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Reflections and questions following Opportunity Collaboration

   /   Oct 24th, 2011News

Attending Opportunity Collaboration last week with 300 other amazing advocates was like drinking from a fire hose of social entrepreneurship. The people were stunning in their commitment, diversity, and quality of imagination. The discussions were wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and consistently engaged with pragmatic intention. The jargon was plentiful (PIRs, stacked hybrids, and b-corps, oh my!).

As someone who has written extensively about social change from a less entrepreneurial angle, being immersed in a world where complex organizational structures are second nature and market-based solutions are celebrated was a grand education. I have often reported on the most ordinary of justice-related jobs—social work, teaching, community organizing, in part because I see these stories as underreported. The media is often in pursuit of the next big trend, rather than doing the hard work of describing some of our oldest traditions in caretaking and advocating.

But my days among the grassroots activists, big thinkers, and inspired funders of the community at Opportunity Collaboration reminded me that it is not an either/or proposition, but an and/both challenge. Sitting in my colloquium with a humanitarian physician, a veteran peacekeeper, a defender against torture, and a microlending entrepreneur, among so many others, humbled me and reinforced that it takes all of us, finding that sweet spot where out “deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” as theologian Fredrick Bruechner put it, to create genuine justice.

It also left me with nine million and one story ideas and a few key questions:

The Opportunity Collaboration, the inspired brainchild of Jonathan Lewis, is intended to disrupt the usual rules and roles that one finds in the funder-doer relationship. Through out the week, people were busily making appointments to brainstorm, collaborate, and ask. But as I watched this buzzing activity unfold, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the usual race, class, educational, geographical boundaries were instantaneously drawn in what was supposed to be a blank slate space. Is it enough to take people’s titles off of the nametags and encourage intermixing, or do organizers need to deliberately link certain doers with certain funders? Can we assume that people will naturally pick up the rituals of creating collaborations or do the uninitiated need to be initiated into the culture of development, which in my estimation, seems like a tangled web of unspoken expectations and cultural assumptions in and of itself?

In what ways does the social entrepreneurship framing let people off the hook from considering the inherent inequalities built into the market system and/or their own disproportionate wealth? While books like Dead Aid and others have made such a clear and cogent argument about the potential evils in traditional charity, I’m still left convinced that we need an approach to poverty that acknowledges the huge potential in market-based solutions while still insisting on accountability to the vast and immoral inequities in the world, and how some of this stemmed from the very structure of free market capitalism.

How can we continue to widen the circle of those with access to information about all the different structures and approaches available to organizations that want to eradicate poverty? I have a very pricey Ivy League education, and yet, much of the conversation regarding organizational structure and economic models was like a foreign language to me. In part, this is no doubt due to my own shortcomings, but it’s also a question of acculturation. Who is introduced to these terms around the dinner table and who isn’t? Who is attracted to studying economics and/or going to business school, and who isn’t? Who has access to these tracks of study and mentorship, and who doesn’t?

All food for thought as we continue to build this big tent movement of people all over the world committed to eradicating poverty and making sure that every single person on this planet has the dignity and opportunity that they deserve. Thank you to all those who enlivened this year’s meeting with such powerful insights, best practices, and bright ideas. If you’d like to apply for a fellowship to next year’s conference, go here.

2 Responses

  1. esha says:

    Lovely piece, Courtney.

    I especially liked this bit:
    “I have a very pricey Ivy League education… it’s also a question of acculturation. ”

    Sometimes, I worry that the SE space is moving away from its roots, which was rooted more in building social change and less in economic models. Today’s emphasis on impact investing, social venture funds, and more tend to emphasize the latter. Perhaps that has something to do with the kind of people who are driving this change – many of whom fit your description of top graduates with a passion for business/ economics.

    Great post.

  2. Courtney,

    It’s people like you who give me tremendous hope that Social Enterprises will be guided towards focussing on the details, rather then the big picture.

    No matter which industry you operate in, there is always some big media generalisation about what the trends really mean. The worst part is, the social enterprises and community leaders sometimes trust this sweeping statement.