What it takes to collaborate: SVN Fall Conference
October 26, 2009
I just got back from the Social Venture Network Fall 2009 Conference in La Jolla, California, where I spent the last few days feeling amazed and inspired by the few hundred entrepreneurs and thought leaders gathered there. The conference’s theme was collaboration, and for me there were a few key takeaways on that topic that I think are worth sharing.
The first is that really effective collaboration often seems to involve stretching beyond our comfort zone to confront some fear of, or discomfort with, what we don’t know. In the opening plenary session, Evan Shapiro of Sundance Cable Channel and IFC tv highlighted his experience working on the Broadway show Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk and seeing it become a smash hit despite his initial misgivings that white audiences wouldn’t be interested in it. For Shapiro, it was a transformational episode that led him to spend the rest of his career seeking opportunities to reach across apparent cultural divides to bring diverse audiences together.
Friday’s program then began with a presentation on a remarkable collaboration between Brazil’s indigenous Surui people, Amazon Conservation Team, Rhiza Labs, and Google Earth. Chief Almir Narayamoga of the Surui spoke about seeing his tribe devastated by disease and illegal logging. He came to the realization that preserving their traditional way of life in the face of these threats from the outside world would require reaching out through the internet to engage a larger global community interested in cultural diversity and ecological stewardship. To paraphrase Chief Almir, the Surui could not expect to protect their culture or natural resources without sharing their value with the rest of the world.
Among SVN’s 2009 Innovation Award Winners, I’d like to mention the example of Gregg Keesling, whose company Workforce, Inc. employs former inmates in recycling and waste management jobs that have high environmental impact and support a productive and stable transition back to civil society. To date, Workforce, Inc.’s employees have had a recidivism rate of only 15% compared to a national average of 70% and an average of 75% in their local area of Indianapolis.
Another takeaway was that collaboration is quickly growing beyond its role as a marketing or business development strategy to increasingly serve as a core principle of social venture business models. Perhaps the clearest example of this trend at the conference was provided by Steve Newcomb of Virgance, who spoke on a panel titled “Leveraging Technology to Change the World.” Virgance’s two best known projects – Carrotmob and One Block Off The Grid – are built on the value created through individuals organizing collective action in support of a shared social or environmental cause.
In a similar vein, Saturday’s keynote speaker Arianna Huffington described a new section of her Huffington Post website focused on providing readers with easy tools to take immediate action on the stories they read. The title of this new section is Impact, which refers not to the impact that The Huffington Post is having through its coverage or its own philanthropic activities, but the impact it can support through its community of readers taking common action.
The last point I wanted to make on the theme of collaboration is that I think we’re still only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding how to really do it right. I noticed that it was much easier for me to listen to tales of innovative collaborations than to imagine new forms of collaboration in my own work. In small group or one-on-one discussions, it felt all too easy to continue thinking of potential collaborations exclusively in terms of an exchange of goods/services. Genuine and effective collaborations require a loosening of the grip, a stepping out on a limb, an exposure to the public that are still far from second nature.
I invite anyone else who attended the conference to share their impressions of its theme of collaboration or other aspects of the event, and would love to hear any thoughts people have on the evolving nature and role of collaboration in social enterprise.
Gary Sprague is Communications Manager at RSF Social Finance.