Measuring Up: 2012 Social Finance Forum in Toronto

By Rebecca Byers, Community Manager of SocialBusiness.org

In November I attended the 2012 Social Finance Forum at the MaRS Centre, which focused on impact investing and social return on investment. The conference was very well attended, with over 400 guests and only standing room in many of the sessions. It offered a variety of engaging and informative speakers and workshops, conveniently organized with a legend that signifies who a workshop is targeted toward, like not-for-profits and charities, investors and asset managers, market builders and financial service professionals, and social ventures and coops, as well as several targeted toward everyone.

The conference began with opening remarks from Royal Bank of Canada president and CEO Gordon Nixon, who spoke adamantly of the opportunity of social finance and announced RBC’s investment of $1 million over five years in support of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing.

The conference’s opening panel featured Andy Broderick, Arlene Dickinson, and Antony Bugg-Levine, and focused on an investor insight into defining impact. The prominent investors discussed what they look for when they invest in social ventures, with the panel agreeing that the business does need to have a promise of investment before they can think of investing.

I attended SiMPACT Strategy Group’s workshop session ‘Social return on investment 101,’ an Albertan firm whose community investment measurement and evaluation methodology has been used by ventures in the public, private, and third sector in the province since 1993. SiMPACT employs outcome-based evaluation measures, includes stakeholder perspectives, links program reach and implementation, and reflects intention within the program’s logic model, and maintains that SROI is “a story, not a number.”

Overall I felt the workshops were well organized, specific, and highly informative. There was a consistent energy in the room, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the pitches from the students of the Ontario School for Social Entrepreneurship.

The conference’s first day featured another announcement in addition to Gordon Nixon’s, as Federal Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development the Honourable Diane Finley spoke during lunch and announced the Canadian government first social finance initiative, a two-month (recently extended to January 31, 2013) call for plans on social finance, for which a website was created.

I was uncertain at first as to whether or not Minister Finley’s announcement would be well-received – while some have in fact lobbied to Ottawa for recognition and support, like the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing itself, through its Canadian Task Force on Social Finance – however, as pointed out by Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar, they were seeking changes to tax code in order to allow “self-financing social organizations to qualify for tax credits,” and rewarding those who invest in social enterprise. It would seem then, that the general opinion is that the government is trying to alleviate some of the weight of providing basic help to those in need of it most, or, even more general, to private public services. It’s also obvious that some, as Carol Goar alludes, believe the call for concepts is asking those in the social finance realm to steer their time and efforts away from their own efforts, which could use support from the government instead of the other way around.

I can’t say I entirely disagree with this view, but I also think it’s long overdue that the national government recognized the social finance at all, as this was the first official time. I think that it would be easy for this to be frustrating for social entrepreneurs who have been pushing social finance for years, and then to all of a sudden have it kind of thrown in with the government’s austerity measures.

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