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Funding at the Edge

Recently, chatting to an old colleague who now works in international development innovation, I heard the term ‘edge theory’ – the idea that hallway conversations at the edge of a conference can be more valuable than the conference itself.

When sharing this idea with another peer they remarked that if you’re hearing something for the first time in the plenary session, then you’re late to the party.

It’s like the modern day office water cooler – the best ideas and information are being exchanged informally.

I’ve also experienced this when it comes to getting together with the alumni of a leadership program I completed some years back. The alumni committee would often want to put on a facilitated session with a speaker, but really all everyone wanted to do was be in the same room, catch up and reconnect. And it was in these conversations, at the back and in the corners of the room, that true connections were made and deepened, collaborations sparked and ideas formed, iterated and acted upon.

In August, I attended both the Social Traders conference in Melbourne and Queensland Social Enterprise Council’s Unconference. Both offered opportunities for structured and unstructured time together, and both were invaluable in moving forward projects I and others have been working on. In addition to some great content, there was efficiency in being able to see so many people all at once, lock in morning tea and lunch meetings, as well as fit in other meetings around the edges too. I returned energised, ready to get back into my work. 

These experiences collectively got me thinking about why, as funders, we aren’t paying more attention to this? 

A while back I wrote about funding different aspects of the social enterprise ecosystem, all of which are important, however it seems to me that convening is a particularly under appreciated part of the ecosystem. 

Creating space for social entrepreneurs to spend structured and unstructured time together, as well as with others in the ecosystem, can have a multitude of benefits. These opportunities and resulting networks are important to help social entrepreneurs connect with new ideas, partners, funders, experts and mentors, as well as with each other. And beyond individuals, these events can be catalysts for movements to emerge. 

The role of funders in impact convening

Convening is part of the funders lexicon in many other countries and is especially well established in the United States and in the United Kingdom, with anchor events like the Skoll World Forum, Global Philanthropy Forum, Clinton Global Initiative and Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) on the calendar. These gatherings, strongly supported by Foundations and philanthropists, bring together cross-sector changemakers to support sharing best practice, creating networks and connecting the work of not for profit leaders, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists and those financing social good (grant makers and impact investors).

Here in Australia, there are fewer opportunities for social enterprises, and indeed for all those across the impact sector, to come together, and we lack an anchor event that brings together the impact community in the same way as the examples above. For a time we had the Purpose conference, however we’re now back to a largely a siloed offering: conferences for corporates, separate from conferences for NFPs, and conferences for philanthropists, separate from events for social entrepreneurs. 

Why aren’t we working to fund more opportunities to convene social enterprises and others across the ecosystem together? 

Many funders are focused on funding programs, accelerators and incubators, when perhaps part of what we need to be doing is convening diverse people together and trusting that the magic will happen.

If you’re a funder interested in the social enterprise ecosystem, convening or otherwise supporting ‘at the edge’ we’d love to connect with you.

And we’d love to hear from everyone about the value you have experienced from being part of both formal and informal convening opportunities.

Laura Reed is Head of Social Impact Partnerships at Seventh Street Ventures.

Jay Boolkin
Jay Boolkin

I'm passionate about positive social change and the power of social entrepreneurship to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. I believe that for-purpose business models can become part of the mainstream and I am enthusiastic about advocating for business models that are genuinely built around a social or environmental mission.

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