November 05, 2019
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SOCAP 2016: The Meeting of Money and Meaning

By Jed Emerson

As the SOCAP community gathers for its 9th convening, one can’t help but step back to reflect upon the journey we’ve been on over these recent years.

Personally, I’ve been active in the world of impact investing, sustainable finance and effective philanthropy for nearly 30 years and, of course, have been participating in the SOCAP gathering for most of its life. Looking back, I remember in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, we saw an influx of folks new to the community, coming to us from failed Wall Street firms as well as from lives wherein folks found that at the age of 25 or 35 or 50 they sought to do more than either good or well. However we got here, we all gather around the notion of purpose driven capital, of bringing your whole self to one’s work and of leveraging all our available assets for impact. (Okay—some of us are still working on that last one, but we’re getting there!).

My point is that we have always been a gathering of mainstream rejects and new market opportunists, visionary capitalists and 21st Century socialists. We have been a gathering of social entrepreneurs, asset owners, fund managers, thought leaders and focused practitioners. Early on, I made the observation that SOCAP was where Wall Street met Burning Man. We are, indeed, a fairly unique gathering of the Tribes. And we should celebrate that!

Those of you who know me, know my own journey has never been one of purely professional career development, but rather a set of unfolding personal passions. I’ve gone from peer tutor in Spanish Harlem, to youth development in Denver’s 5-Points and San Franciscio’s Tenderloin neighborhoods and, finally, to nearly two decades of work in various aspects of what we now call impact investing. I know each one of you in this room can tell the same story of engagement in a life of impact. I tell you where I’ve been in order to affirm the reality that each of our journeys is diverse, changing and dynamic. If we are lucky and born into the right set of circumstances, our lives unfold in many ways and from many perspectives over the years. Who I was at fifteen or twenty-five or forty-five is not who I am today—yet each of those identities is in me today; each contributes to and rolls into the person who stands before you this morning.

Just as individuals are the sum of the parts of their lives, communities are also made up of everything they have been, the parts they are right now and the possibilities they hold for the future. Our communities of impact are dynamic and evolving; they look different based upon where you stand as you engage with them. You see them differently based upon the lens through which you see their emergent realities.

SOCAP16, as one such community, is itself increasingly diverse, dynamic and emerging.

And this is an understanding of community I have had to personally re-engage with. At the close of SOCAP15, I was left with very mixed feelings. One the one hand, it was great to see that however you want to define “going mainstream” our ideas and practices (viewed in diverse ways and brought to market through various practices) had, in fact, gone mainstream! We had Goldman Sachs, Bain, BlackRock and a host of other institutional actors here, contributing and engaging with this community; and here as a new part of this community. We had Tideline, Confluence, Nexus and a host of other smaller firms and larger networks engaging with us, advancing their perspectives and promoting their visions. And of course, we had the passion and commitment of hundreds of social entrepreneurs giving witness to their strategies and the challenges of creating the impact organizations not only of today, but of tomorrow. It was both great and disillusioning all at the same time!

It was great, because one could not help but feel we—as an increasingly diverse set of actors promoting a very nontraditional understanding of capital—had arrived!

And it was disillusioning in that it was also clear we are, as a community, still coming to grips with many fundamental questions with regard to who we are,what we believe and how best to be positioned to move forward to capture the possibilities before us.

I was disappointed to see how much of the SOCAP15 conversation focused upon strategy and tactics—the “how” of impact investing (how to structure funds, how to measure impact, how to raise capital) when I firmly believe if many of our members spent more time connecting with the “why,” with cultivating a deeper understanding of the fundamental purpose of capital, we would find questions regarding the “how” of impact investing easier to navigate. This question of why, of the purpose of capital is a much deeper, historic conversation than we have time to explore today—and is the focus of much of my current work—but the answer to this question of purpose is itself embedded within how we understand the place and structure of our current—and evolving—community.

As I have reflected upon SOCAP15 over these past months and have then also observed some of the subsequent discussions taking place in the broader impact community with regard to justice, equity and impact, I’ve come to realize what I know many of you see as well, and that is this:

As we move to scale our impact and continue to embrace the ongoing mainstreaming of our vision and practices, we need to create a truly big tent that may simultaneously hold all our various parts while also ensuring we’re all a part of the same gathering and overall movement committed to impact, equity and the effective deployment of diverse types of capital in pursuit of multiple returns.

Let me be clear—what stands before us is not a challenge of accommodation, compromise and mediocrity. We, as individuals, each need one another if we are to achieve our specific goals. It is the diverse perspectives and slightly differing goals of our constituent parts that will make for the creation of a more fully diverse and rich impact ecosystem within which we may all thrive and grow as we pursue our own understanding of what that vision of impact and value creation should look like.

It is in this way we are simultaneously a community of parts and Whole.

I am not without my own perspectives with regard to how we should think about the nature of impact and purpose of capital. I have built my life, reputation and career upon being known for calling bullshit and speaking to what I understand to be the “truth”! And I have certainly come to my own beliefs and perspectives with a good deal of passion, experience and vision.

Yet I am also committed to a vision of the Whole for the same reason I do not despise the Jed I was in the past for not being the Jed I am today—I as an individual and we as a community, need to allow ourselves the room to simply “be” as we are in turn moving through the process of our “becoming.”

I say all this in part because I’ve observed and felt a degree of tension within our community as it has evolved over recent years. At times I’ve heard some in our community call for a new level of intolerance with regard to impact—an intolerance more appropriate to a Trump campaign rally than a gathering of change makers! Indeed, I have myself been referred to as being “an Impact Taliban” in light of the passion I bring to the promotion of my own beliefs!

I’ve heard some say there is no place for moderates in our community and one is either enraged by injustice and willing to fight back as a part of the impact investing community or one is part of the problem. I’ve also heard some say there is only one way to define the nature of the financial and impact returns we should pursue, and that if you don’t embrace their definition you are somehow not part of the real impact community. I’ve heard still others say our challenge is simply proving the case one may generate “competitive” financial returns with impact—however deep or lite—and that anything short of that makes our work irrelevant.

And so, as we begin another gathering of the Tribes here at SOCAP16, I would ask you to keep some of the following thoughts in mind:

First, we, as a community, are so much more than the sum of our parts. We are rich in our views and should seek to be increasingly diverse in terms of our membership and perspective. It is only by cultivating, growing and engaging with that diversity that we will be a stronger community in the future.

Second, as we spend the coming days comparing our experiences and emerging best practices, let us not become so lost in the weeds of our own execution of strategy and capital deployment that we lose sight of the larger meadow and growing field of which we are a part. We must always remember our work in managing capital is simply a means to the end of bringing greater justice and impact to a world that sorely needs both. As we work to improve our various skills and practices, we should do so within the context of our using equity to advance greater equity(1)—not simply to build our individual firm, market or career.

Third, for some there seems to be a sense we should define our answers in advance of fully and deeply moving through our questions and actual experience of engaging in the work at hand. We seek the perfect strategy, the perfect integration of financial returns and impact, the perfect definition of measurement and performance, and the perfect framing to attract the perfect investor group—and we then array ourselves to defend that perceived perfection to our peers. I would submit the answers we seek will best evolve as we cultivate a deeper understanding of the questions before us and not simply rush to promote our given set of answers. In the course of our work, we need to leave space for a more complex and nuanced understanding of impact and the purpose of capital to emerge.

Finally, as you move through the presentations and conversations to come, both here at SOCAP16 and at home in the months ahead, I remind us there is a unique and critical urgency to our getting on with the order of the day. Black men, women and children continue to be murdered in their own communities, going about their daily lives, driving cars and playing in front yards. Women around the world continue to be objects of abuse, trafficking and economic injustice. Animals and diverse species on our planet whose interests are wrongly deemed subservient to Homo Sapiens are in some cases directly exploited through industrial farming and in other cases increasingly tipping toward permanent extinction as a result not of natural processes but of the economic, cultural and related systems we have put in place and with which we dominate our world.

Discussion, reflection and learning are critical parts of our process. Yet, I would remind us they are simply that—parts of a process…

A process of engaging in economic and social activism; mobilizing resources and capital for communities, firms and entrepreneurs who historically have not had access to the resources they need; and a process of bringing into reality a shared commitment to advancing work that, in our lifetimes, will create deep impact upon the diverse and many human and other communities existing on this planet.

As we celebrate our diversity of perspectives and practice, let us get on with the process of working together to change our world!

Jed Emerson is Senior Impact Strategist for ImpactAssets. He is a leading strategic advisor to asset owners, as well as an impact investing leader and author. A version of this talk will be given in an opening address at SOCAP16 as well as published as a blog on September 14, 2016.