There seem to be more conferences targeting social entrepreneurs than there were Olympic athletes. I'm fairly certain that, if you were so inclined, you could spend every week of the year at a different conference and have "networked" your way around the world. The sheer volume of conferences may seem excessive, but as the social impact sector is often belittled for a lack of large-scale initiatives and information sharing, these conferences may be what the sector needs to foster collaboration and the dissemination of ideas (plus, none of these conferences seem to be lacking in fun!).
This is Part 1 of a two part series on social impact conferences. Below we get into the "where" and the "what" of these events and next we will get into the "why" and "how" of surviving and maximizing your conference experience. Don't get too intimidated by the price tags though! Indeed, many of these conferences are so expensive that start-up entrepreneurs might need to expend the better part of their annual salary to join the few-day event, but lucky for us, many of these conferences offer fellowships or are now sharing their content for free to those who don't want to shell out the money to be seen sitting in the crowd.
Here is an examination of social impact conferences: some of the most popular, most prestigious, and the most intriguing:
One of the most exclusive, and inclusive conferences in this space is TED. At $7500 per ticket, the masses are not able to join the event, but a large part of their videos are viewable for free, on TED.com so all of us can get a taste of inspiration any day we like. Additionally, even if you are not able to attend the official TED events in California or Scotland each year, you might have heard of a TEDx event happening somewhere in the world near you. TEDx events are independently organized TED events where license holders, from TEDxSoCal to TEDxArusha, and over 1000 other locations, bring people together to share "ideas worth spreading." So, if you are looking for an event near you where you get to learn something new and be part of a curated audience of interested and interesting people, TEDx might be a good first stop! Though the conferences are not explicitly billed as social entrepreneurship events and exists, according to their site, to "bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers," a majority of the talks are about global and social world-changing ideas and actions.
The Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, declares its offering in its title. This private event, held in Oxford each year, is "aimed at innovating, accelerating, and scaling solutions to social challenges" and brings entrepreneurs, corporations, non-profit, and public sector leaders together to share their work. Here you can mingle with the likes of Bill Drayton, Arianna Huffington, and of course, the event's namesake, Jeff Skoll, all while enjoying the 800 year old Oxford University. A lesser known event, which is now in its fourth year, is the Emerge Conference, which is also organized by the Skoll Centre in Oxford each year. This event, which draws some of the same top caliber leaders but with a much lower price tag and a more intimate feel, is a chance to get closer to the headline speakers and is very popular among students and professionals in the UK.
As a counter to the exclusivity TED and the Skoll World Forum, complementary un-conferences have sprung up that are held as neighboring events. Meet BIL, a public event timed to run alongside TED. And if the fringe event to the Skoll World Forum is what you are looking for, check out the Oxford Jam, which takes place just down the street from the main conference area. Both events offer speakers, networking, and open platform events that allow you to soak up the atmosphere without the expense.
Looking for more dance, less talk, and a millennial feel? Then Summit might be what you are after. The price-tag might be intimidating, but rather than just a conference room, they tend to offer an "experience". In 2011 Summit took place on a cruise ship with 1000+ participants joining talks from the likes of Richard Branson to Shai Agassi and spending their down time doing CrossFit on the beach or dancing to The Roots. Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, was also spotted among the participants, so he must think their idea is worth spreading too! Their 2013 plans have not yet been released, but after renting out ski resorts and private islands, it's sure to be of a similarly epic scale.
Are you more all-inclusive-beach-resort than boring conference? Well, you are in luck. The Opportunity Collaboration actually merges the best of both worlds -- an un-conference meeting of the minds organized each year on the grounds of a beach resort in Mexico. Surprisingly, the best part about the event isn't the flying trapeze available for use during breaks but instead is the participant-driven content and the opportunity to mingle with some of the top leaders in micro-finance, foundations, and social impact from around the world. "There is no death-by-Power-Point at Opportunity Collaboration," says founder Jonathan Lewis. Instead, each morning you start with a meeting with the same curated small group of CEOs and thought leaders, discussing articles chosen for the day. This helps to put each participant on a level playing field and opens up the opportunity for greater connections than just a speaker vs participant relationship. If you are easily tempted by the beach, this might not be the place for you, as you might miss the rest of the workshops and discussions because you would be out on a sailboat!
San Francisco is where tech money meets social impact and therefor it is fitting that it is host to one of the largest social impact conferences, SOCAP. The Social Capital Markets conference tends to favor the micro-finance and social finance sectors though typically also brings together a range of foundations, non-profits, and the gamut of social enterprises. With more than 1500 participants, the event can be overwhelming, but if you want to check a lot of meetings off of your list at once, this might be the place to do it. Attendees often join less for the conference content and more for the meetings and networking potential. The SOCAP team caters to this by offering large meeting areas, long breaks, and a whole lot of San Francisco's organic, vegan, grass-fed, delicious food. For the past two years, SOCAP has also held events in Europe, so if you are on the other side of the pond, you too might be able to engage in the networking frenzy!
New Yorkers wouldn't want to be left out of anything, and The Big Apple is certainly host to its fair share of social impact events. One of the most prestigious is the Clinton Global Initiative that bridges the public and private sectors through the help of its namesake ex-president. Companies and organizations that attend CGI are asked to make a commitment and declare it at the event, thereby making the conference a kick-off for a year's worth of global impact initiatives. If you less of "a finance guy" and more of "a creative type", The Feast might be more your style. Musicians, professional poker players, designers, and of course, entrepreneurs fill the speaker line-up as well as the audience. If you were thinking about being a passive observer, think again! This year participants will not only listen to presentations but will be given challenges and grouped in round-tables where they can create ideas together. There will also be a public celebration open to all where a NYC warehouse will be transformed to showcase the "world-shaking ideas" of The Feast participants while a series of dinners will take place at the same time all around the world.
Phew! If those events are not enough for you, there is more where they came from. See a calendar below of these upcoming events and feel free to add more recommendations in the comments section. Just don't get too carried away with registering! You might not want to try to go to all of them in one year, or else you wont have any time to implement all of your "life-changing" ideas!
Conferences & Events Schedule
Below is a list of these upcoming events. If your bank account is cowering in fear of these price tags, tell it to take a deep breath. Many of these conferences offer fellowships, volunteer positions, and other ways to join for a free or discounted price and, as mentioned above, many now offer their content for free online after the MCs have hung up their mics.
September 23-25, 2012: Clinton Global Initiative, New York
October 1-4, 2012: SOCAP12, San Francisco
October 3-6, 2012: The Feast Conference (and public "World's Fair" event), New York
October 14-19, 2012: Opportunity Collaboration, Ixtapa
October 27-28, 2012: Emerge Conference, Oxford
February 25 - March 1, 2013: TED2013, Long Beach
March 3-4, 2013: BIL Conference, also in Long Beach
Daniela Papi is the founder of a hybrid social enterprise in Cambodia consisting of PEPY and PEPY Tours, and current Skoll Scholar at Oxford's Said Business School. She typically shares her thoughts on her blog, Lessons I Learned and recently gave a TEDx talk herself on "Learning Service".