I went in without much clue what I would get out of it. That is how I approached Opportunity Collaboration in Ixtapa, Mexico this year. I had gone the year before and found the five-day "unconference" immensely valuable but had no idea what I was going to learn or who I was going to connect with this year.
Then it dawned on me: There is simply no venue that compares to Opportunity Collaboration for exploring the most difficult questions social entrepreneurs face. I realized that while there, I should focus on the big picture and invite critique, reaction, idea generation and hopefully support from the conversations.
I would have an additional advantage while exploring these questions; I was a Cordes Fellow and a four-part curriculum had been built by the Global Center for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of the Pacific to provide emerging leaders in social enterprise insights from "hall of famers" in the social enterprise sector.
So I hopped on the bus to the hotel from the airport and found myself sitting next to a friend, Elizabeth Davis, who I hadn't talked to in years. By the time we were pulling up to our destination, we had delved into the prospects of running a nonprofit vs. a for-profit social enterprise, I had reconnected with her inspiring vision of connecting Rwanda girls with educational opportunities (see Akilah Institute for information).
The four days that followed were exceedingly valuable for more than the typical reasons. I joined rockstars in a daily Colloquium for the Common Good that effectively humanized the difficult questions we all face in our organizations. Gender, race, religion, government and even family relationships were exposed in these two hour sessions. It reminds a person how real everything is when you engage deeply in questions through a facilitated discussion. It certainly inspired me to think about what is possible in a world where such conversations form the backbone for real-life action.
One reading was Letter from a Birmingham Jail written by Martin Luther King, Jr. If you haven't read this, read it now. It provided a powerful example of the intellectual and philosophical rigor that a true game changer can have when making decisions for action.
From the perspective of wanting to develop even a fraction of the intellectual rigor and philosophical clarity that MLK had, I approached the rest of the conference as an extended conversation. In all honesty, I probably learned more from this conference by just engaging in conversations than I have from any other conference.
By day three of the event, I had figured out what I was there to learn. I had to parse the costs and benefits of taking ThinkImpact in a for-profit direction or maintain our nonprofit status. The whole sector is abuzz about this debate, and there are strong arguments for organizations that are earning income through products and services to build for-profit entities that do the same work. It seemed to me that the incentives of a for-profit enterprise that incubates social enterprises might push our programming in the right direction. Of course, that was where my head was before the dozens of in-depth conversations that I had with the delegates at this conference.
After sitting with folks like Ryan Allis, Ron Cordes, Jerry Hildebrand, Katie Drasser, Jonny Dorsey, Sakena Yacoobi and others, I learned what it means to make the move from nonprofit to for-profit. I learned that there is no panacea, and the dreams of having endless revenue streams and huge investment capital as a for-profit presented opportunities and a flurry of new challenges.
I was reminded of the power in bringing outstanding young people to work in a community, which will possibly change their goals and dreams for the rest of their lives. I was reminded of the determination needed by people who are at the frontiers of innovation to push harder, even when it seems impossible. I learned that fundraising is a privilege. I get to invite people to help support a cause I believe in so much that I dedicate 12 hours of precious time every day to it. Finally, I learned that there are still innumerable ideas and approaches and techniques that are as yet unknown to me to reach higher for ThinkImpact.
And then something remarkable happened. I was introduced to two ladies who run Feed The Hunger Foundation. Denise and Patti are interested in supporting microfinance in marginalized communities but with a stipulation that I love: they want to be sure that loan capital from their foundation going to community entrepreneurs is accompanied by extensive support from the organizations managing the loan. That is precisely what our Fellowship is about, and we hit it off instantly.
Now ThinkImpact is able to announce an extraordinary collaboration with Feed The Hunger Foundation, making $40,000 available to rural entrepreneurs with very early stage social businesses who are also supported by our Fellows. Fellows no longer need to raise capital for their social businesses and community entrepreneurs have access to the financial and human capital they need to succeed!
So after a number of meaningful conversations, the conference took me full circle and it gave me confidence that our current structure as a nonprofit was not only recommended, but high impact. It gave me a much-needed boost and a sense of clarity: Imagine a day where nonprofits support the earliest stages of business development and see them through to becoming investible by major impact investors... that vision is rapidly becoming reality. Opportunity collaboration was the ultimate convening of leading thinkers doing this work; you won't want to miss it next year.