Pioneers Post

Jamming in Oxford with a league of gentlemen

3 April 2012

Paul Cheng at Oxford Jam 2011

Investors grappling with the same problem as Paul may like to reflect some of the advice they give to social enterprises who aren’t ‘investment ready'.

Matt Black of Matter&Co

My first taste of Oxford Jam was in 2011. I arrived at an Oxford art gallery-cum-coffee shop humming with the sound of the leading social entrepreneurs, investors and policy makers. 

I was just in time for a session led by Paul Cheng, which set out to survey the social investment landscape. Paul discussed the destructive short-termism of profit maximisation, suggesting its replacement with 'profit optimisation' instead. The talk was smart and accessible, thought-provoking but without pretension, completely in fitting with the Oxford Jam ethos. I was sold.
The Be Inspired Films Oxford Jam wrap-up:

Fast forward a year, and Oxford Jam has grown. Over 800 people came through the doors of the Crisis Café in Oxford. While the venue changed, the quality of the talks remained high and easily surpassed the vast majority of events on the congested social enterprise circuit. 
Paul Cheng was on hand to deliver his now annual assessment of social investment, and it was not without expectation that I sat down to hear his talk. I was not alone in my anticipation – over a hundred had turned out.
As last year, the seminar was full of astute insights on social investment. That all social investors secretly consider themselves venture capitalists was one; that metrics and measuring by their nature encourage gaming of the system another. But perhaps due to my inflated expectation, this year I was left disappointed.
Central to Paul’s talk was that for social investment to get mainstream proposition, it needed to focus on new methods of persuasion. 'You can't always count on real value to persuade people, it's about emotions. We need to use behavioural economics psychology more,' said Cheng. 
This great epiphany left me somewhat underwhelmed. Paul’s message boiled down to the rather mundane observation that businesses will fail to sell if they don’t have sales, branding and marketing strategies. 
That it has taken ten years for social investment community to realise they’ll need some strategic thinking before they take on the mainstream was disappointing (investors grappling with the same problem as Paul, may like to reflect on some of the advice they give to social enterprises who aren’t ‘investment ready’). More worrying was the feeling in the room that this revelation was akin to Newton’s falling apple. 
Had no one in the room really considered this before? This kind of thing isn’t easy, but you don’t have to look far to see successful examples. Microfinance crowd-funders Kiva are one inspiring example in action. Global Ethics, the people behind the One brand, another.  Understanding and studying the motivations of customers shouldn’t just be the preserve of major brands but any business who wants to grow its customers and keep them coming back for more.
Suddenly a room full of the leading social innovators in the UK felt a bit like a neighbourhood watch meeting in Royston Vasey.  'Marketing? Branding?', one confused villager cried. 'What is this strange magic you speak of stranger? This is a local event for local people. There’s nothing for you here.'
Getting communications right isn’t easy – but giving serious consideration so late in the day is concerning.
Elsewhere at Oxford Jam, much of the meaty chat went on off-stage. Some of the UK’s savvier social entrepreneurs were spotted pitching deals to investors, who attended in abundance. The venue for Oxford Jam was in fact funded off the back of a deal struck at last year’s event. Investment hungry social businesses put a note in your diary now for 2013.
Ultimately it was a genuinely inspirational three days and for my money the best gathering of social enterprise on the calendar. Lest ten years more pass before another basic business principle is discovered, I’d encourage the organisers to invite people who will challenge assumptions, question motivations and have a different set of skills than our own so speedier progress is made. No matter how intelligent we think we are, there is a still a lot to learn, and opening up the debate can only help.
Matt Black is business development manager at communications company Matter&Co, sister company to
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Paul Cheng at Oxford Jam 2011: