In the far northwest corner of Peru, in the town of Piura and its surrounding drought-ridden Pacific region, I attend my first AGM for Oikocredit - a social investment cooperative nearing its fortieth year of generating and measuring joint financial-social (and increasingly environmental) investments to help previously financially excluded groups achieve sustainable self-sufficiency.
The questions governing this year’s AGM are focused on change and growth.
1) How do we adapt and thrive in volatile and competitive times, without losing sight of our vision and mission (and therefore, point of difference)?
Our Vision: A global, just society in which resources are shared sustainably, and all people are empowered with the choices they need to create a life of dignity.
Our Mission: Oikocredit challenges all to invest responsibly. It provides financial services, and supports organizations to improve the quality of life of low-income people or communities in a sustainable way.
2) In the spirit of “Cooperative Capitalism”, how do we best engage, navigate and incorporate the views of diverse stakeholders and staff, old and new, across 63 countries?
The answers, says Oikocredit’s outgoing president Salome Sengani , should focus on “the what and the how”. And her guiding thought; “they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” - Isaiah 40:31, KJV
In any event, it seems to me that the above two questions are common to many an AGM poised in the midst of the complexities of our times. Change and growth are perhaps inevitable parts of organisational life, just as they are part and parcel of individual life. In other words, change and growth are subjects which preoccupy us all, in the belief that ‘good things should grow’, and that most things don’t stand still with any degree of success.
However, it strikes me that navigating growth and change for organisations pursuing a blend of financial/social/environmental objectives is invariably more complicated than, say, for corporations which exist for the sole purpose of maximising shareholder wealth through the single bottom-line objective of delivering profit growth.
Martin Naranjo, speaking about Peru’s microfinance market at Oikocredit’s 2014 AGM, summarises this distinction succinctly when he says:
‘Most businesses pursue the objective of profit, subject to the sustainability of its clients. Conversely, the aim of a social investment organisation such as Oikocredit is to focus on the profitability of its clients, subject to the sustainability of its own organisation’ – Martin Naranjo, GM CONFIANZA SA
So for Oikocredit, the triple bottom-line that is embedded in our Articles of Association – our objective of financial, social and environmental returns - perhaps brings into relief many more competitive, structural, cost/benefit, operational and other complexities to navigate, compared with those mainstream retailers and banks who now offer financial products in the impact investment space alongside their ‘business-as-usual’ activities. That said, provided all such suppliers conduct their business responsibly, mitigating the potential for over-indebtedness by end clients, then the growth of this whole socially/environmentally responsible finance sector should surely be a good thing?
What this means for the likes of traditional “MIVs” such as Oikocredit, is that we must cast our efforts and activities further afield. We must find those people and projects which are still beyond the reach of financial inclusion - often remotely rural, often women. We must lead the innovation in this space; finding new ways and means of delivering responsible finance to those projects which need it most. And we must balance the higher costs of doing so with our organisational purpose of simultaneously serving ‘people, planet and profit’.
For Oikocredit specifically, this translates into the imperative of strategic diversification:
Namely, holding onto our strength and track record for providing “finance+” to the financially excluded (microfinance + capacity building), whilst incorporating new areas into our financial portfolio such as:
- Equity partnerships where we can positively influence a greater portion of the whole value chain (inputs, producers, suppliers, retailers, consumers).
- Direct partnerships with sustainable fair trade, organic farmers and their aggregates/cooperatives (e.g. coffee, cocoa, bananas, etc)
- New environmentally sustainable activities which reach financially-excluded people and their communities (e.g. renewable energy).
It also means maintaining a stronghold in our core development finance regions such as Latin American and Asia, whilst increasing our presence in others such as Africa, Central/Eastern Europe etc.
I end this piece now with a question which is (of late) oft asked of the finance sector; something around “do we all know to what purpose our savings and investments are put, and what sorts of people are caretaking our hard-earned cash?”
In this, my first Oikocredit AGM I have seen an uncommon human, emotive and moral quality brought to the subject of organisational change and ambition, besides a sole focus on quantifiable targets and business-as-usual. This seems to manifest, above all, in fervour to serve the end client - the financially excluded. And somehow, in so doing, this fervour binds disparate stakeholders more than it divides them, and illuminates the way through complexity rather than clouding it.
It is also why - unusually but refreshingly - this Oikocredit AGM 2014 kicks off with a sort of BBC-Radio-4-style “Thought for the Day”, which centres the mind and grounds the spirit in the midst of change and growth…
"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."
Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”, 1927