The social capital markets are convening at the intersection of money and meaning. Sometimes that intersection acts like an asset class, and sometimes it shows up more as a movement driven by a passionate desire to get more out of the professional part of life than the exchange that traditional business offers.
The most vital element in the social capital markets is the capital that shows up on two legs, rather than on a balance sheet as a new investment. That influx of new people is what’s starting to tip the balance as this movement heads toward the mainstream. The flow has not let up since the Wall Street meltdown. The people who were committed to social enterprise, to financially sustainable, mission-focused business as the way to make a difference in the world, are no less committed. In fact, the problems they are tackling, from alternatives to predatory payday checking businesses that pray on cash-strapped poor people, to solutions like roof-top gardens that green the inner city, are growing.
The number of new people wanting to join them, eager to get involved, is growing as well; the downturn has created an important inflection point where people are willing to examine and even start walking away from existing beliefs that kept them enmeshed in the old-style, greed-is-good market system.
As I encounter this new influx of people when I speak at an event, or when they come to the events we put on, I’ve started to use a generational filter to put them into context. That’s because how they enter, what they expect, and what they have to learn or how they have to compromise seems to differ according to whether they are a millennial (roughly 30 and under), a Gen X’er (30s and early 40s), or a boomer (mid-40s to late 50s).
The millennials are, in large part, not buying into the system. They seem to be naturally entrepreneurial, wanting to create their own initiatives, while they live five to an apartment.
The Gen X’ers who have heard the call are often stuck; they’ve got kids, mortgages, or at least nice apartments and have gotten used to regular paychecks. But when they can manage to make the switch, they have a decade of practical and professional experience on the millennials. Their professional skills are sometimes the exact right fit for the problem of a particular social enterprise at a particular point in its growth.
If you find the right ones for the right companies, they can often manage to deliver the perfect injection of professional skill for a short consulting gig that doesn’t make them leave behind the day job that’s paying the rent. And, since most social enterprises, at whatever stage of funding, are often cash-strapped or working within tight budgets, the Gen X’ers are a core group that is providing the movement cum asset class an essential nudge forward.
Working with them often requires a long engagement by the funder or advisor or board member who’s trying to round up the right ecosystem of talent to push a particular social enterprise toward its full social and economic potential. They often need some level of career counseling as they learn to put together the new, meaningful part of their professional life with the other part that’s paying the bills.
My own group, baby boomers, is often the most difficult to work with. The problem is, boomers have often been successful and kind of suddenly wake up and realize that the meaningful part of their life has been segregated from the professional part. They have a legacy problem: “Oh no, this can’t be all that I’ve done. How did I get to this place? I need some more meaning in my professional life right now.” There’s a real opportunity for someone to develop some kind of career change curriculum or practice for both Gen Xers and boomers.
It often takes boomers a couple of years to realize their skills are not directly transferable, that the nonprofit-infused social capital market is a different culture with different rules and norms, and that their habits of command and fast action run into barriers they don’t see coming. That’s about how long it took me; it may not take others as long.
I tell boomers it’s like being transferred to Japan; there are customs that you don’t recognize, that you can’t change, and that you have to pay attention to; walls you will run into that you didn’t see coming. When I encounter recent cash-outs or early retirees, I try to send them off on a quest. Start going to the events in the space, become a mentor to a raw student startup in a social venture competition or a particular nonprofit and learn the different kinds of funding and execution challenges facing businesses with an embedded social mission.
The overlaps of the three generations are pretty interesting as well; boomers and millennials are natural allies; they are both impatient and unwilling to do it the old way. They can work together on projects well, but longer-term engagements can be more difficult. Boomers are used to long-term commitments while millennials reassess the link between their engagement and meaning more often; but I’m seeing a lot of potential as they learn to figure out the roles of experience and enthusiasm.
The desire to take the next step into social capital markets may be just as strong for all three generations. For the short term, however, it seems to me the Gen Xers, the ones who are in some ways stuck, are able to provide a social enterprise the most bang for their scarce bucks. They don’t have the habits of power to unlearn that the boomers do. And unlike the millennials, who continually question their engagement, Gen Xers are used to taking on a particular task and working until it gets done. They have 10 years of honing their professional skills, and are thrilled when their particular talents can be the answer to a mission-focused business at an inflection point.
This is just a tentative hypothesis, based on gathering a lot of observations. I don’t consider them rules or a methodology. And that is the real problem; I wish somebody would make their own version of this concept into a methodology and maybe a career counseling and curriculum business. The biggest gap I see is a way to scale the intake, evaluation, and assessment and matchmaking processes as these three generations work their way through the intersection of money and meaning and try to find a way to make a difference helping or starting a social enterprise.
Kevin Jones is a cofounding principal of Good Capital, an investment firm that accelerates the flow of capital to enterprises that use market forces to create large-scale social change. Jones is a successful serial entrepreneur, angel investor, and cofounder of Social Capital Markets, the groundbreaking conference on social venture investing.