The Hong Kong International Philanthropy and Social Enterprise Week 2016 is finally over. It started last week with an opening ceremony on Wednesday and officially ended on Tuesday at 6 pm. Having had very little involvement in the program, besides facilitating a talk and being on a panel, I was free to roam in between the sessions and catch up with lots of old friends from the UK and also meet new ones from around the world.
Not knowing actually too much about the amazing speakers in the 3 conferences, I came into the week with pretty much a blank slate on expectations, even with a tinge of ‘disillusionment’ on my mind, as expressed in my earlier post.
After a week of talks, coffees, beers, dinners and panels,
Here are the top three things that I’m going to be pondering and keep on my mind as we’re heading into 2017.
- Social impact and sustainability can be achieved using a variety of approaches, not one that is focused on a ‘traditional business approach’ associated with words like intellectual property, scale, impact investment, market demand, competition, and other words that can be associated with neoliberalism. In Hong Kong, the quest for social impact and scale was getting a bit tiresome. I really got bored with the reiteration that this is what we need (what happened to small is beautiful!? I think small isn’t in this season) and I am glad that many speakers talked about the other ways to achieve impact.
- Professor Victor Pestoff talked about the co-production model of supplying health care in Japan that for over 50 years has been supplying reliable health care for over 2 million people. This is no small amount of people, and yet, nobody really talks about this. We talk about more privatisation, but not more ‘cooperative’ care. Which is silly, as cooperatives employ quite a few people. Unfortunately, and I hope I do not disrespect the professor for saying this, the alternative model of health care that was presented in such an academic way (instead of say, a 5 minute elevator pitch that unfortunately now I am hard wired to) that its importance of it as a potential future health care model for other countries was basically lost on the audience. I spent most of the talk trying to catch up and not feel really out of my depth and trying to decode acronyms. Parts of it I was literally googling things to catch up. It was only that evening as I was having a chat with my father, and he explained me to the concepts of the nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom did I finally understand how exciting this was (yes, that’s what father and son talk about). Lesson here, and once again, with no disrespect – amazing ideas are only amazing if you understand if you actually understand it.
- Another impact idea came from my hometown of Toronto. Director and founder of the Mozilla Foundation Mark Surman, talked about the disruptive triumph of Firefox in challenging Internet Explorer in its dominance and showed the power of crowdsourcing and how a global movement of people based around the benefit of keeping the internet free and open could challenge the hegemony of the day. For start ups, one of the many workshops out there is your intellectual property, and I found it very interesting that in terms of social impact, the greatest thing that Mozilla did was open its IP to everyone and still be profit making. Oh, by the way, Mozilla the corporate turns over $400 million a year, proving in this case, protecting your IP doesn’t necessary mean profits.
- Second thought. The social enterprises that we’ve supported thus far don’t need more and ore scaling up support and funding as a priority, what they need is a policy in government, corporates and in the public psyche that ‘Buy Social’ (which is a campaign from Social Enterprise UK). This should be their agenda and part of their procurement policy. PriceWaterhouseCoopers has been one of the early adopters in their efforts to support social enterprises in the UK. In 2015, they sent £2.2 million with 50 social enterprises in services procurement in the UK, which they said was actually only 0.4% of their annual spend. Australia is also looking into this. In Hong Kong, I know that Hong Kong Broadband has a policy in trying to source from social enterprises. One recent vendor to them told me how their order near Mid-Autumn festival literally put them into the green for the first time. Unfortunately, many others are still focused on ‘cheapest’ is best. How many other companies will start to use their buying power to help social enterprise sustainability? Conclusion – let’s have less consultancy and professional support for entrepreneurs that, to be honest, a lot of the time, offer macro-strategy on how to be sustainable which can’t really be executed. If you want to help, make sure that it’s designed to help them to onboard as a service provider as part of your company or others. Why is this so hard? In my experience, it’s usually because the procurement department and also the CSR department are disconnected and there is not an incentive to work together here. This can be the biggest win for SEs for 2017. HKCSS through its Good Goods program is doing this, but across the sector, we all need to be making a lot more noise about this.
- The third and final point is a nice one that one of the speakers from New Zealand said in a panel discussion on government’s role. If you’ve been in the sector as long as I have, you’ve heard this many times: social enterprises need to be competitive to the market to be successful. Social enterprises get too much special treatment, blah blah. So what this speaker had to say to that was, ‘we’ll become competitive as soon as mainstream businesses do business on the same terms as us as well’ – making a big dig into the billions saved by big business from farm subsidies, tax havens, zero hour contracts, and all the other negative externalities that are not part of their annual report. (Imagine if a MNC had a page in their annual report that was like this one for the energy sector). Love it. Instead of being on the defensive, let’s get on the offensive, something to be honest, we don’t do enough of here in Hong Kong.
It’s been 10 years since I’ve been in the ‘sector of social enterprise’… and coming in to conference week, I felt a bit depressed. Tired. However, I would like to thank all the organisers and staff of the three organisations for three great conferences, and for revitalising my motivations and spirit going into 2017.
Overall, my initial reflections after this week of social enterprise dialogue has left me far from tired. I’ve been recharged, and look forward to what we can do in 2017.
Let’s continue to fight the good fight.