On December 2, 2009, and at long last, Jed Emerson came to MaRS.  Since starting the social entrepreneurship program at MaRS I have been trying to get Jed to come to Toronto.  When you research the area of social finance you’ll find his name comes up often as the identified thought leader in this space.

In conversation with Janice Stein of the Munk Centre at U of T, Jed revealed his path from social worker to manager of a hedge fund.  It was clear to him early on that there was no relationship between outcomes that the not-for-profit organization delivered and their funding.  In fact, attracting funding was more related to politics and perceptions.
Then he met George Roberts who, like many philanthropists today, is seeking to apply a business-based approach to philanthropy.  What emerged from that relationship was a focus on measurement: how do quantify things we see (the financial return) with things we can’t see (the social return)?  REDF was established to examine this issue, to offer a “narrative numercy” and others, such as the new economics foundation (nef) in the UK, have evolved this concept.

Jed encourages us to see the social and economic values as one actual “blended value proposition”.  A tossed salad instead of a soup.

These concepts were often on the margins of the mainstream but now they are heard much more frequently.  At the recent Clinton Global Initiative, for example, it was clear that mainstream players like Coke and Wal-Mart have moved beyond words to actually seeing the concept of sustainability as a value proposition.  Jed notes that we have moved the corporate social responsibility world from compliance to citizenship to understanding it as a competitive advantage.

Jed and Janice also discussed foundations: how is it acceptable to say “we will allocate 5% of our assets to mission and the other 95% will be used to make mainstream investments”?  There is a real disconnect there.  Thankfully our foundations in Canada, through the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada and the Community Foundations of Canada are both looking at this issue.

Although we often look to the US and the UK for advancements in social finance, Jed reminded us of some great work being done here, including the leadership of VanCity and socialfinance.ca – a blog that was sent to Jed by the managing editor of Forbes who read about his appearance at MaRS in an article published there.

Jed also applauded MaRS and our work across sectors and disciplines – something he suggests is more impactful than anything else he has seen worldwide.

So that’s our challenge: keep scanning the marketplace and continually step up our game while recognizing that we really are onto something special here.  Sometimes it takes someone holding up a mirror to get us to reflect on our success.

Thanks Jed, your presentation was worth the wait.

Downloads and resources

Weren’t able to attend the class? Need some notes or want to look something up? Click below for all of the goodies from the lecture. Watch the video and the slide presentation below.

Allyson Hewitt

Allyson is the JW McConnell Family Foundation Senior Fellow, Social Innovation at MaRS, where she has been leading the SiG@MaRS program; advising social entrepreneurs; building the social innovation ecosystem; and incubating successful programs such as the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, the MaRS Solutions Lab and Studio Y. See more…