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Social Enterprise Conference: Covergence of Private, Public and Nonprofit Sectors

Over 800 students, business leaders, professors, nonprofit practitioners, and social entrepreneurs gathered on campus Sunday, March 5 to participate in the 7th Annual Social Enterprise Conference. Organized by students at HBS and the Kennedy School of Government. The conference’s theme was “Convergence” among private, public, and nonprofit sectors. The day included two keynote speakers, 17 panel discussions, an alumni gathering, “Pitch for Change” competition and a career fair.

Social Enterprise Club Co-Chair Caitrin Moran said, “We are very happy with how the day went. There was such energy and enthusiasm among the participants, panelists and speakers. It’s exciting to see so many people, passionate about the same issues, gathered in the same place.”

No one could have ignited the passion and energy of the day better than keynote speaker and Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz. Kash Rangan, HBS marketing professor, introduced Swartz saying his grandfather had started the company with a Boot, his father then added the Brand, and now, the third generation leader has added a third B-Belief. During his address, Swartz passionately promoted Timberland’s belief that commerce and justice are tightly linked and we should demand a commitment to community from all businesses we interact with as consumers, investors, employees and global citizens.

Jeff concluded his remarks with words of motivation particularly fitting for HBS students who are preparing for careers as business leaders across the globe: “The answer is in your hands.look across the boundary of civil society and say, ‘I’m in.'”
There were plenty of opportunities for participants to determine how to engage civically in panel topics such as:

 international development
 public/private partnerships
 corporate social responsibility
 education
 microfinance
 public health
 environmentally friendly business

As business leaders, one of the best ways to cross that boundary and contribute to your community is by sitting on a nonprofit board. At the panel on effective board governance, I found the conference’s convergence theme to be particularly apt. As the panelists outlined key issues they face in their nonprofit organizations, best practices from Professor Lorsch and Khurana’s Board of Directors course echoed in my head.

Just like in the private sector, poor governance arises when members lack the broad range of skills needed to successfully oversee the organization; information between management and the board is not consistent with what the board members need; members are stretched too thin in various commitments and cannot devote the necessary time to perform their job well; and meetings tend to focus too much on reporting and not enough on gaining valuable advice and direction from board members.

The panelists made several recommendations for creating a high-functioning board which are applicable to those who will participate in nonprofit governance in the future (and if HBS statistics hold true, the majority of you will).

Most importantly, be sure to make the time, energy and knowledge to be an effective board member a priority. Additionally, when considering joining a board, it is better to proactively seek out organization you are passionate about, rather than just reacting to being asked. Prior to joining, understand the social contract between you and the nonprofit; many organizations will allow you to join a committee prior to joining the board to get a feel for expectations, culture and fit.

Lastly, lead from your strengths and be sure the board and management understand your areas of expertise and knowledge so you can be engaged effectively.

In addition to informative panels, the day encouraged networking and job searching during the career fair, and a “Pitch for Change” competition showcased social enterprise ideas from HBS students. TeachForward.org, an online community that encourages teachers to share lesson plans and best-teaching practices took first place with a $1,000 prize. “A Penny Saved,” a math-intensive financial literacy program for low-income, urban high school students, placed second and received $500.

Throughout the day, the lines between the private, public, and nonprofit sectors continued to blur. Best practices traveled fluidly and ideas from the day were taken back to organizations with entire annual budgets no bigger than the price of a 30-second Academy Award commercial for the corporate headquarters that purchased them. Convergence, therefore, is not simply an HBS catchphrase on a conference poster, but an increasing reality in our complex world.

March 13, 2006
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