Friday, November 27, 2009

Amsterdam and Lille – Worlds Apart?

I just attended two conferences in Europe, in Amsterdam and Lille (Northern France), that were quite different from each other though there was significant overlap in the topics they covered. I first was in Amsterdam taking part in the European Venture Philanthropy Association’s (EVPA) annual conference that can be summarized as a large networking event (over 300 participants this year) and a substantive forum. This year, the emphasis was placed on social enterprise per se and how Venture Philanthropy (VP) actors (those with money in short) can effectively support social enterprises, be they for-profit companies or NGOs. The content was of uneven quality as is often the case. As one of the speakers said, venture philanthropy or EVPA for that matter is a very big church with multiple denominations. I don’t know whether the agnostics or atheists among us will be comfortable with the metaphor but it is true that a) the definition of what venture philanthropy is and how it should be done still varies quite widely, even as the concept has been around for over 10 years in the US and 7-8 years in Europe, and b) a lot of those who attend the event every year are somewhat parochial and seem to think that the way they do things is the only right way.

That slightly (sic) narrow-mindedness led one of the speakers to open a session on the use of equity or debt in venture philanthropy by making ludicrous statements on grant-making, i.e. grants inherently generate laziness and can’t be effective. The result was a discussion on the merits of grant-making, which was not the subject, and it took way too long for the actual topic to be addressed.

In another session, that one on the possible creation of a VP fund focusing on the arts, one moderator had thoroughly thought about the systemic obstacles that explain why no such fund has been created so far while the other one merely presented his organization, which had a good illustrative value but missed the broader point.

However, other sessions, for instance on best ways to scale a social enterprise or on Ireland’s Foundation One’s story since its inception, were filled with interesting lessons.

As always, the best part of that conference is in the networking per se. Over the years, an actual European VP community – though “multi-denominational” – has emerged and thus, catching up with colleagues and enjoying that sense of camaraderie is both pleasant and valuable. Also, everyone is very much focused on meeting others and the conference is structured to allow ample breaks for networking.

Lille was quite a stark departure from the Amsterdam Conference. The so-called World Forum on Sustainable Finance (is there an epidemic of World Forums? What’s up with the name?) revolved around sustainable finance. It was a mish-mash of economists, social sector practitioners, investors, and finance professionals from all horizons, and as much as EVPA folks represent a wide array of understanding of what VP is and/or should be, I can tell you that in contrast they form a very homogenous group compared to the people I heard or ran into in Lille. 

The fundamental difference is that all EVPA folks are business people and bring that mentality to whatever philanthropic activities they have. This impacts their vision of the world, typically “I want to invest my money in order to produce tangible results”, and the way they convey it, i.e. very pragmatically and generally clearly and concisely.

In Lille, there was everything in terms of content, from crystal-clear powerpoint presentations to lengthy boring speeches that – good thing – got me to catch up on sleep (!!). The views of what sustainable finance means and how it should brought about differed also very widely. Thus, there was probably more richness and variety in Lille but the event as a result was a bit all over the place.

It is actually ironic, and probably telling, that everyone I talked to in Amsterdam to whom I said that I was on my way to Lille had not even heard of that World Forum…

Amsterdam and Lille, two worlds apart then? 

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