Opportunity Collaboration 2010

I had the pleasure of being invited to, and attending, the second annual Opportunity Collaboration in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.  The “OppCollab” is self-described as a poverty alleviation unconference and is held over 4 full and 2 part days.  Unlike traditional conferences, the substance of OppCollab is not presentations, but discussions among attendees.  And there was an impressive mix of individuals participating, including leaders of charities, foundations, microfinance institutions, social entrepreneurs, and foreign NGOs.


Hot and humid.  But what a beautiful venue!  A little at-odds with poverty alleviation, but I get the importance of a relaxed, comfortable environment.  Met a few NGO and nonprofit leaders at dinner.  Conference welcome speech is appropriately short and on target.

Day One

Seemed like being in college again, analyzing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, but in a room of very smart, ambitious, accomplished, diverse socially conscious people.  Friendly group; nevertheless, felt some pressure to be smart.  No wallflowers here either.  Discussed nonprofit and for-profit choices at two sessions focused on social enterprises.  Surprised to see mostly for-profits represented at these sessions.

Wandered over to the young professionals’ table for dinner conversation about their unique challenges.  They have done amazing things and will no doubt do much, much more.  My only quibble was that founder’s syndrome can get an early onset without building a board committed primarily to the organization and not the founder.  I suppose every generation goes through this, but I’m particularly concerned about the millenials who may transition to new opportunities in a few short years.  Will their organizations survive and thrive without them?  Met a lot of folks doing incredible work all over the world.  What got them started?  Heard several stories.  Gives me hope.


Founder and CEO Jonathan Lewis closing the conference.

Day Two

Today’s colloquium focused on Sophocles’ Antigone.  Interesting challenge.  Moral law above man’s law.  Civil disobedience.  Value of wise counsel.   Power and ego corrupt.  Sacrifice.  Like English lit class.  But then the discussion touched on the play’s application today.  Wish the latter discussion went deeper.  Over lunch, discussed organizational structuring with executive and program director of charity doing great work in Ghana.  Then succumbed to the lure of the beach and pool.  Didn’t learn much from the marketing session.  Learning by sharing can be difficult when there’s such diversity in knowledge and experience, particularly when some individuals have trouble keeping their contributions concise.  But continue to hear about some truly amazing work being done by people here.

Hosted a dinner discussion on legal issues affecting nonprofits and social enterprises.  Surprised at the relatively small turnout.  Lawyers are expensive, and pro bono counsel may lack expertise in these difficult and quickly changing areas.  But there’s always the fear that a lawyer will identify issues that need to be addressed and overburden the executive.  Deliberate avoidance seems the rule.  Need to find a way to emphasize the value add of prescriptive, rather than reactive, counsel.  Maybe should have highlighted my discussion of the L3C and Benefit Corporation.  Fortunately, I received some very nice feedback from the group.

Day Three

Colloquium group discussed times when our programmatic goals differed from what we were expected to do.  Amazing story of how one person refused large grant when it was insufficient to fund the desired project.  Another of how a potentially valuable media opportunity was turned down when it appeared that the media wanted to exploit one of the organization’s beneficiaries.  The group also shared stories where individuals did not speak out.  Sometimes, we must pick our battles.  Sometimes, we chase funds for sustenance.

The afternoon session focused on taboos in the funder-fundee relationship.  Failure is a taboo that shouldn’t be one.  The failure rate in high tech startups may be 80 percent or higher, but it doesn’t stop new startups from attracting capital.  If funders and fundees are not open in identifying, disclosing, and learning from failure, we will keep making the same mistakes.  Another taboo for fundees is admitting that the funder was right in not approving the funding request.  Again, a learning moment can be lost if we refuse to listen to outside critique that may be far more informed than the fundee thinks.  Dinner conversation focused on social impact and the difference between social impact and service delivery.  Great stuff.  But my highlight of the day was releasing baby sea turtles into the Pacific.

Day Four

The morning session examined the following quote from the Harvard Business Review (Oct 2010):  “Small may be beautiful, but size matters when it comes to having impact on society’s complex problems.”  Despite the quote, like in the for-profit sector, small organizations in the aggregate do much of the work and are critical for innovation.  And the question for many organizations is capacity, not scale.  There are economies of scale in certain solutions, but not in every solution (e.g., community organizing).  Still, everyone needs to think about what is replicable and can be freely shared.  Alliances and networks, and licensing and guidance from “name organizations” can help bring projects to scale.  We must move from sealing organizations to scaling mission.  But there’s a danger of being too caught up in the idea of replication.  So many organizations compete for having the replicable model; it has become driven by egos.  Advocacy is also essential but often results in the one big player getting funds and exceptional treatment; the rest of the playing field stays the same.

Colloquium readings included articles by Fannon, de Soto, and Thoreau.  These pieces shifted our focus to systems.  How does capitalism serve the developing world, particularly where legal systems are not in place to allow the majority of the population to participate (e.g., property rights)?  If the creation and enforcement of legal systems and the role of government are key, what is the role of outsiders and outside governments, particularly where the outsiders have long benefited from exploiting another country’s resources?  And because resources are limited, how do outside private and public sources allocate resources to advocacy versus direct aid?  And what portion of resources should morally be spent on pure relief not necessarily related to social change?  Finally, how do we make and coordinate these decisions when there are multitudes of actors with competing tactics and priorities?  The problems are systemic.  Collaborations on every level are required to solve them, but the discussion lacked how we should encourage these beyond our modest group.  Dinner conversation highlighted Oxfam’s work with foreign NGOs in setting up women’s savings circles for the very poor.  Was introduced to Portfolios of Poverty, identified by several here as the best book in this space.  Evening ceremonies honored Shari Berenbach, former President and CEO of Calvert Social Investment Foundation and current Director, Microenterprise Development Office of US AID.

Final Thoughts

I was given many opportunities to provide feedback on whether I got what I wanted from the conference.  My goals were different from most as I came primarily to learn about the field from the broad perspectives of a big group rather than just a few presenters, and to contribute my perspective as a lawyer.  I did not have business development or collaboration goals in mind beyond the conference.  So, I felt a little like an outside observer during the open networking times.  Nevertheless, during these periods, I helped one organizational network figure out its structure, one African social entrepreneur land a needed loan, one domestic social enterprise decide on B corporation status, and several folks understand the realities of the L3C.  And I was privileged to listen to so many moving stories.  And a smattering of dirty jokes.  Add daily swims in the ocean and work on the beach.  So, I did get what I wanted from the conference.  How well I incorporate what I learned and develop some of the relationships I started will ultimately tell me just how great my OppCollab experience was.