An Entrepreneur’s Ship:

The Social Enterprise Boatcamp 2016.

Tom Foster
Nov 7, 2016 · 8 min read

The Social Enterprise Boat Camp 2016 was designed and promoted by Fondazione ACRA and Gruppo Cooperativo CGM together with the organisational partner Fondazione OPES and the Strategic Partner Enel.

Quicksand was invited to the event to join the workshop leaders team — responsible for facilitating concurrent discussions on eight selected business case studies from around the world. ACRA’s central aim for the event was to spark a collective conversation about social ventures, and to provide a platform for interested individuals and organisations to come together in a unique setting.

Novel in concept, the camp brought together accomplished social entrepreneurs, funders, experienced experts, aspiring entrepreneurs, NGOs, designers, tech specialists, and experts in other disciplines. By the time the ship set sail, there were about 500 campers on board. Organised over three days, the Boatcamp set sail from the tiny but beautiful Civitavecchia (a port built in the 2nd century AD, and about an hour outside of Rome) to Barcelona where it anchored for a day, before heading back to Roman shores.

The infamous boat of Boatcamp fame.

Boatcamp Format and Themes

The Boatcamp had two primary themes of activity over the three days.

The first was based on plenary sessions and presentations by experts and established entrepreneurs. Their experiences and insights captured the audience through the three days, and enthused many a discussion.

Some of the most memorable insights which emerged over the weekend included:

  • The need for social entrepreneurs to think about viability of their businesses, and not to place profits and purpose in different silos all the time.
  • The power of collaboration between social entrepreneurs to achieve impact, rather than individual success stories — the world’s problems are greater than any one person or organisation.
  • How retaining balanced personal lives can have a strong influence on individual accomplishments.
  • The importance of stories as a way to capture and inspire imagination or creativity.

The second main stream of activity at the camp — and where Quicksand’s team was involved directly — were the workshops. Eight social ventures that ACRA and its partners have invested in were selected to be discussed as business case studies over the course of the camp. The ventures represented different sectors of activity for ACRA and participants were assigned to cases based on their choice.

Left: Quicksand’s team of social entrepreneurs. Right: Our entrepreneur, Biko Evarist.

ACRA’s central aim for the event was to spark a collective conversation about social ventures, and to provide a platform for interested individuals and organisations to come together in a unique setting.

A number of themes were identified to be discussed during the workshop, and workshop leaders were responsible for walking participants from each group through the allocated organisation — focusing on identifying solutions to some of the most crucial concerns for the ventures. Also, each workshop was customised to the needs of each business case.

Some of the important learnings for us as workshop leaders and participants at the Boat Camp included:

1. The Unique Challenge of a Social Venture

A social venture has the same degree of complexity as any commercial organisation. The typical aspects of business model design, financing, finding customers, production, team management, distribution etc. are integral to the structure of these ventures. Apart from these aspects, the goal of social impact is central — and creates a unique dynamic in any conversation about the future. As facilitators, we noted an evident tension between prioritising profits and financial viability on one hand, and maximising social impact on the other.

Our understanding from our experiences, and something that was echoed by the experts, was that there need not be a difference at all. This is a significant leap of understanding and trust for most young people who want to make a difference, but do not want to be part of a perceived exploitative market-based economy. Facilitating a conversation therefore required an appreciation of the emotional attachment to both sides. We had to constantly ride through the tension, without losing the bigger perspective.

2. Juggling Expectations — The Role of a Facilitator

Tom (myself) mulling over the complexity of Biko’s business case…

Most of the participants at the camp were aspiring entrepreneurs and represented diverse experiences and cultures. Their expectations — which we tried to map early on — ranged from basic introductory learning to very specific areas of inquiry. The entrepreneurs from the selected cases had needs of their own, and ACRA as the organiser had its own expectations (engaging participants but getting real solutions). Most workshop leaders subsequently agreed that it wasn’t possible to do justice to everyone’s expectations in a limited timeframe.

Facilitating a conversation therefore required an appreciation of the emotional attachment to both sides. We had to constantly ride through the tension, without losing the bigger perspective.

Depending on the subject-matter and the complexity of a case, as facilitators, one therefore had to prioritise conversations and focus. Either there can be light discussions on many aspects or deep and conclusive discussions on a few lines of enquiry.

