Last week, I wrote to IDEO and recommended that, along with food production and maternal health, they should add ‘social finance’ as a design challenge on their OpenIDEO site.  I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email, from a real person, acknowledging my request and noting that it’ll be added to the list. With all of the time I spend thinking about social finance, I am constantly reminded that it’s not the finance that is the challenge – it’s our design.

Too often I’ll get stuck in looking at the world of “social” (business, enterprise, & finance) from one vantage point – incorporation status. I’ll start discussions based on the pros and cons of being for-profit, non-profit, or charitable.  As the conversation progresses, I’ll finish with a rousing validation of why blended value is important in the world today.  It’s that nugget doesn’t really sink in, because I’ve lost my audience long before I got to it. Maybe it was just a rut, but at some point I stepped back and wondered, what am I talking about?  It’s important to keep the big question in sight – what is our intention in doing this work?

Part of the design challenge of social finance is actually framing and articulating this intention in a way that makes sense.  This is my take on what IDEO talks about when they describe the first step of inspiration: “What is the problem or opportunity that motivates people to search for solutions?”  By beginning my conversations with incorporation status, I’m sorely missing the point as well as the opportunity to constantly connect with our intentions.

Instead, what if I began framing all my conversations around social finance in a way that expressed that “healthy communities require blended value”?  Not only does it make the conversation more approachable, but it also enables me to tackle the challenge from multiple perspectives.  The nature of this new conversation really leaves me open to what IDEO calls ideation – the exciting place of seeing what new choices or new products might be available to us.

The real power in this area is that our “new” stuff can’t simply be devised or determined from one discipline.  It can’t just come from the finance minds, the philanthropy folks, or the business nerds. This is where social finance as a design challenge really hits reality.  Who is involved in this conversation?  Do we have enough folks and enough diversity to see the fullest extent of our ideation?  Do we need artists?  Engineers?  Dinosaur hunters?

What has been exciting recently, is the amount of prototyping that I see in the social finance space.  Peter Dietz’s presentation on social finance beautifully shows the beginnings of a lot of different ways of doing this work.  The final aspect of IDEO’s design thinking is implementation.  From my point of view, if we haven’t gotten the first two buckets right – we’re not going to suddenly hit the bullseye here. If I keep in my mind that ‘healthy communities require blended value’, then what are the elements of our current implementations that make this a reality?

In implementation, I wonder what our goal really is. Is it to show traditional finance that these investments are viable?  Or to help businesses and organizations see the benefits of using these financial tools?  Do we know who our audience is, and are we messaging to them correctly?  A good friend of mine works in creative design and believes that advertising is the only thing that will change the world.  If she’s right,  then have we social finance practitioners even considered this angle?  Do we seek to make social finance mainstream?

Social finance in Canada is still a relatively small community, even with the momentum of the Task Force on Social Finance.To move the current great work forward, we are required to be focused and ultimately, aligned with a dominant perspective to get the work done.  When we’re all assigned to a project – who is out there with capacity to think broadly and deeply about what we are designing?

I forced myself to take a step back from yammering on about incorporation status to write this post.  In doing so, I had enough space to consider social finance as a design challenge and to remind myself why I am doing this work.  For me, the intention and inspiration really is best summed up as “healthy communities require blended value”.  It’s intentionally vague, and doesn’t assume that we know the answers.  What follows now, is purely a challenge in deciding what is designed, and how.

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