Thrivable Investing: Mobilizing Resources in Service of Life
A harvest document from a gathering March 16 & 17, 2014, in Montreal, Canada. Written by Michelle Holliday & Seb Paquet.
At a broad level, thrivability is a philosophical invitation to reconnect with the wisdom, wonder and inherent regenerative capacity of life. At an operational level, it is the intention and practice of aligning organizations with how living systems thrive and how people thrive.
On March 16 & 17, 2014, a dozen people gathered in Montreal around this question:
What happens when the world of impact investing meets the spirit and practice of thrivability?
Specifically, the gathering explored how investment money can be channeled more effectively toward organizational activities that enable life to thrive at every level — for individuals, organizations, customers, community and the biosphere. The group consisted of local business leaders committed to the practice of thrivability; impact investors in search of what else is possible “outside the lines” of even cutting-edge investment practices and perspectives; and thoughtful explorers and supporters of the emergent future.
The Context: The gathering was a response to two intersecting trends:
- First, investors are increasingly aware of the need to incorporate concern for both people and planet. But beyond investing in green technologies and in companies doing “less bad” than others, many are unclear how to identify and nurture portfolio companies in any industry that have a fully generative — and regenerative — impact on society, the environment, or both; businesses that are not only alive, but truly serve life by creating more possibility around them. In other words, there is growing recognition of the need for more holistic solutions if impact investing is to make a significant dent in the major problems humanity faces.
- At the same time, the concept and practices of thrivability potentially offer a lightning rod of possibility, made real by examples of pioneering organizations. Specifically, thrivability’s living systems lens validates and supports a holistic perspective, in which the company isn’t separate from the people within it or from the community and ecosystem that hold it. This perspective helps bridge people and planet, as well as disciplines and silos. It also offers a path toward full generativity in business, in which a company’s goals and operations are implicitly aligned with life’s ability to thrive.
Why does thrivability matter?
Understanding how living systems thrive — and how to support the patterns of thriving living systems in our lives and in our work — opens up tremendous new possibilities for organizations, for society and for the future of humanity.
At an individual level, thrivability responds to a deep longing many of us have to be more aligned with life, to live and work with compassion and rich connection, and to work wholeheartedly toward building a world full of vitality.
Thrivability also carries significance at the organizational level. In both explicit and implicit ways, the dominant guiding story about organizations continues to depict them as machines, separate from people and nature. Though organizations do have mechanistic characteristics, there is also life within them. And it is their aliveness that enables compassion, creativity, collective intelligence, adaptability and resilience to emerge. Maintaining that aliveness should, therefore, be a paramount concern. These observations support the adoption of an approach that seeks to align our work and the ways we organize with what we know about how life thrives and how people thrive.
At the broadest level, there seems to be a close connection between society’s failure to recognize the life in our organizations and our decreasing ability to sustain life on the planet. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the limitations of the mechanistic story are at the root of most – if not all — of society’s most daunting problems. Shifting the story to one where life is acknowledged and honored is key to shifting the outcome.
What key insights emerged?
A number of ideas were brought into sharper focus during the gathering.
- Thrivability is a commitment, not a calculation.
The basic question of money flows is the first that typically comes up in an
investment context. As it turned out, cost was not a decisive factor for
organizational leaders committed to thrivability.
“The main aha moment for me was when I asked Julian and Tolu: ‘how much does it affect the efficiency and profits of your companies by being a thrivable organization,’ and the verbal and body language answer basically was, ‘we don’t know, we don’t really care, it is clearly costly but only in the near term, but we don’t really think about it, and, actually, being a thrivable organization is how it has to be to make this world a good one.’ ‘Sustainable companies’ answer this question differently!” — Christian Novak
2. Thrivability does not necessarily entail compromise on returns.
At the same time, there was not a sense of compromise in combining thrivability and investing — no indication that it’ll necessarily mean smaller returns. Instead, there were observations that:
- Thrivability is naturally aligned with the human drive for mastery.
- A commitment to thrivability invites greater engagement from employees, customers and community. This creates loyalty. It generates commitment to improving operations. And it creates conditions that support innovation. It also creates magnetism, as resources and support are naturally attracted to a company committed to serving life.
- The practices of thrivability create new opportunities. In emphasizing collaborative leadership and in engaging and nourishing the larger ecosystem, they are likely to be richly generative, both for the organization and for the community.
- With their emphasis on living systems principles and practices, organizations committed to thrivability are also likely to show greater resilience and the ability to work in volatile conditions.
All of these are reasons that thrivable organizations can (and should) still commit to reasonable financial returns. While it may take longer because of the foundation they build along the way, this is likely to be better for holistic-minded investors — and for life.
3. Thrivability may provide useful framing for impact investors’ activities.
Thrivability is useful and practical, but it is also a response to a deep longing — a “moral hunger” — that exists among some impact investors. Said Kevin Jones: “Impact investors have acted their way into a way of being that they can’t contextualize. Thrivability might help.” It might be for people who have not only “skin in the game,” as the saying goes, but “soul in the game.”
The concept of thrivability also offers a holistic perspective that may help investors (and philanthropic organizations, in fact) “bridge people and planet” in new, important ways. Serving the unifying principle of life may open the door to bridging silos and disciplines that otherwise prevent impact investors and foundations from effecting the full change they want to support in a complex world. In one example mentioned, it’s “biodiversity meets inclusion.”
Applying the lens of thrivability to investing seemed to touch on indigenous worldviews of time, value, return, relationship, power, stewardship, purpose and more. This raised concerns that it might not be for everyone (yet)… and that it’s probably not for institutional investors (yet). At the same time, there was a great deal of interest among participants in exploring these new perspectives and their implications.
There was a strong sense that the greatest impact will come when investors also embrace the intention and practice of thrivability for themselves, entering into a learning/growing relationship along with the companies in which they’re investing.
In general, there was the clear conviction within the group that by investing in an organization committed to thrivability (and by being on that same path as an investor), more things become possible within a community. There is generativity woven into the transaction, and positive externalities remain even in the event of project failure.
There is an element of boldness in committing to thrivability. And we noticed that being bold can be a long-term investment strategy.
“One of my personal revelations was how I had been equating long-term orientation with conservative, “safe” investment approaches, and boldness with short-term “build to flip” investment. At the gathering I was able to unbundle the two notions. We can actually make bold investments into things that are built to last.” — Seb Paquet
Finally, we touched on expanding the definition of “investor,” first to include even small monetary investments on a non-professional basis, but then to include even non-monetary investors. The question we were left with was: are we all investors?
4. There are likely many useful indicators of thrivability.
As we talked about what investors might look for in a company to assess for thrivability, things mentioned above (magnetism, generativity…) were possible measures. Community rootedness came up as another key indicator. So did the system’s ability to “neutralize the narcissists.” The positive way of saying that may be the clarity of purpose and the level of stewardship felt and enacted throughout the system.
“What is the richness of the possibilities that you are creating? Are you building generative power? And how do you measure that? A thrivable organization has lots of surface area.”
“A thrivable organization leaves more in than it takes out. It gives more than it takes.”
“How do you value the externalities and measure them?”
What themes deserve further exploration?
In addition to the insights described above, the group identified three core themes that would be valuable for further exploration: (1) What is Thrivability? (2) Lens Shifting, and (3) Tools and Mechanisms for Thrivable Investment.
THEME #1: WHAT IS THRIVABILITY?
How can thrivability be offered to investors and organizations as something useful and practical and also as an articulation of a deep longing?
Questions within this theme included:
- What is thrivability? Is there a common definition? Should there be?
- What are the boundaries of thrivable — what does it include? What is not thrivable?
- What if thrivable for one person is not for another? Is that possible?
- Could thrivability be a broad investing metaphor?
- Where does thrivability live? Individual vs. groups vs. community vs. planet.
- What about the different thrivable mavens around the world — is coordination needed?
- What is the connection between thrivability and quality?
- How do we change mindsets — not just worldview, but “worldbe”?
THEME #2: LENS SHIFTING
What does investment look like through a thrivable lens? For example, how does that lens help us redefine value, ownership, the role of money, relationships around money, and more?
Questions within this theme included:
- How can thrivable investing work/play with traditional investing or impact investing? How is it different from those?
- What is needed in the space between organizations and investors to support both in the intention and practice of thrivability? New mindsets? Roles? Resources?
- How do we transform our current understanding and relationship to the concept of “risk”?
- What has to shift in the context around the investment relationship? In society?
- How does thrivability not become simply another analytic framework?
- Can we can talk about “money” as a polyculture instead of a monoculture
- How can money and life serve each other in organizations?
- How can we change our relationship to money?
- What is value?