On reflection, we also recognised that breakout activities and discussions amongst participants is a great way to channel the positive energy and anxieties of a group. We realised that we should have freed people to create and express themselves more frequently — it could have moved things forward when the conversation stuttered occasionally. The facilitator therefore has a multi-dimensional role and it’s important to stay on top of dynamic expectations, rhythm and mood — to manage the marathon.

3. Plan A, B, C — Keeping a Workshop Moving

Tom and Rishabh listening to our expert, Jack Simms of the World Toilet Association.

There is no doubt that going into a workshop without preparation — identifying broad milestones, allocating time to different activities, pre-selecting tools and methods, and using templates — is close to being as suicidal as one can get. Workshops are all about momentum and focus, and losing it at any stage is a huge risk. However, there are times — as there were on the boat — when it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

In any event, with multiple streams, sessions tend to stretch and time gets lost. So planning in a manner that does not allow fluidity and improvisation is as detrimental as having no plan at all. It is up to the facilitation team to keep the ball rolling — summarising agreed insights, taking stock of time and participation, and pushing the discussion forward. Getting into a huddle in the session breaks, and debriefing at the end of the days (if it is a multiple day session) is crucial.

Allowing constant feedback and input from participants is also important. The other thing to think about are tools and templates — there are times when you go in with set templates and they don’t quite work in the context of the current conversation — be prepared to make things on the fly. While creating tools and templates in the workshop, one must bring everyone along with them. There is no point in throwing the kitchen sink at people.

4. The Workshop Space — Always Critical

So, this was a ship — not exactly a conference centre. The eight workshops were allocated different kinds of spaces. We were the first to pick a corner where we could put up photographs and attempt to create an immersive environment, and get started on picturing the problem. Not everyone was as lucky.

Rishabh admiring our improvised design thinking ‘war room’

The amount of light coming in, the seating arrangements, the availability of writing space, access to flipcharts, etc. are things one doesn’t think about so much when one estimates the challenges of managing a workshop. However, every single time that we have been at a session like this, it is the space and its mechanics that end up having a substantial influence on how effective participation is and how much energy there is in a room. Thinking about the space is a crucial responsibility of the facilitator. On the ship, there were times when the ride got a little bumpy and folks had bouts of sea-sickness. We are guessing there will always be some risk when you trying something new!

5. The Concept of the Boatcamp — Traveling Together Helps

The idea of holding this event on a boat was not just novel and exciting. It was valuable too. One may argue that a gathering of social entrepreneurs and change-makers leaving a carbon trail across the Mediterranean sounds ironic, and it is perhaps a good argument to make. One of the sponsors of the event was an energy company in Italy — we even kick-started the program with a visit to their coal-fired power plant (albeit one of the most power efficient plants in the world). These are interesting questions for the larger sector where multiple ironies can and do exist. There is a recognition that what may be a non-question for the traditional commercial sector may not always pan out that way for the social sector.

For now, the journey forward is more important, and this journey was a special experience. Traveling together meant that people had time to share experiences and ideas and learn from each other. So much about these events revolve around the intangible learnings, and conversations that are not necessarily programmed or planned for. In that way, the boatcamp accomplished a great deal, and we all walked off the deck with way more than just business cards.

6. Finally, Facilitating as a Team

Rarely are workshops that are managed by a single person effective. A team of at least 2–3 people is required to realise a good session. Bouncing ideas off each other, planning activities, managing the floor, keeping a check on participant engagement, ensuring a constant feedback loop, and handling subject areas in a cohesive manner — are just some things that a team of facilitators work on together. Facilitation is all about taking people along with you.

7. Sailing Off

It’s always a pleasure to be around people who have accomplished something meaningful, as many of the experienced entrepreneurs at the camp had. It was also exciting being amongst the raw energy that those aspiring to create change bring with them. For the sailors from Quicksand, the camp was an invaluable learning experience, and we hope that some of what we have shared here resonates with those who have been through similar experiences, or are planning on being involved at some point. Full steam ahead!


Post script

*The Social Enterprise Boat Camp has been designed and promoted by Fondazione ACRA and Gruppo Cooperativo CGM together with the organizational partner Fondazione OPES and the Strategic Partner Enel, with the support of Fondazione Cariplo, Compagnia di San Paolo, “la Caixa” Foundation, with the contribution of Vodafone, Ubi Banca, Ong 2.0, Coopermondoe Rina Service and the Patronage of Agenzia Italiana per la cooperazione allo sviluppo

Tom Foster

Written by

Service Designer | back in 🇬🇧 after living in 🇮🇳 with @helloqs | helping @designclub | based in Bristol

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