What Philly’s absence from a national study on social enterprise hubs says about us

July 1, 2016
Generocity

A social impact ecosystem is a lot like a simple machine. Both are composed of multiple parts designed to function as a single unit. At the end of the day, both are built to set a product in motion.

Philly’s social impact community seems to be having trouble getting certain parts of that equation right.

That much is reflected in From the Ground Up: Quantifying Social Enterprise Ecosystems in the U.S., a recent study from D.C.-based S&R Foundation‘s social enterprise incubator Halcyon that identifies the best social enterprise ecosystems across nine U.S. cities.

This isn’t your typical “best cities list” marketing fodder. Produced in partnership with the Case Foundation, theBeeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation, Deloitte, Capitol One, WeWork, Impact Hub and others, the study’s purpose is to serve as a benchmarking framework for use by communities looking to foster solidarity and measure collective progress.

The rankings are largely informed by a survey that was distributed last year to nearly 400 social entrepreneurs across the country. The results of those surveys were used to create four “pillars” of a social impact ecosystem:

Funding — Availability of public, private and philanthropic dollars
Quality of life — Affordability, access to transportation and culture
Human capital — Academic institutions and talent pool
Regulation and receptivity — Policy and culture surrounding social enterprise

Those metrics have been supplemented with a small dose of public data and informed locally by available resources. In all, the current data is shallow.

“Our goal with this is to make the data as actionable as possible,” said Ryan Ross, program director at Halcyon and co-lead on the study. “We want to really understand how cities across the country are doing so we can work with them to make sure there’s an intentional intervention that will make these ecosystems better.”

All ships rise. Except, only nine cities delivered enough data to qualify for ranking, and Philadelphia was not one of them.

(But social entrepreneurs can fill out a survey online now and contribute to next year’s deeper dive into the study.)

That’s alarming, considering the community is well-equipped to positioned itself as a leader in social impact. The city is home to an academic institution dedicated to studying the sector, local policymakers who want to make the city the social enterprise capital of the world, accelerators for mission-driven entrepreneurs and ImpactPHL, a largely unprecedented impact investing organization composed of private and philanthropic funders looking to align their investments.

How did a community like that forget to show up?

First, the surveys were distributed through Halcyon’s partner organizations — namely, Impact Hub. The coworking space for social entrepreneurs shut down its Philadelphia location last September. But Impact Hub failed to get residents in the door, signaling a deeper divide in Philly’s social impact community:

Philadelphia is short on social entrepreneurs.

But is it a shortage of serious players or just a disconnected community? Do social entrepreneurs need to by galvanized by a physical space like Impact Hub or can a loose coalition like a local Social Enterprise Alliance chapter drum up interest?

The need for that kind of support system was partially the impetus behind ImpactPHL, according to executive chair John Moore. The organization’s ultimate goal is to educate regional funders on impact investing and get them funneling capital into a community of social entrepreneurs that can rope in and cultivate new talent.

ImpactPHL isn’t set to launch until later this month. Local social entrepreneurs need to step up, take the lead and convene their peers.  

Ross, seeing a lack of representation from Philadelphia’s community during the survey process, began reaching out personally to local leaders, all of whom he said were “very bullish on the city.” 

One of those leaders was impact investor Tom Balderston. Ross remembers the SustainVC partner and longtimeInvestors’ Circle member expressing excitement over the study and sharing fledgling plans to establish ImpactPHL.

But the buck stopped there, and Philadelphia social entrepreneurs remained silent while usual suspects like San Francisco and wannabe communities like Miami piped up and earned recognition.

“My perception is Philadelphia has a strong social enterprise community that would rank pretty highly,” said Ross. “But they just weren’t able to get the number of survey responses to qualify.”

“Social entrepreneurs themselves will ultimately be the ones to answer what makes a good social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and where to find it,” Ross and J&R Chief Operating Officer Kate Goodall wrote in a Stanford Social Innovation Review piece.

Philadelphia’s social impact ecosystem has its parts in place. Now it needs a new generation of products to set in motion.