Building the Ecosystem – Connecting the Dots

Heroes and gurus of social entrepreneurship gathered at the Mozilla Foundation headquarters in Mountain View last week to illuminate what it takes to ‘scale social impact’.  Duke University convened the session which offered the intellectual firepower of Professors Dees, Bloom, Robinson, and Clark and the practical experience of social sector leaders Jordan Kassalow (VisionSpring ); Paul Rice (Fair Trade USA); Premal Shah (Kiva); and Mark Surman (Mozilla Foundation).

Icing the cake were the lunchtime remarks of Bay Area philanthropic and business leader William H. Draper III whose new book, The Startup Game, will illuminate lessons from a lifetime of work in the financial and social sectors.

Take-aways from the day:

  • While there is plenty of talk about a new social capital market (SOCAP 2010Social Investment Exchangethe Office of Social InnovationNonprofit Finance Fund), market realities lag behind. VisionSpring, Fair Trade, and Kiva (and of course I was also thinking about REDF’s ambitious 5 year strategy) could accomplish transformative work at significant scale with multi-year capital infusions of $10-$50 million.  The track record is there.  Growth opportunities are tantalizing but unrealized.  All agreed that loans and PRI investments are useful, but grants (equity) are needed to generate outsized social returns.  The market estimated the value of Facebook long before it made any money; but Kiva? Fair Trade? VisionSpring?  Not yet.
  • Broader “ecosystems” are required to impact social problems at scale.  Professor Dees’ 2008 SSIR article detailed this idea.  But curiously, though all participants actively engage multiple actors including the private sector, their stories clearly showed that in the absence of their prodding and intermediation, mainstream business is not highly motivated to do business or address basic needs in the huge marketplace that represents low income and poor communities.  It seems counterintuitive – e.g. if there’s a dollar to made someone will be there making it.  But it’s still not the case.

All of this left me thinking differently about the cover story on mental illness in last Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle.  The article itself was a rare bird.  A substantive piece that reinforced another surprise; a compelling television commercial I recently saw dispelling stereotypes about mental illness created by bring change 2 mind, an initiative of Glenn Close and Fountain House.  Media attention to this subject — still surrounded by stigma — generally only comes from pharmaceutical companies advertising new medicines.

We don’t like to think about it or talk about it, although it touches almost every family.  Despite the fact that an estimated 6% of the population struggles with severe mental illness; and that people with mental illness still face high rates of unemployment — with less than 40% having worked last year, less than half the rate of all other workers.

REDF and its portfolio know that many want to and are fully capable of working.  The financial value to society and taxpayers of putting more people to work is obvious.  Other, more personal elements of the value proposition are hidden but perhaps even more significant.

Last week Marin County’s Buckelew Programs held a community forum showcasing social enterprise and supportive housing, and new service approaches that bring people with mental illness into the workforce and into the mainstream.

Bringing it full circle, for society to value social innovation sufficiently — galvanizing the investment required to scale the most promising solutions; we are going to have to paint bright lines that connect the ‘ecosystem’ dots between local efforts like those Buckelew and REDF promote, the welcome media attention of bringchange2mind, and broader public and private sector economic recovery efforts.  Not easy – but the path is getting clearer.  What do you think?  Possible?