A SOCAP Guest post by James Militzer
In the lead up to SOCAP18 we asked a few of our media partners who are covering stories that are of interest to the SOCAP community to curate and share articles that relate to our SOCAP18 conference themes. This week’s suggested reading comes from NextBillion editor James Militzer.
It has been an interesting year in social business – in both good and not-so-good ways. And since NextBillion’s content is driven by guest-written articles from leaders, practitioners and researchers working in the sector, our coverage has reflected many of these promising (and troubling) trends.
We’ve sampled a few of these articles below, representing some of NextBillion’s most-read content of the year so far. In them, you’ll see entrepreneurs and investors coming to grips with some of the fundamental challenges of serving underserved customers – and of dealing with one another.
It’s Not Me, It’s You
When NextBillion formulated our editorial calendar for 2018, we made sure to include a series around impact investing – a perennially popular topic among our readers. Framing it as an effort to better align the interests of investors and the enterprises they support, we expected some stimulating conversations – but we’ve been surprised by the direction this discussion has taken. Many of the articles we’ve received have reflected a common theme: social impact organizations’ growing annoyance at their funders.
In my interview with social impact leaders Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Jane Leu, and Vu Le, authors of the book Unicorns Unite: How nonprofits and foundations can build EPIC Partnerships, they provocatively describe the funder/recipient relationship as a “nightmare.” In another piece by Laurie Michaels of Open Road Alliance, Michaels shared data that suggested that funders are seen as “the biggest barriers to effective impact and the greatest pain points for nonprofits and social enterprises.” And in light of a survey showing that, on a scale of 1-5 (5 being “excruciatingly painful”), social entrepreneurs rate fundraising as a 4.5, Sweta Govani shared an online tool to make the process easier. Continuing this focus on the positive, Cathy Clark and Kimberly Langsam at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship offered four steps to help entrepreneurs avoid dead-end impact investing leads. Hopefully, this outpouring of frustration may contribute to some improvements in what seems to be a depressingly dysfunctional relationship.
The Growing Influence of Technology
Innovative technologies – and the many ways they’re shaping business models in emerging markets – have always been a major focus of coverage on NextBillion. But this year the discussion has stepped up a level, perhaps reflecting the fact that many of these technologies have moved from the theoretical to the practical, and are now actually reshaping business models.
One of our most popular articles of 2018 explored the growing impact of “superplatforms” like Google, Amazon, Facebook – and Chinese counterparts like Alibaba and Tencent – on financial inclusion. Another explored the many uses of blockchain in boosting supply chain efficiency and financial access for smallholder farmers.
The dilemmas these technologies can sometimes provoke – like the loss of face-to-face contact in microfinance due to mobile tools – also sparked considerable interest on our site this year. In fact, tech challenges are featured prominently in two of our 2018 series, which have covered the real impact of buzzworthy technologies and the unique value of offline innovation.
Big Questions – No Easy Answers
NextBillion has always been a place where social businesses of all sizes can openly discuss the issues they’re dealing with in serving low-income customers. This year has been no exception, with stand-out articles from some of the biggest names in the sector – and smaller enterprises struggling to reach the next level. One prime example involved leaders from inclusive finance stalwarts MetLife Foundation and the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, who penned a remarkably frank assessment of whether their industry is truly boosting customers’ financial health (the answer might surprise you). Another, from leaders at the Center for Financial Services Innovation and Omidyar Network, explored how common the problems of poverty have become in the U.S., where a shocking 57 percent of the country often struggles to make ends meet.
Leaders at smaller-scale organizations also added their views to the mix, exploring issues like the devastating impact of subsidies on for-profit solar providers, the dilemma faced by off-grid energy entrepreneurs when the power grid expands, and the challenge of keeping new clean cooking fuel customers from switching back to traditional fuels. And moving to a more fundamental level, entrepreneurs explored how Western definitions perpetuate ethnocentric bias in social business, and whether the approach of entrepreneurs and their investors is truly localizing power.
Clearly, these issues aren’t going away, and we look forward to exploring them for the remainder of 2018 and beyond. We’re also currently considering where to focus our special series in 2019, so if you have any suggestions on trends we should be watching, or technologies or enterprises we should be covering, you’re welcome to email our editors. We’re always in the market for guest articles too – feel free to contact us if you’d like to add your views and insights to the discussion. And if you’d like to talk in person, let us know – as usual, we’ll have a presence at the SOCAP conference this year, and we’d be happy to meet you.