Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Story-telling at the EVPA Conference

The EVPA conference had three outstanding featured speakers. I have to admit that I am not a sucker for plenary sessions and guest speakers usually as I tend to get bored quickly during those. Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, Percy Barnevik, ex-CEO of Swedish giant ABB and founder of Hand in Hand, and Sir Ronald Cohen, founder of European PE pioneer Apax Partners and social investor with BridgesVentures, were the featured speakers. They are pretty extraordinary individuals and each talked about his/her own organization that occupies a specific segment in the broader venture philanthropy and social investing universe.

It was quite interesting to hear how differently the three conveyed their message to the audience. Jacqueline and Percy mainly used story-telling while Sir Ronald was much more fact-based. Jacqueline told her usual Blue Sweater story which is her life story really as it starts in her early childhood. Barnevik did the same though he did not go as far back as Jacqueline did and started with his corporate days. Sir Ronald told us about his background growing up in Egypt and having to flee the country with his family after the Suez Canal crisis but the rest of his presentation focused on his last 10 years in the social sector trying to develop hybrid business models and, more recently, financial products targeting the social sector (social bonds).

All three got a pretty enthusiastic response though I felt (but I may be biased) that Cohen was the one best received. Also, I am used to seeing a much more emotional response to Jacqueline’s speeches across the pond in the US where it is not rare to see standing ovations and teary eyes among audience members after she has told her story.

The art of story-telling is based on the premise that the listener will come up with his/her own interpretations and draw conclusions and implications of what s/he hears. In contrast, the more factual presentation feeds information to an audience, thus lending itself to more limited interpretation. Also, personal stories in particular draw on others’ empathy. We tend to put ourselves in the shoes of the one telling his/her story. By eliciting our emotions the one relating her story will seek to compel us, to draw us to her, and also to possibly make us experience a a-ha moment of sort.

Therefore, there is much more processing going on with story-telling and that processing is often done through a very personal and subjective filter, especially when a personal story is involved. The audience has to work harder and the range of lessons and conclusions drawn will be wider than in the case of a factual presentation. But in the end listeners will be more engaged if they feel resonance with the story that they have been told. However, if they do not connect with the story the rest of the process, i.e. drawing lessons and conclusions and possibly experiencing personal growth thanks to a light bulb moment, will not happen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Convergence around Social Investing at SOCAP10 and EVPA Conference

I attended SOCAP10, the conference on social capital markets (“at the intersection of money and meaning”), last month in San Francisco and the annual EVPA conference (European Venture Philanthropy Association) last week in Luxembourg. Reflecting its membership the EVPA conference was mostly attended by intermediaries (on the financial / grant-making and advisory fronts) whereas in San Francisco there were also a number of social entrepreneurs.

Coincidentally, social investing was this year’s topic at the EVPA conference. It is a sign of how lines are blurring ever more between grant-making and investing in this increasingly populated pond between charity gifts and traditional investments seeking maximum financial returns.

It is actually ironic to think that impact investing is a relatively new notion for EVPA that happens to have been founded by veterans of the private equity industry in Europe, thus folks who lived and breathed investing for most of their careers but who have defined their involvement in the social sector in the form of philanthropy. I don’t know whether they will be interested to go back to investing – albeit of social nature – and, if so, how big an adjustment this will constitute for them.

Jean-Marc Borello, the CEO of Groupe SOS, was one of the rare social entrepreneurs present in Luxembourg but that may change if social investing becomes a significant area of interest for EVPA members. I frankly find it much more compelling to hear about an entrepreneur’s (or grantee’s) adventure related by him/herself than “derivative” stories told by funders or investors about their beneficiaries’ experiences in the trenches – but one degree removed from the action.

Thus, EVPA will probably have to strike a better balance as far as opening the floor to investors / funders vs. investees / beneficiaries.

Another major difference that I saw between the two conferences was the geographic scope of the actions that were presented. Whereas most of those who attended SOCAP seemed to be working on projects or ventures focusing on emerging markets / developing countries EVPA members have kept a domestic focus, thereby reflecting their geographic preferences historically. But this is changing – Jacana Venture Partnership is a case in point. Jacana’s objective is to promote the emergence of private equity fund managers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its co-founder Stephen Dawson is the former chairman of London-based Impetus Trust, one of Europe’s premier venture philanthropy funds and one that focuses just on Britain.

Talking about emerging markets and developing countries, it struck me how little those regions were represented at both conferences. Granted, it is expensive for folks to travel from Asia, Africa, and Latin America to Europe or North America and also, a lot of ventures focusing on those areas that I heard about at SOCAP are based in the US or Europe – which itself poses a question.

But a higher representation is needed (through invitations or sponsored participations) for northern countries’ people to hear a different perspective (even for those working in emerging markets / developing countries) and to make sure that conferences in glitzy San Francisco or Luxembourg do not become private club-like gatherings happening behind closed doors.

There was little reference in Luxembourg to a topic that was very present at SOCAP, i.e. current efforts revolving around building the enabling context for the social investing sector. B Corp, an innovative kind of company focused on doing both well and good, was recently created by B Lab and new reporting standards are being developed by GIIRS (Global Impact Investing Rating System), another creation of B Lab, and by IRIS (Impact Reporting and Investment Standards), a project of GIIN (Global Impact Investing Network – a network of social investors). The two sets of measurement systems and standards have different purposes, one (GIIRS) centering on social investing per se while the other one (IRIS) aims to come up with a common language for describing social and environmental performance in general for any organization.

Putting together a robust enabling context is the prerequisite for significant financial resources currently invested in other asset categories to flow towards the hybrid sector between traditional grant-making and investing. It is great that things are moving forward in the US - and the impact of those actions intends to be global (the G in GIIR and GIIN). But Europe has to take notice and be aware of what is going on across the pond.

The upcoming SOCAP Europe in Amsterdam in early May will be a good opportunity to bring the two continents together and I know that the EVPA folks have already started talking with the SOCAP organization about how to collaborate best for that event and beyond.