Cashing in my chip at SERI Summit

Last week, I attended the Social Enterprise Rhode Island Summit, a project of Social Venture Partners of Rhode Island. I came with a chip on my shoulder.

The term “social enterprise” has swept the non-profit world. Everyone from startups to the old dinosaurs of the public service world now claim to be “social entrepreneurs.” It’s a great style statement. Just tell me: what does it mean?

What’s the harm in a buzzword? For one, hoopla about “innovative, market-based models” gives business and government more cover for starving health care, education and other critical social investments of the real resources they need. Be that as it may, the SERI Summit knocked the chip off my shoulder with its energy, optimism, good will and some really smart solutions to problems described by featured panelists.

Who could be grumpy about Hippowater International, a cool low-tech solution to the huge burdens that fetching water imposes on women and girls around the world? Who would not admire Rajiv Kumar’s clever use of peer pressure to mass-market healthy exercise through Shape Up Rhode Island or the way his group’s leveraged the market value of the mission to underwrite national impact? What child of the Sixties wouldn’t be charmed by John Abram’s stories about South Mountain, the employee-owned design and construction company he founded?

What else I loved about this summit:

  • Lots of stories, lots of ages, lots of perspectives.
  • A big, lively crowd – 200? 300? More? – full of people I knew and didn’t know.
  • Just enough slack in the schedule for random encounters.
  • Lots of energy and curiosity and a refreshing lack of certainty.
  • Mashups: new-tech/no-tech, for-profit/non, thinkers/doers.

The conference moderators frankly refused to define social enterprise. (Check here for Wikipedia’s definition, or this one, from the British government’s Office of the Third Sector).  Instead we heard a wide range of ideas and stories from people who put themselves under this big umbrella. Here are some common threads I captured:

  • Problem-solving
  • Profit-seeking
  • Social mission
  • Innovative, inventive, creative
  • Values design
  • High- and low-tech solutions
  • Focus on cost reduction
  • Bias for data
  • No “conventional wisdom”

A list isn’t a definition and none of these are qualities are exclusive to “social enterprises.” Lots of the organizations that presented looked like regular old, resourceful, dedicated and professional nonprofits to me. But, there’s no denying that this was a different crowd with a different vibe than you’ll find at conferences called by the Association for Fundraising Professionals, the Rhode Island Foundation or the United Way, all still vital centers of learning and support for nonprofits

I still think that the lack of serious, well-directed investment capital, not a shortage of clever ideas, is the chief barrier to moving the national needle on education, among other critical needs. Social entrepreneurs won’t get the job done if they settle for praise and token funding. But I’m now more hopeful that a generation of  who speak a business dialect and live in an enterprise culture could really generate or attract that investment.

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