropy in supporting social enterprise and enabling more effective impact investing.
Social entrepreneurs and impact investors often fail to recognize government’s importance. For many, the attraction of social enterprise and impact investing is its potential to offer solutions that work around government failure.
In the end, we need to ask ourselves what we’re aiming for. Are we content to see just a few social enterprise crops grow to maturity and flourish? Should we look to cultivate fields of industry clusters (as the Omidyar Network argued in its great “Priming the Pump” series)? Or should we aim for something even bolder, leveraging all the tools we have—whether private investments, grants, or creative policymaking—to solve social problems?
As Celso Grecco, co-chair of the Social Stock Exchange, noted during the conference: “You can’t find new routes by looking at old maps.” By embracing public-private collaboration and reinvigorating our basic belief that we have a mutual obligation to secure a good life for all our fellow citizens, we can work more effectively to negotiate and transform the entire landscape.