SOCAP: Innovative Function Needs Innovative Form

SOCAP: Social Capital Markets annual conference, held at the Fort Mason in San Francisco, is billed as a conference at the intersection of money and meaning.

I was excited to be there. It was my first conference with 2700 people.

As a social entrepreneur, conference convenor, and member of an impact network, I came looking through multiple lenses.

An impactful programme

I have always been curious about the role of money in society. About six years ago, I read the books “Money can heal” and the “Ecology of Commerce” and they triggered new ways of thinking about money — such as the quality of money and what it can enable and block.

Since then, I have been working in social impact business through Enspiral. So a conference promising to explore the intersection between money and meaning seemed perfect.

But it turned out to be more focused on impact investing than I had expected. To me impact investing is just one part of what happens at the intersection of money and meaning. What about the meaning of money? What about alternative financial systems? What about the role of money in our lives?

I discovered that there are a great many foundations and organisations in the financial impact space in the US. I sat at lunch and overheard people talking about investment negotiations in the millions of dollars. Compared to NZ, every number has extra zeros. And yet, the scale of the problems in the States are similarly large — half of NZ’s total population is equal to the US prison population alone.

“It’s like trying to drink from a firehose”

The organisers themselves warned us with these words. The programme was packed! We didn’t even have a break for morning tea or lunch.

And yet, I heard one person say, “This is my fourth year and I’ve only attended one content session”. It seemed half the audience was there for content and half for the networking — but my perspective was that neither were fully satisfied. There was just an overwhelming amount of content and people — and little support to help navigate.

SOCAP Programme as seen on

Tell your story, don’t blow your trumpet

Two speakers were particular highlights for me. And it was less about their content than the authenticity they brought to the stage. After listening to lots of speakers I felt the deepest connection with people’s stories — the “how” of their work more than the “what”.

“We are no longer in a world where we give people a skill that they will repeat for the rest of their lives…. Next time you hear a young person notice something - Listen.”
— Bill Drayton, Ashoka

Prince Emmanuel de Merode: Virunga National Park

Emmanuel gave riveting glimpses into his life in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He recalled people being shot. He said, “And then my day came — I got shot in the chest for submitting a report on illegal oil mining.”

The whole room went quiet in appreciation as he described traveling two hours by motorbike to be brought to a hospital, and the big surgery that followed. And how afterward, he just went back to work.

His story was followed by the only standing ovation.

Emmanuel now focuses on social impact investing in the areas of energy, fishing, agriculture and tourism.

“For every megawatt provided to a conflict region, you create 800 to 1000 jobs.”

Seeing My Own Work Through the Lens of SOCAP

I came to SOCAP holding lots of questions related to my own work:

  • How do we fund community education?
  • How do we teach social entrepreneurship?
  • How do we scale social impact?
  • How do we scale trust?
  • What is the balance of depth and breadth?

Through coming to SOCAP I wanted to connect with people and gain perspective on my own impact work. To be honest, I did not get as many connections as I had hoped for. Despite networking being a seemingly large goal for the SOCAP experience for many, I found it very hard to network beyond the few people I already knew. I struggled to find really innovative practices, once I got past the hype and rhetoric.

At SOCAP, “innovation” was a buzzword, used even when there was not much real innovation going on

There was a lot of high-level theory about innovation and making change, but, to paraphrase a good friend in NZ, I was left wondering, after all this talk what materially changes?

In one session about financial capability, there was lots of talk about fixing social understanding of personal financial management. I felt like the panel was talking about fixing a lot of “stuff out there”, but not much reflection on “stuff in here”.

So I asked the question:

“As financial innovators, how are you practicing financial innovation inside your organisation? What financial innovations are you exploring and implementing internally?”

The response? Nothing. I got blank stares, and blank responses.

I shared some of Enspiral’s financial innovation experiments, like how we set our budget using collaborative funding with Cobudget. Polite nods suggested that the thought of decentralising the control on budget setting was not an innovation willing to be explored.

I went to a session about innovating business models, hoping to learn something I could apply to my own social ventures. But after presentations from Starbucks, about new sustainability practices in building their shops, and GAP, about a new programme to support women in their clothing factories, I asked the question:

“These sound like great sustainable practices and principles. But how are you innovating business models within your organisations?”

Selling coffee and clothes is not innovative. They were unable to share examples that really offered anything new.

At a session called “Investing in the Whole Human”, there was a panel of awesome organisations. But unfortunately, the decidedly un-innovative format of the session itself (more on that in another blog post) was not conducive for sharing our own innovations in this area.

However, I did innovate my own way of describing Enspiral, in order to cut through the buzzwords and get closer to the truth. The description evolved from “A network of social entrepreneurs and social enterprises” to “Decentralising the world through collaborative tools and social impact businesses.”

It’s entirely possible I just missed the connections I was supposed to make. If this is resonating with you, get in touch!

Sessions I attended:

  • The new MBA
  • Investing in the whole person
  • Mapping the Entrepreneur ecosystem
  • Building financial capability
  • Redefining Scale: Depth vs Breadth
  • A spectrum of investments in education
  • Urban Entrepreneurship: Supporting solutions for cities
  • Launching the next Generation of Innovators from University Settings
  • Training for impact: Bringing new talent into the market
  • Innovation Stations: Designing New Business models
  • Funding “Otherness”: the impact of race, culture, gender and other identities
  • Finding your plot: Connecting storyline to success

Amazing organisations I discovered:

  • UBI Global is thought leader in performance analysis of business incubation around the world.
  • Boston Impact Initiative partners with businesses and organizations throughout our city to create systemic shifts in opportunities for urban communities.
  • The Gratitude Network is a non-profit foundation, whose mission is to seek out, mentor, fund and empower entrepreneurs in the “Majority World” in creating lasting change in several key societal areas.
  • Impact Bazaar is a live marketplace for the impact innovation ecosystem in NYC.
  • The Next System Project believes we can create the kind of society — and world — we’d like now and for future generations.
  • Essie Justice Group harnesses the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones.
  • Village of Wisdom works with families of black youth as they collectively help their sons and daughters develop the resiliency and self-confidence necessary to overcome the academic opportunity gap.
  • Baltimore Corps grows the impact of leading social change organisations while building a movement of inspired leaders.
  • Tumml is an urban ventures accelerator with a mission to empower entrepreneurs to solve urban problems.
  • BALLE, which stands for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, provides a national forum for visionary local economy leaders and funders to connect, build their capacity, and innovate.

Thanks to the Enspiral Foundation and the NZ US Embassy for supporting my trip.

Thanks to Lindsay Smalling from the SOCAP team for taking time after the conference to chat with me and hear some of these ideas and feedback. I will continue to watch and support SOCAP from afar.