System failure opportunity

SoCap08, the first of what is likely to be an annual conference on “social capital markets”, has been taking place in San Francisco. Matthew delivered a keynote speech about Philanthrocapitalism. Some 650 people attended the event, around two-thirds of them registering in the past couple of weeks, since the demise of Lehman Brothers. Kevin Jones of Good Capital,who organised the conference, attributes the last minute surge to people sensing a “system failure opportunity”, in that the disaster now under way in traditional capitalism creates an opening for a more socially acceptable alternative. There are also a lot of out of work bankers looking for new careers, and the phrase capital markets may have caught their eye.

If so, they will have been encouraged by a lively debate at the conference on the motion, “this house believes that social returns can be maximised by maximising financial returns”. Although the motion was defeated, around one-third of the audience supported it, and almost everyone agreed that finding ways to harness the profit motive where possible – even if not necessarily to maximise profits – is crucial if serious progress is to be made on, say, eradicating poverty. The rapid growth of microfinance since it has evolved beyond philanthropy to for-profit was mentioned often as a reason for hope – though it remains to be seen if a similar evolution can take place in other areas of social concern, such as education and health care. But there was plenty of uplifting optimism at the conference, and not just because it was held in California.