- What is success? Is there a different timeframe?
- How can we shift business conversations so that the less visible things that matter can be put on the table?
- Are we all impact investors? We all have time and money. How do we make the system more open to the affected community and put collective intelligence to good use?
- What if even the investor learns and grows?
THEME #3: TOOLS & MECHANISMS FOR THRIVABLE INVESTMENT
What are the resources, methods and practices investors and organizations need in order to manifest thrivability in the context of investment?
Questions within this theme included:
- What specific tools & offerings could we imagine for contributing to thrivable organizations in the context of investment?
- What is the next-generation standard “form” to request investment? What are the new questions investors ask along the way?
- What’s the role of accountability? To whom should the organization be accountable? How to operationalize that?
- How might incentives be shifted away from individuals and toward collective entrepreneurship?
- What are the criteria we really want investors working with when it comes to making decisions?
- How can we know that thrivability is really embedded and self-sustaining? And if not, what can we expect from investors as support?
- How do we balance power with employees, other stakeholders?
- If 20 thrivable businesses connect, is that an ecosystem? Do we need NGOs? Government?
How might the story unfold? What are the next steps?
Money largely shapes the world we live in. Assuming a thrivable world is possible and desirable, what would need to happen in order for more money to be channeled into investments in thrivable businesses? Here are our thoughts, following the Montreal event.
- Gather evidence that thrivable investing is a viable and valuable concept.
- Collect and share more instances of thrivability as put in practice in
- Identify investment concepts that are proximate to thrivability (e.g., blended value, triple bottom line, etc.). Make it clear how thrivability adds
something distinct and important.
2. Identify/attract others who can contribute richly to this exploration.
- From the world of impact investing
- From the field social innovation
- In the social venture field
- In the new economy and local living economy movements
3. Develop a strategy for expanding the exploration.
- Create a platform to publicize the topic and invite people into the ongoing
- A website with an overview, stories, supporting documents and video
- A presentation filled with compelling stories
- Hosted discussion both online and at live events.
- Develop a plan for harvesting emergent insights (who, where, how).
4. Secure key partners for funding and other support (e.g. visibility) to make these next steps possible.
Tolu Ilesanmi (CEO, Zenith Cleaners) shared these thoughts with the other participants a few days after the event. We thought it was an inspiring way to close this report and are offering it as an epilogue of sorts.
“It will take some time to process the ideas and insights and to hear (in the words of Seb Paquet), ‘what the future is whispering into our ears…’
What if we are investing not for 1–2 years but for 7 generations?
A fundamental mindset shift is necessary, that not necessarily discards existing understanding of value but expands it so that we see the whole elephant and not just a tiny part of it. Our perception/understanding of tenor, time-value, assets, liabilities, equity, return has to change too. This mindset shift is needed for investors, investees and everyone affected by both parties. Perhaps balance sheets, income statements and other financial reporting tools have to be redefined?
How are we educating? What if we educate in a way that the next generation does not need to shift to a thrivability mindset?
Who is an investor? The investor of financial resources, the entrepreneur and the members of the organization (staff, suppliers, partners, clients, community members)?
Who has the power? Where lies the power? What power dynamic in an investment relationship allows for generations of individuals and communities in human and natural ecosystems to thrive? How do we honour the different contributions and stakes on the table and not necessarily elevate one above others?
How do we value intangible resources and assets (that make individuals, organizations, communities and ecosystems truly thrive) at least as much as we value tangible assets?
Traditionally, the one who pulls the purse strings holds the power but what about those who pull the heart strings? How can they play and dance together? How can money serve spirit? How can spirit and money play together so that spirit (life, creativity, joy and all the vital intangibles) is not dominated by money?
A quote amongst many that came up was, ‘If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then come and let us work together.’
The exploration is unending.”
The event brought together a small number of key figures from the field of social finance, several champions of the emerging thrivability movement, and members of a local community of practice who have been exploring and practicing thrivability for a number of years with notable success in Montreal. It was a small group of people handpicked for their experience, perspectives and ability to contribute to the discussion.
Dr. Julie Bourbonnais is now a consultant with Grisvert and prior to that was Associate Director of Espace pour la vie, (Space for Life), a coalition of four nature museums in Montreal. She is an organizational psychologist and a
skilled storyteller, with lots of practical wisdom.
