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My View: Solving Minnesota's problems means getting everybody at the table

Not long ago, I attended the fourth annual EPCON: Engaged Philanthropy Conference in downtown Minneapolis. As a co-founder of SocialEarth.org, a clearing house for new ideas in philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, I was eager to hear what the speakers and presenters had to say.
The conference's organizers, Social Venture Partners Minnesota, are part of SVP International, a network of over 2,000 engaged philanthropists in 26 metro areas. SVP members take an unconventional approach to philanthropy, going beyond the simple feel-good donation. Each one of them takes an active role in the social ventures in which they invest. Since 2003, SVP has awarded over $845,000 to eighteen early-stage, high-potential organizations, to whom their partners have donated countless hours consulting, mentoring, and applying effective business strategies.
SVP works in America, but the keynote speaker at the EPCON conference talked about North Africa--Egypt, in fact. David Haskell, founder of Dreams InDeed International, described the work of civil engineer Yousry Makar. Makar launched and directs Habitat for Humanity Egypt, the first program of its kind in the Middle East.
The barriers to Habitat's entry into Egypt were daunting: it carried the stigma of its foreign origin; it was an unknown quantity, it had no legal registration. But Makar was compelled by a dream: to solve the problem of housing the poor in Egypt.  
Now, twelve years later, over 17,000 families have secured decent housing, and their mortgage repayment rate is an astonishing 99.84 percent on time.  The most encouraging outcome is that their rapid, sustained impact is not driven by growth of a single organization, but by the dynamism of an expanding network of collaborators.  Habitat for Humanity Egypt serves as a catalytic node in a network, alongside 26 other dream-inspired and values-aligned counterpart groups.
And there's this as well: In 2006, community collaborators identified a gap in the system: not everyone could afford to repay a home loan. Makar listened to voices, voices of the poor, who until then had been unable to make themselves heard. The result? Collaboration with the poorest of the poor to increase awareness of and involvement in the project, while providing housing to those without the financial means. That's collective impact.

Minnesota's Issues
We're 7,000 miles and several climatic zones from Makar's homeland, but after hearing Haskell describe his work I found myself thinking about Minnesota.
This decade is a defining period in the history of our state and the world. There are big issues that need to be addressed, and Minnesota's kids, among others, hope we address them.
Right now the achievement gap between poor and wealthy eighth graders is close to the worst in the United States. Not to mention that only 18 percent of Minnesota teachers strongly agree that their students are coming to class ready to do grade-level work. We failed to come together to support education reform in the Race to the Top federal grant competition.
We also have over 491,000 Minnesotans who live in poverty--over 141,000 of them being children. We wonder whether our lakes, rivers, and other waterways will ever be safe from pesticides, herbicides, and other cancer-causing pollutants.
While our politicians battle each other to curb a $5 billion budget deficit--shutting down state government in the process--those of us in the philanthropic and social-entrepreneurial community know that more and more is going to be asked of us. And we know that much more needs to be done.

A Few Questions
With this in mind, I came up with some questions that I'd like to have all of us in the vibrant Minnesota philanthropic and social-entrepreneurial community ask ourselves:
Do we sometimes let our concern for our own institutional development and "brand building" get in the way of really making a difference?
Are we so protective of our own ideas, policies, and procedures that we resist "open-source" sharing of ideas across organizations?
And most important of all in my view, do we, like Makar, invite the poorest, the least influential, the ones we wish to help, to join us at the table to find solutions to our problems?
In fact, are we willing to invite everybody to the table? Non-profits and for-profits, the poor and the rich, the insiders and outsiders sitting together, bringing together what they can contribute to the common good?
As we walked into the EPCON conference, all of us were asked a question: "What does better together mean to you?"
And in the opening musical portion of the conference, vocalist Robert Robinson and spoken-word artist Desdamona sang "We are a circle. Not a straight line."
It sounds simple, but the circle is an important ideal: lines are drawn every day in the nonprofit and social- entrepreneurial world. Many are drawn with good intentions, but often inadvertently exclude the most important of stakeholders: the people in greatest need.  Before we can help, we need to draw a circle that includes all of those whose voices need to be heard. And while that circle may include those with whom we may not be comfortable, it sets us all up to learn.

Tristan Pollock, who reported on the all-night artfest Northern Spark in our June 22 issue, describes himself as "a cause- and tech-focused writer/cultivator for a plethora of online communities, websites, and journalistic blogs." He is cofounder of the social-entrepreneurial web site SocialEarth.org.

Photos, top to bottom:

Social entrepreneurs gather at EPCON 2011 at the Minneapolis Hyatt Regency.

EPCON's logo welcomes attendees.

EPCON keynoter David Haskell of Dreams InDeed described Egyptian social entrepreneur Yousry Makar's grass-roots success with Habitat for Humanity.

Attendees chat about the art of the possible.

David Haskell photo courtesy of Social Venture Partners Minnesota; all other images by Tristan Pollock

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