Bloggers Share Highlights from 2013 Scaling Conference

Tamara Schweitzer Raben, Social Impact Exchange at Growth Philanthropy Network
Posted: July 11, 2013

Not able to attend last month’s Social Impact Exchange  Annual Conference on Scaling Impact? Read on to see some of the highlights and insightful ‘live’ blog posts from among the more than 400 funders, philanthropists and advisors, nonprofit leaders, consultants and academics who were there.  

By all counts the Conference provided a significant step forward in generating ideas, conversations, and calls-to-action. To inspire that work going forward, Social Impact Exchange President Alex Rossides kicked off the three-day Conference by echoing our important and collective mission as a sector: “To create an enduring system that can scale the impact of hundreds of interventions on an annual basis.”

Rossides stressed the urgency of this moment in leveraging the progress of the last decade in scaling impact, and encouraged attendees to focus on two fundamental actions:  increasing participation in scaling efforts and investing in the collective infrastructure that enables those scaling efforts to succeed. Rossides laid the groundwork for the themes that emerged throughout the Conference – the intersection of philanthropy, government, and the private sector and the ways in which collaboration can enable us to make progress on difficult social problems.

In Day 1’s opening keynote, Rip Rapson, President and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, highlighted the Foundation’s efforts to revitalize the City of Detroit. “The multi-faceted strategies of the Foundation don’t just require innovative financial instruments and public-private collaborations to move the needle in a struggling urban area like Detroit,” he said, “but also sophisticated financial prowess, the type of skills not usually seen in traditional grantmaking circles.” Ashley May of the Philanthropy Roundtable blogs about Kresge’s role as a “seller” of Detroit in persuading other funders to prioritize the city, and Rapson’s interesting suggestion that to bring best business practices into philanthropy, foundations should hire more MBAs. “We would do well to take Rapson’s advice to the bank, and rethink what personnel we need in order to usher in a new wave of philanthropy in a complex world,” May writes.

Following on the theme of what it takes to make complex collaboratives succeed, the likes of which no one funder can do alone, a discussion about failure and its role in this work pulsed through the Conference. On the morning of Day 2, keynote speaker Jim Canales, President and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation called on philanthropy to embrace risk and acknowledge failure. From his perspective, philanthropy’s tendency to control, manage, and diminish risk leads to missed opportunities. “While it’s easy to peg this as a dark view of philanthropy’s underperformance,” Canales said, “failure is really more of an opportunity to learn.” Christopher Langston of the John A. Hartford Foundation elaborates on that point in his blog post, writing that we can learn from failure “only when we face it squarely, even admitting that sometimes we just don’t understand what went wrong.” To read more about Canales’ keynote, and how we can take greater risks in our approach to scaling impact, see the Q&A with him in the July Scaling Report “From the Experts.”

Linda Gibbs, Deputy Mayor of New York City, also spoke openly about recognizing failure and her experiences in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Bloomberg administration. Suzanne Smith of Social Impact Architects provides a nice recap of Gibbs’ “Scale Talk,” as well as captures several other themes addressed throughout the Conference. Ashley May synthesizes much of the talk about failure during the Conference while extrapolating lessons offered by several of the speakers.

Perhaps one of the most riveting breakout sessions of the Conference focused on philanthropy’s role in catalyzing multi-sector investment, and the unique place for government, nonprofits, and the private sector in promoting Pay for Success models and the first Social Impact Bonds in the United States. The session, Multi-Sector Collaboration in Impact Investing convened a powerhouse panel of experts representing all types of investor personalities, including Mission Investors Exchange, The Rockefeller Foundation, Bank of America, Third Sector Partners, and Context Partners.

Andrea Ducas of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation wrote that the session on impact investing was a nice look into the mechanics and relationship-building required to bring multiple parties with different motivations and bottom lines together around a common social problem. “The conversation highlighted philanthropy’s distinct role in helping to absorb various levels of risk to both spark initial interest in the concept and help catalyze progress,” she writes in her post. Andrea McGrath of Connecting Capital also blogged about the session and in her post provides clarity around the difference between Pay for Success and Social Impact Bond terminology. McGrath also elaborates on the interesting case study of nonprofit Roca, an S&I 100 organization, and its involvement with a Pay for Success contract in Massachusetts. Lastly, Christina Reichers of Evidence Action looked at the session through the lens of data, and the role that data can play in helping organizations get Pay for Success contracts.

Several other breakout sessions sparked important conversations that were varied and rich in content. For a recap of the breakout Multi-sector Collaboration in Education featuring a panel with leaders from The Nellie Mae Foundation, National Center on Time and Learning, Ford Foundation, and Superintendent of the Meriden Connecticut School District, read Vanessa Wilkins’ blog on “Improving Educational Outcomes Through Collaboration.” For more on the power of networks on a local and regional level, Andrea McGrath of Connecting Capital writes a comprehensive overview of the breakout Engaging Networks of Local and Family Foundations to Drive Scaled Impact.” And, on the last morning of the Conference, an interesting conversation took place around Technology, Talent, and Funding What Works.” In her blog about that session, Christina Lindstrom of Participant Media discusses the human side of scaling, suggesting that “As important as technology is to scale, we are missing the point if we don’t understand the value of the human element of our work.”

That human element is perhaps no more apparent than during the Scaling in Action presentations, which brought all the important discussions to life by highlighting a group of exceptional nonprofits that are doing the crucial work of scaling solutions for disadvantaged populations. This year featured compelling presentations by MENTOR, Center for Employment Opportunities, The Achievement Network, New Teacher Center, and Project ECHO. In an insightful blog post, Meghan Duffy of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations focuses on MENTOR and its work in building the field of mentoring. The presentation was especially applicable to the Conference themes, given MENTOR’s strategy of scaling through partnerships, which promote the spread of existing evidence-based mentor programs in order to achieve large scale impact in mentoring.

As Bridgespan’s CEO Jeff Bradach put it at the closing day of the Conference, “We have surely ushered in the next wave of scaling impact!”

For a more in-depth look at the keynote speakers, plenary sessions, breakouts, and attendees from the 2013 Social Impact Exchange Conference, visit http://www.socialimpactexchange.org/exchange/our-initiatives/annual-conference and watch for news in the next few weeks about video uploads of all the sessions.