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Social Investing

Too Many Nonprofits…Or A Weak Ecosystem?

Greenlights for Nonprofit Success, Austin’s nonprofit management assistance organization, today released the findings of a research study on the number of nonprofits in Central Texas.  The results weren’t surprising: we have more nonprofits (over 6,300) per capita than any other large Texas city and any other city in the Southwest region. And our nonprofits tend to be small: 93% (compared to 89% nationally) have a budget under $1 million, and 89% have a budget under $500,000.  In light of this study, Greenlights offers some good advice about looking towards cooperation, collaboration, and even  mergers given the number of nonprofits that exist and the increasing competition for funding, especially given the current economy.

What is missing from the study, however, is an analysis of the overall social sector in Austin, including philanthropy and other funding mechanisms, other social impact organizations–like social enterprises (creating social impact through market-based activity)– and the role of the public sector in all of this.  We need to take a bigger picture view and understand all of the elements and entities at play in the sector and how these elements could be better supported, analyzed, strengthened and winnowed, if necessary.  We need to take a look, as I explained in an earlier post, at the overall ecosystem for social innovation (ideas that solve existing public challenges). And we need to look at similar cities (like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Pittsburgh) to understand how their social sector is innovating and thriving and what we could learn from them.  The ecosystem for a thriving social innovation sector includes:

  • An Engaged Public Sector: A city and/or state-level office for social innovation, similar to the White House Office of Social Innovation that puts public sector focus and resources toward strengthening an innovative social sector.  One-Star Foundation is moving in this direction.
  • Larger, Innovative Philanthropy: An increased number of area philanthropists, giving more grants for capacity-building, providing growth capital to scale great ideas, giving seed funding for ideas that have potential, using mission-related investing and program-related investments, working as a group to discuss innovations in philanthropy and share and leverage projects.
  • Social Investment: Adding a social element to the entrepreneurial investing that is already rich in our area, investors could create innovative funds that provide nonprofits and social enterprises financial tools such as loan guarantees, quasi-equity deals, and networks, advice, and entrepreneurial knowledge.
  • Colleges and Universities Encouraging Research: Our local colleges and universities could launch centers for research on social entrepreneurship and social innovation. The RGK Center is a good start, but I’d love to see more.
  • Discussions and Experiments: More events, gatherings, workshops, think tanks and other activities that help social entrepreneurship and innovation take hold in our region.

I think to truly understand where the Austin social sector is and how the number and capacity of nonprofits fit into that, we need to understand the entire ecosystem.  If we want to boast a thriving, innovative social sector we need to take a step back, analyze what we have and what we can do to encourage even more innovation.  The end result is a stronger, healthier city that ties its spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation to its desire to give back and strengthen the communities in which we live.  That is the Austin I envision.

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Why Not Austin?

Social innovation is gaining a lot of momentum along the two coasts of the country. San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, D.C., New York are just a few places where these new ideas are taking hold. The Bay Area alone seems to be a hotbed of social investing, venture philanthropy, social enterprise, etc. The Social Capital Markets Conference earlier this month in San Francisco brought together leaders in the social investing, philanthropy, nonprofit, social enterprise space to talk about how to create a social capital market (a market for capital employed towards solving social problems). You can read a roundup of different blogs on the conference here and see video of various sessions here.

At the same time, foundations in the Bay Area, New York, Boston understand this growing movement and are providing growth capital and other incentives to help social entrepreneurs find and solve the root causes of problems.

These cities are witnessing an exciting blend of talent, money, great ideas, energy, initiative and enthusiasm that is resulting in some new ways to tackle the many problems facing our country today.

I’d like to see that similar energy and enthusiasm here in Austin and in the Southwest region of our country. Austin is the 3rd largest venture capital city in the country. I would argue that being a venture capital center makes Austin a ripe candidate for social innovation. San Francisco and Seattle (venture capital cities #1 and #2) have embraced social innovation and are home to several venture philanthropy funds, capacity and growth capital-focused foundations, social entrepreneurs, social investment funds, and social enterprises. Over the last ten to fifteen years these communities have fostered a new way of thinking about and blending the for-profit, non-profit and government sectors in order to find solutions to complex social problems.

I see the same opportunity for Austin. We have a wealthy, talented entrepreneurial sector, a diverse nonprofit sector, and complex social problems. If we can embrace social innovation here we can not only solve our own problems, but also, and more importantly, we can add to the national conversation.  We need to come together with new ideas that tackle our problems at the root.  The problems of the economy, education, healthcare, poverty are too large for any single entity or sector to solve. These times call for bigger solutions. Social innovation provides those solutions.

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The Convergence of Social and Finance

If you are interested in the dramatic shifts the economy is currently undergoing and what it means for the long term, take a look at the article “Notes from the Leading Edge of Social Finance,” in the Fall issue of Green Money Journal written by Don Shaffer.  Don Shaffer is the CEO of RSF Social Finance, a 20+ year-old, leading-edge, San Francisco foundation that makes loans and grants to nonprofits. He is also the former interim head of Investors Circle, a 200+ member giving circle of venture capitalists who invest in businesses working towards a sustainable economy (social and environmental issues). Don gives a very interesting overview of where the economy is heading, and I think he is right on.

He argues that we are no longer content with an economy focused solely on individual gain, rather there is a new convergence of financial, social and environmental gain, where what is good for the investor is also good for society as a whole. Ultimately he sees the new economy “harnessing the striving energy and entrepreneurial drive of the American people to move more towards collaboration and partnership, instead of maximum individual gain, while honoring the power of free markets.” Here’s an excerpt:

International microfinance is drawing a lot of interest this year from U.S. investors. For good reason, it’s great to see direct investment going to small, growing entrepreneurial ventures in the developing world. But what about our neighbors? As the wealth divide continues to widen in this country, both in urban and rural areas, we are asking ourselves at RSF, “How can our clients best support small and medium-sized, privately held companies in the U.S. that have strong community development and ecological sustainability goals?”…We are creating a learning community that asks hard questions about money and how we use it, acknowledging that money is simply a form of energy that creates a relationship between human beings. What is true wealth…What is the right balance between investment and philanthropy…What does it look like to re-imagine money to serve our highest aspirations? What, specifically, will it take to develop a network of risk and liquidity appropriate financial vehicles that are completely different from the products of Wall Street?

These thoughts and questions are very similar to the conversations that were going on at the Social Capital Markets Conference earlier this month and that are going on around the country.  We are witnessing a pretty dramatic shift, and it is fascinating.

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Thursday, October 23rd, 2008 Innovators, Social Enterprise, Social Investing No Comments

Gatherings of Innovators

As I mentioned in my last post, in the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of gatherings and conferences for those interested in social innovation.  Here is just a sample of some of the most interesting conferences bringing together people working on and thinking about social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, social investing, and so on.  Many of them are happening this month. Those that have already passed will likely hold them again around the same time next year, so check back.

Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Conference, March 2008
New Profit’s Gathering of Leaders, March 2008
The Feast in New York City, October 2008
Social Capital Markets 2008, October 2008
Social Venture Network’s Fall Conference, October 2008
Investor’s Circle Fall Conference and Venture Fair, November 2008
Net Impact Conference, November 2008
Social Enterprise Alliance’s 10th Annual Social Enterprise Summit, April 2009

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