Unconstrained Philanthropy

Attendance at the 2nd annual Social Capital Markets Conference cleared 1,000 people representing a 70% increase over last year. Attendance at the 2009 Council on Foundations conference in May of this year was 1,200, a 35% decline from previous years.

Something big is happening at Fort Mason in San Francisco. In just two short years the SoCap conference has emerged as one of the few must attend events for people interested in the social capital markets. SoCap doesn’t feature awards, dinners and lots of vendor booths. Instead it is full of fast moving breakout sessions where up to half the time is taken up with questions from the audience. At the end of the session at which I presented about building a new narrative for the social capital markets, I only half jokingly suggested that I and the other panelist move to the audience and audience members like Dennis Whittle of Global Giving, Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO, Janice Schoos of Growth Philanthropy Network, Tris Lumley of New Philanthropy Capital take our place and run the session for a second time with a new take.

One of the fascinating aspects of the SoCap conference is the way the starting point for conversations seems to be for-profit organizations. In fact, my greatest criticism is that it almost seems that someone threw a social change conference and forgot to invite the nonprofits and foundations. I don’t believe that the “philanthropic capital markets” are separate from the “social capital markets”. There is a single spectrum of capital that runs from pure philanthropic grants to pure market rate investments. But all of that capital results in positive or negative social impact.

Personally, my interest is focused on how philanthropic capital can be provided to nonprofits to produce social impact. But that’s just my entry point for exploring the social capital markets. People like SoCap organizer Kevin Jones might be more interested in how for-profit or “low-profit” enterprises can affect social change, but again that’s just a frame of reference for viewing the integrated social capital markets.

What I found most engaging about the conference was the way it represented a different world view than so many philanthropy conferences. I had a conversation with a leading philanthropy scholar a few months ago about how we might map various philanthropic approaches. He suggested that one axis along which various philanthropic world views fell should be labeled Constrained Vs. Unconstrained (He was not referring to the definitions of those labels that are circulating in political circles. His use probably more closely reflected the terms’ use in optimization problem solving). To this professor’s way of thinking, “Constrained” philanthropy assumes that there are a set number of inputs we can use to create social impact. Our job is to optimize these inputs to create the most social value. “Unconstrained” philanthropy on the other hand believes there are an unlimited number of inputs and the range of potential outcomes has no bound.

To me, the SoCap conference represents Unconstrained approaches to social impact. Almost every session focused on questions of “how might we build something that doesn’t yet exist?” At many traditional, “Constrained” philanthropy conferences, the sessions focus on identifying what the rules are and how we might best play by them.

Something’s happening in philanthropy. Something important. SoCap seems to be drawing together a group of people who aren’t interested in limits and are looking for ways to turn things up to eleven.