I am seething with anger at the Opportunity Fund. My quarrel is not with the Opportunity Fund's work which, since 1995, has invested over $180 million to build businesses, help families save and finance affordable housing. My disgruntlement is more personal, more immediate.
A few weeks ago, the third annual Opportunity Fund Microfinance USA convened in New York City. Standing room only, 800 people from across the nation attended.
The purpose: to promote, advance and upgrade the practice of microfinance in the United States. For the unaware, that means affordable and accessible financial services for everyone ignored or screwed by large banks and financial institutions.
The background here, and why I am mad, is that I am the founder and CEO of the Opportunity Collaboration (no affiliation). It is the "poverty unconference." Stay with me.
The Opportunity Collaboration is notable for its policy of "no plenary speakers, no panels and no powerpoints." The meeting is a business retreat and the work is accomplished in small discussions and workshops.
Because the contrast is so vivid, I have been known to rant against the traditional (and boring) panel format which is widely used at conferences. I abhor the one-hour, hurried discussion where 4-5 panelists each have a crimped few minutes to vomit out their viewpoint, tout their organization's value and potentially transmit a scrap of handy information. Still with me?
Surely, I have reasoned, there are more thoughtful formats that would encourage a deeper, richer presentation of divergent views and dynamic expertise. Indeed, I routinely don't accept invitations to serve on panels because I find them so frustrating.
Then, like a powerful jolt of aspirational lucidity, along comes the "Balancing Act: Mission, Profit, and Impact in Microfinance" panel at the Microfinance USA conference. By every conceivable standard, here is the Olympic gold standard for what an informed, educational, entertaining, valuable, enjoyable conference discussion can be -- and should be. You absolutely must watch it.
Moderated by Adam Davidson (from NPR's Planet Money), the five panelists were Errol Damelin (Wonga CEO, a London-based financial lender), Carlos Danel (Compartamos Banco CEO, Mexico's largest microfinance institution), Ananya Roy (Blum Center Professor, University of California, Berkeley), Felix Salmon (Reuters financial writer), and Eric Weaver (Opportunity Fund CEO).
The discussion asked, "Can dedication to mission and the profit motive co-exist as seamlessly as some microfinance proponents suggest?" It is not as wonky as you might fear. The panel intelligently articulates diametrically conflicting understandings about how financial markets function (or not) and impact the poor.
View the panel video, then post your reactions to the content right here or email me your views on the social finance issues. I can be reached via www.IonPoverty.com. On the panel I align myself with Roy and Weaver.
And, via Twitter@IonPoverty, you can join me in blaming, I think quite justifiably, the Opportunity Fund for ruining my anti-conference, anti-panel rant.
Follow Jonathan Lewis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/IonPoverty