Reflections on SEWF2013: A Lasting Impression of Looking Forward

by Miles DePaul

What’s holding social enterprise back from becoming the powerful force for good we want, and expect, it to be? It might be a lack of measurement, barriers to mainstream capital, opposing priorities across the sector, a general lack of awareness of social enterprise, inability to attract true transformative leaders to sector, the disappointment of consistent failure in the face of intractable problems, or the go-to answer: policy and political barriers. Yes, all true, but coming out of the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) last week in Calgary Alberta, I realized these questions were raised but not lamented, and instead conversations were about what’s catalyzing a clear new path forward for social enterprise in Canada.

Canada’s social enterprise ecosystem is notably behind international leaders like the United Kingdom and even the United States, but in Calgary it was clear that 1200 other leaders in the field have made it their personal and professional mission to make a change. There is no better starting point for talking about systems change in the social sector than by bringing together a group of people already so committed to, and inspired by, change.

Perhaps there’s a lack of measurement in the system, but there are also leaders like Lisa Nitze of Mission Measurement and Steve Williams of Demonstrating Value Resource Society at SEWF who are increasingly at our fingertips ready to make measurement a key pillar of a social enterprise when and where possible. Barriers to mainstream capital are being knocked over everyday, with the launch of the Social Venture Connexion (SVX) in Ontario, and growing commitment to impact investing from Canada’s leading financial institutions, like RBC’s Social Finance Initiative, both sharing their stories at SEWF. Perhaps the most interesting conversation I was apart of was during a session on overcoming your fear of, or predisposition towards, failure. In social enterprise, as in every complex endeavor, failure is inevitable and too often misused. If you miss a jump shot in basketball do you concede failure, or do you adjust your next shot accordingly. You use the details of the missed shot as information for your next shot. Failure is information, nothing more.

It’s easy to look at what is holding us back from changing the system, it’s ever present in our day-to-day lives, and it can beat us down. What is hard is to look even a few inches in front of us where the opportunities exist, where there is ripeness for movement. Borrowing an idea from author Seth Godin, it’s not about thinking outside the box, there are no resources there and that world is unknowable. Instead it’s about thinking along the edges of the box, this is where the current world interacts with the potential world, and this is where true social innovators situate themselves, along the edge of the viable and the possible. In Calgary, I met people all along the edges of the box, changing the system in infinitely exciting ways, pushing forward social enterprise not holding it back. SEWF was a launch pad, an audit on where we are as a sector, and an opportunity to interact with these edge-of-the-box thinkers. As the newest team member on the most recently launched SSE chapter, I re-entered Ontario with heightened motivation to help make SSE-Ontario a hotbed for these edge-of-the-box thinkers and I am excited to join a network of already influential leaders across the world.

This post is by SSE Ontairo’s Director, Miles DePaul.

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