Doing Good in the Neighbourhood

Nazareth Seferian |
Impact in the Neighbourhood conference stage
© Sera Dzneladze for EVPA

The neighbours: sure, you may see them come and go once in a while, but you rarely get the chance to learn about what they do, who they are or the context in which they work. But then someone has an outdoor barbecue, everyone comes together and talks… next thing you know, you’re cleaning up the local park together. 

This is what Impact in the Neighbourhood felt like to many of the participants. Great conversations, amazing food, new ideas and connections. More neighbourliness! But it wasn’t all fun and games: with each connection came a stauncher commitment to building the impact ecosystem further and wider.

European Commission shows commitment

Taking place in June in the beautiful city of Tbilisi, Impact in the Neighbourhood hosted more than 200 people focused on impact, with participants coming from throughout Europe, the Eastern Partnership countries and the Middle East and north Africa. Funded by the European Commission, the event offered two days of sessions focusing on impact investing, corporate contributions and policy discussions with the objective of creating a more resilient and effective social economy in the European Union’s immediate surroundings – or “neighbourhood.”

Several representatives of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) were active participants at Impact in the Neighbourhood, listening closely to inputs from professionals on the ground. This information will help feed discussions on future programmes supported by the EU, which has an inspiring vision about its role in the ecosystem. 

“I see the European Commission as an impact investor”

“I see the European Commission as an impact investor,” said Hoa-Binh Adjemian from DG NEAR at several points during the conference. The funds set up with European Union support in Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine are already evidence of action that backs up this vision.

Session by session

The opening sessions featured a panel discussion about impact investment in conflict situations and many of the people in attendance were awestruck by the context in which organisations continued to work in Armenia, Palestine and Ukraine. Bjorn Vennema from Social Finance NL later posted his impressions on social media: “It is humbling to see how the impact investment and social entrepreneurship sectors are starting and growing in regions that are often struck in longtime conflict, but with perseverance many partners are showing that an inclusive and sustainable society is required to take us all forward.”

As the event progressed, participants chose between several engaging sessions held in parallel. Practitioners focusing on policy dialogue had the opportunity to listen to public sector officials from Georgia, Poland, Portugal and other countries. Those interested in corporate engagement also had a rich menu of sessions; during a session with banks and financial institutions, there was in-depth discussion of how these stakeholders work together. “Funding early-stage social enterprises is not easy, sometimes our risk assessment says we should not do it on our own. But here, there is a role for partnerships with government and other stakeholders that can help us come up with solutions, like co-financing,” said Florian Ott from Erste Group. After all, isn’t that what a good neighbourhood does? People come together to solve shared problems.

The sessions were intentionally designed to go beyond the classic format of a few talking heads. With small group discussions, energizers and role-play exercises, the fun factor was high. At some point, people were walking around the plenary room laughing as they balanced sheets of paper on their open palms while, in another corner of the conference space, one of the participants was giving an Oscar-worthy performance with his impromptu, impassioned speech as the Minister of Environment, pitching for greater public funding for social entrepreneurship.

The second day of Impact in the Neighbourhood started with an exercise called “backcasting,” in which participants imagined a positive scenario in impact investing 10 years in the future, and then considered actions that needed to take place today to make this happen. For example, one group had a vision of a thriving network providing the necessary tools, structures and community to foster social innovation that effectively addresses local challenges in the neighbourhood. Through a moderated discussion, they worked out that the elements of finance, markets and support were key to making this vision a reality, and that limiting “free money” and being more strategic about grants were an important action that needed to take place today.

Expanding minds

In sessions and in a special episode of Impact People, we caught up with participants to ask them what they got out of the event. One said the best part was that this was not top-down learning. Instead, each participant’s experience helped expand someone else’s mind. The sessions were packed with content, and the lobby was constantly abuzz with conversation during breaks. This was not, however, a spontaneous neighbourhood party; it was a meticulously planned event that took months of coordination and refinement. But importantly, the spirit was the same – people had come together with a curiosity about their neighbours, and they left with a sense of fulfilment, inspiration and enjoyment. 

When asked to reflect on what the event meant for her, Gwendolyn Burchell from United Aid for Azerbaijan said, “It has been valuable to learn what is going on in other countries, and how finance in this sector can be managed. For example, we learned about social impact bonds – a great way of developing niche financing and measuring outcomes, establishing common partnerships between investors, government, and social enterprises. I think it was a great opportunity!”

“We need to stop talking, start working and continue dreaming!”

Each person returned to the part of this neighbourhood that they call home with new connections and ideas, looking forward to the next opportunity to connect. 

Or, as participants of one backcasting session put it: “We need to stop talking, start working and continue dreaming!”