Cocktails at the Conduit or cash-strapped Cameraderie?
An eight storey building in London's exclusive Mayfair is to be the home of "a diverse community of people passionate about social change..." Have you had your invitation? Liam Black, in the latest in his occasional series Letter To a Young Social Entrepreneur, sharpens his pencil over two very different approaches to social change networking…
Have you been invited to join the Conduit Club?
An eight storey neo-classical building on Mayfair’s Conduit Street is being renovated at a cost of millions to be the luxury home of "a diverse community of people passionate about social change... bringing together social entrepreneurs, investors, creatives, business leaders, policy-makers and civil society... a catalytic platform for individuals tackling some of the most pressing challenges facing us today."
A careful and sustained recruitment campaign has targetted the very rich and very well connected as well as seeking out grassroots social entrepreneurs and those outside of the London bubble.
South African Paul van Zyl, the driving force behind the Conduit, is a remarkable changemaker with an impeccable history of being on the right side. When he asked me to become a founder member I was very reluctant. In a post Grenfell world of widening inequality how could such an ostentatious display of wealth and power – in Mayfair for goodness sake – become anything else but a Taj Mahal of Virtue Signalling, ripe for ridicule in Private Eye?
How could such an ostentatious display of wealth and power become anything else but a Taj Mahal of Virtue Signalling?
In a recent Financial Times article Paul spoke about how the international social entrepreneurship glitterati who bump into each other regularly on the Davos-Skoll-Aspen circuit regret it when they have to fly home. “We all,” says Paul, “felt the need for a permanent home.” That’s heartbreaking isn’t it Jude?
I have been very critical of the Impact Jet Set. I am more part of the Premium Economy Jet Set having never been invited to Davos or Aspen, and there’s no doubt I also have spent too much of my time in nice hotels, sipping Sancerre, in deep, earnest conversions about exclusion and inequality, looking forward to a good meal.
Paul convinced me that he is serious about making the Conduit a real hub of change and that he wants me as critical friend inside the building to kick his arse if the place gets smug or more part of the problem than part of the solution. You could say I’m having my cake and eating it – washed down with a nice Chablis.
He is much more likely to pull up outside in a van full of street drinkers and demand entry to talk about tackling inequality.
In another part of the impact universe, Maff Potts and team are building Camerados,whose rallying cry is "the answer to our problems is each other". Maff's venues are unwanted shops and hospital reception areas in very unfashionable places like Blackpool and Rotherham.
Maff – a long time friend of mine – is a lovely, inspirational, complex and unreasonable man who hates the voluntary sector and Social Enterprise establishments. He sees them as part of the problem, pathologising homeless and vulnerable people and as being more interested in creating well paid jobs for the intermediary management class rather than enabling the love and solidarity without which he believes there is no way back for those on the bottom.
Maff would sit very uncomfortably in one of the cocktail bars at the Conduit (even though he plays a mean jazz piano). He is much more likely to pull up outside in a transit van full of street drinkers from Camden and demand entry to talk about tackling inequality.
Paul has attracted big time investors to his Conduit enterprise and I have no doubt he will raise the £100m fund he wants to sit at the heart of the club’s impact work. His board is a who’s who of the rich liberal philanthropy and business elite and his membership list is to die for.
Maff’s people are those often despised and feared by society, chaotic and unpredictable. Maff’s big problem is how to pay for the realisation of his vision. His camerados can't pay and most funders are scared away by the radicalness of Maff’s approach and his contempt for 'social return on investment' metrics. But he must rely on lottery money – the cash generated by gambling – to pay his overheads as he continues his quest for a long term money solution. His contradictions are every bit as sharp as Paul’s.
Most funders are scared away... he must rely on lottery money – the cash generated by gambling – to pay his overheads.
So Jude, Conduit or Camerados? Mayfair or Blackpool? One risks becoming a palace of well-meaning hot air and Martinis, the other a marginal forever struggling movement which wants to bite off the hands that must feed it.
Paul and Maff are men of vision and integrity driven by a restless desire to end inequality and injustice. Both have embarked on high risk ventures with very different starting points. I salute them both.
Peace, love and profit.