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The Opportunity Collaboration: Beautiful People Weaving a New World

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Like going through CS Lewis' wardrobe to Narnia or over the rainbow to Oz, last week's Opportunity Collaboration, which was focused on alleviating global poverty, required an adjustment to the juxtapositions of a new realm. In shorts and bathing suits, sipping free drinks and eating lavish feasts overlooking an exclusive Mexican beach resort, far from any signs of poverty, all of us could have felt equally affluent or uncomfortable.

Gradually differences did emerge between funders and funded or unfunded organizations, social entrepreneurs who seek to solve problems with pure capitalist models and those hybrid enterprises that look to charity or government for seeding and/or scaling positive impact... not to mention the daring few leaders who simply do good work with no intention of developing a business model. Of the 300 or so attending, at least 75 were young social entrepreneurs who competed for a place at the table with potential donors and investors.

For me the key to this "non-conference" was that the first two hours of every day after breakfast was spent in small groups of 12 or so with skilled moderators who were experienced enough to know that the best way to effectively lead a group is to follow it, by building agreements that everyone buys into. Rather than a waste of time, this practice built strong foundations of trust for deep collaborations that will take place in the future, no doubt about it. I am sure that, off to the side, deals were being cut and shameless pitches were being pitched all day and late into the nights. The majority definitely had agendas. My agenda was to build the kind of robust global infrastructure for expert due diligence and sourcing of social enterprises that would provide investors with as much confidence as the bronze bull of Wall Street. The experts were there, the solutions were there and the money was there.

What was missing, however, was the story line that would weave all the pieces together into a world-wide circulation system. There were the story tellers, film makers and photographers and folks like Whitney Smith of Girls For A Change, a popular social tweeter, all who could help make that weaving happen. Among the other attendees looking for ways to collaborate for change was Michelle Kreger, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives at Kiva, with its current $25 online loans growing at the rate of $7 million a month. Kiva is now looking for new innovative ways to scale through partnerships.

David Bank, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, current blogger on The Huffington Post and the founder of ImpactIQ.com, was also there looking for the storyline on Impact.

In addition, there were all kinds of training initiatives represented, from the honored work of Sakena Yacoobi, who against all odds has been educating girls in Afghanistan, to Stanford's new initiative to support young social entrepreneurs. There were Ashoka fellows who are beginning to play a broader role in the global socio-economic web alongside Randall Kempner and others from the Aspen Institute who are also providing leadership in this space.

Potent social action initiatives like Katie Meyler's More Than Me, which is taking a stand to end child prostitution in Liberia, stood alongside Mothers2Mothers, Move the Mountain and One Heart Worldwide. Imagine Joan Kariuki of Youth Alive! Kenya telling representatives of Merrill Lynch, the World Bank and Oxfam that the answers for Kenya's future lie within the youth; or Teju Ravilochan of the Unreasonable Institute, which is incubating great young social impact entrepreneurs, discussing possibilities with the University of Michigan to consider expanding their innovative approach to business.

The elements to make things happen on a global and local scale were all there. But it is obviously not easy to step outside the familiar and work together. This experimental gathering began in a painfully gutsy way, with speakers highlighting the indignities suffered under the patronizing attitudes of funders, including age-old prejudices of whites toward blacks, rich toward poor, and the minority developed world toward the majority emerging world. Instead of healing and transforming, some of this polarization lingered and would not let go.

Other conversations followed on a multitude of topics, and in some cases surprisingly competitive issues surfaced. One theme for example, was the anger of philanthropists who fear that entrepreneurs with profitable social enterprises are "depleting" funds from their donor base who unfortunately might just prefer to do well financially while doing good. The flip side of this was the apparent marginalizing of old fashioned charitable models that were simply philanthropic with no business strategy. Another tiresome thread revealed the familiar "modern" silo-ed thinking that tends to dissect and analyze rather than synthesize and resolve differences: in this case highlighting the distinct approaches of investors from the 100% write off of pure philanthropy to the assumed maximum "market return" of investment for pure profit, as if this is a straight forward continuum.

One obvious disconnect on this track is that "the market" has not provided much return in this millennium so it might as well be considered philanthropy. And why do we limit "the market" to a small fish bowl of big fish anyway? Returns vary by manager, by timing and by the universe of investments, so it is time to stop oversimplifying the siloes and realize that whether one thinks of philanthropy as "investing" or investing as "philanthropy" we have a broad range of colors to choose from. We began exploring a whole world of possibilities to weave including simply guaranteeing loans with no investment at all, but lots of leverage for moving the needle for social enterprises.

Many such tapestries were woven despite the lingering problems. We will not simply cut the Gordian knot of poverty with one slice and dice. Gently pulling the colorful threads apart, though painful at times, is an exercise that is indeed the prerequisite for healthy change and the resolution of a world of imbalances. If you want to make a difference, you are welcome here to find your thread.