Julian Giacomelli is former CEO of Crudessence and is currently a strategic advisor there and at RISE Kombucha (sister companies, both in the healthy food & beverage industry). He is a former civil engineer and strategy consultant, as well as a yoga teacher and spiritual seeker. He started as an investor in Crudessence, and has since brought other investors in.
Tolu Ilesanmi is the Director of Zenith Cleaners, a Montreal-based commercial and residential cleaning business. The company approaches cleaning as a practice in removing tangible and intangible dirt, differentiating
between cleaning dirt and revealing beauty. Tolu invites CEOs to come clean client spaces for three days as a personal practice.
AJ Javier is Director of Culture & Language Connections, a school that views language instruction as a pathway to personal and societal transformation. He never thinks of his organization as “the school” or “the company” or “the organization”, preferring to refer to it as “the space,” as in “we listened for what the space needed.” “The space” is more than the physical space — it encompasses everything that’s alive in the space, including teachers, staff, students and anyone who spends more than a little time there. AJ was joined by the school’s Business Partnership Coordinator, Marc-Andre Belisle.
Samantha Slade is Co-director of Percolab, a company that supports social innovation in organizations and in communities through a blend of Agile, learning design, artful hosting, skilful use of technology and other methods. She’s especially active in citizen engagement, including recent work with Espace pour la vie.
Kevin Jones is founder of the SOCAP series of events, of the Good Capital impact investment fund, and of several Impact Hubs in North America. He is a major player in social finance, impact investing and all things related to combining money and meaning. He has been following the meme of thrivability for the past five years, as it connects to his search of a concept that will help his funds bridge people and planet.
Erica Barbosa is head of the McConnell Foundation’s Social Finance program, which supports social finance in Canada but also makes direct impact investments. Her background in neuroscience and understanding of the foundation’s assessment framework were resonant with thrivability as explored during the meeting.
Christian Novak is a Managing Partner at Frontier Market Advisors and an impact investor, originally from Argentina but living and working in Montreal. His work focuses on community development. He saw important differences between a “thrivable organization” and a “sustainable organization.”
Amy Kirschner is deeply involved in social finance and alternative currencies and economies in Vermont. She brought the perspective of citizens as investors and stakeholders and the angle of someone new to thrivability, but who finds it intriguing.
Michelle Holliday has been working with the concept of organizations as living systems for the past decade. Through Cambium Consulting, her clients make up a vibrant local community of practice. For the past three years, she has hosted the Thrivability Montreal series and in January 2014
co-founded the Thrivable World Quest.
Dr. Sebastien Paquet’s work focuses on the unfolding of local resilience and a living economy. Within the Mouvement des Artisans du Changement, he helps assemble and empower changemakers from Quebec. He has facilitated numerous conversations on the leading edge of thinking about resilience and movement-building, and weaves together and advises visionary thinkers and doers globally. He was a professor at UQAM until 2011, and has both research and entrepreneurial experience.
Belina Raffy is the Empress of Maffick Ltd and co-founder of the Thrivable World Quest. She is a world renowned expert in applied improvisation, a philosophy and set of techniques that amplifies people’s ability to work together in creative and inspired ways and a powerful technology in its own right. Belina has helped bring thrivability to life within immersive learning experiences and through engaging, accessible language.
“Thrivability is foremost a quest of wanting things to be better, to endure with time, joyfully, meaningfully. Knowing what you’re doing is meaningful, that it will contribute to life, to something being alive. It’s not easy; it’s not paradise. There are hard questions, hard work. It requires new ways of thinking. But it’s the only reasonable way if we’re really honest with ourselves.” — Julie Bourbonnais
“Thrivability, as a philosophy, is centered on trying to do actions that are generative. This contrasts it with sustainability. Something is sustainable if you can keep doing it forever. When I think of sustainability, I think of circles. With thrivability, I think of spirals. Something that can spiral out, constantly improving, becoming more beautiful, or cleaner, or more fun.” — Seb Paquet
“It’s our natural state to be thrivable. It’s our natural state to be fully engaged at every level of our being. And it’s not something we use. It’s something we are. It’s how we are supposed to be. And it’s why when there’s thrivability in an organization, everything comes alive, the people, and it affects every aspect of the organization, it affects the relationships internally and externally, it affects sales, because you want to move toward this organization. There’s something exciting, joyful, playful and you want to participate. It’s more than useful. I see it as our true state as human beings to be thrivable, to be fully alive.” — Tolu Ilesanmi