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Sunday, January 23, 2005

Better late than never Pt 2 

So, I suppose I ought to say more about the Wharton SIM conference. (Edited to say that there's also a review in the Wharton Journal, thanks to Robert for the link)

I flew from London to Newark and then took the train down to Philadelphia. This may not seem the most logical route, but sort of makes sense in terms of keeping all my frequent flier miles together and benefiting from my ff status with lounge access etc. (As an aside, I had the slightly surreal experience of sitting in the lounge at Heathrow, trying to proof-read some letters to Bishops for work, while being unable help overhearing a British 'glamour model' giving a rather explicit interview over the phone. Any fans of Jordon out there, you can rest assured that you will be seeing more of her (is that actually possible?) over the next year.) After a bumpy flight, a relatively quick journey through immigration, and a compfrotable train journey (so conmfortable I was scared I was going to fall asleep and find myself waking up in DC) I reached Philly and the Sheraton University City.

Having woken up the next morning at the absurdly early hour that one does with west-travelling jet lag, I got to conference registration just as it was opening. I picked up my badge, information pack, Aveda goody bad and a thermal mug (a reward for being one of the first x to arrive), helped myself to some much needed caffeine (courtesy of Green Mountain Coffee) and then read through the infor pack whilst trying to dry out. (The rather strange weather systems had resulted in torrential rain and high winds that morning.)

The conference started with a few words from the chair of the organising committee and then the opening Keynote address from Assaad Jabre of the International Finance Corporation on 'The Future of Developent Finance'. He spoke about thecntext of dvelopment, some of the ways it has changed over the years, questions that need to be asked about what you do with development finance, and the role of the IFC. (If any one would like a copy if my more detailed notes, shoot me an e-mail). The rest of the morning was spent in panels, with two panels running simultaneously. I went to 'Making Business Decisions in Social Enterprises' and then 'Trends in Corporate Philanthropy'. The first session consisted of a panel of three people involved in social enterprises (Jean Griswold, founder of Griswold Special Care, Daniel Lubetzky founder of PeaceWorks, and David Hess, CFO of American Reading Company. They talked about the background of their organisations and what the organisations do and discussed some of the questions and challenges that arise (Is it better to focus on making a profit and using that profit to fund social impact activities, or do you trade less profit for socila impact directly through the work? Do you seek to grow the business with something that doesn't directly relate to the mission? Funding challenges when you're neither a non-profit nor a profit-driven organisation.) In the second panel, Kathleen Buechel of the Alcoa Foundation talked about the foundation and how it works. Unlike some corporate foundations, the Alcoa Foundation has a seperate asset base from the company, so that it can ensure that funding is not reliant on corporate perfomance. She talked about how they work to ensure that their philanthropy in locally focussed but globally organised and how they look to use a mix of grants, product donations and employee involvement.

During lunch, Judy Vredenburgh of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Amir Dar of idealist.org spoke about theie experiences of transitioning from the for-profit to the not-for-profit sector. I didn't take any notes, as I was eating, but overall I'd say they painted a picture of mixed experiences, good and bad, where non-profits had things to learn form the for-profits and vice versa, and I think clearly communicated that people shouldn't look to transition into the non-profit world whilst wearing rose coloured spectacles.

There were two more sets of panel sessions after lunch. I went to 'Beyond the Workplace: Making a Difference in the Public and Nonprofit Sectors' where Dorrit Bern of Charming Shoppes Inc, Martin Stein of Stein Optical and Stein Drugs and Stephen Steinour of Citizens Bank talked about their individual and their companies' involvement in philanthropic activities. They spoke about what they did, mistakes they'd made, what they'd learnt etc. It was an interesting range of perspectives, with Dorrit Bern coming clearly from the perspective of the CEO of a for-profit company and anything she or the company did having to be looked at in terms of what impact it would have on the company's reputation and on shareholder value, and Martin Stein taking the view that as an entreprenuer he wasn't answerable to anybody and would do what he and he alone felt to be right. Following this I went to a panel of four Wharton alumni on 'Can I Afford to Pursue a Public Interest Career'. The answer form this was pretty much 'yes' but that you would see your classmates who went into MC, IB etc race away from you in terms of material standard of living, you'd have to do more individual research to secure internships and ful-time jobs and not secure them until much later in the year than classmates going down more 'traditional' paths, and that whether you could afford to take a job would be part of the decision making process when it came to securing a full-time position. All seemed very happy in their jobs, happy to have gone to Wharton, and gave the impression that the trade-offs were worth it.

The closing Keynote was by D Wayne Silby of The Calvert Funds. By this point in the proceeding tiredness was really setting in and my caffeine levels had dropped, so I wasn't focussing as well as I'd have liked, but he spoke about the funds history wioth social enterprise type investments, and plans they are pitching to credit card companys for a card that shows how much carbon impact your purchases have and helps you to off-set them. By the time he finished, I really was tired, so I stayed around for a little while to talk to studnts and then headed to bed.

Overall, I was really impressed. It was good to see the level of engagement with these issues and the willingness of people to get involved with Wharton on them. It was also great to be able to meet some fellow admits and some of the students, who made an effort to seek us out and introduce themselves. I'm really glad I made the journey over.

I spent the Saturday, which was thankfully drier, if colder, looking round some of Philadelphia before heading back to the airport and home. I really liked the city, certainly a far cry from the urban wasteland that some people seem to imagine it as. There's some beautiful colonial architecture in the historic district and a vibrant and friendly atmosphere in centre city. I certainly had a strong feeling that this was somewhere I'd be happy living for the next couple of years.

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