Muhammad Yunus and the concept of social finance.

Muhammad YunusAt Vancity, where I work, we recently created a division called Social Finance. This is where our Business Banking department now resides, as well as Commercial Mortgages and our amazing Community Business Banking team, where many of our most innovative and socially relevant products and services are generated.

Creating and naming this new division was an interesting risk, and as soon as I heard the name Social Finance, I thought to myself: Holy crap I can’t believe I get to work here.

What’s even more amazing is that our executives created this new name and division based on an understanding of what Social Finance could be, but without a nailed-down definition of what it means for us. That’s the work of whoever gets the gig of SVP Social Finance.

Last night we at Vancity brought Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to town. He received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of British Columbia for his amazing work as Banker to the Poor at Grameen Bank, which he founded in his native Bangladesh specifically to help the poor. He spoke about the power of small amounts of money to transform people’s lives, and the role private businesses can play in creating change in the lives of our poorest citizens. In the past he has endorsed Vancity’s Microcredit Toolkit, and we recently announced that our own microfinance-driven term deposit would now be funding local initiatives.

He calls it Social Business, and it’s the subject of his new book, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. We call it Social Finance. It’s something that has to be framed for many people, because we have it ingrained in us that there are two options in life: charity and profit.

But there is room for a strong middle ground. Businesses can have as their focus socially responsible goals as their main driver and still sell their products and services in a business-savvy way, repay their investors, pay their employees well and thrive in the business context, and drive their profits back into the work they do. Their work can be of tremendous social value and significance, and yet be no less business-like.

As we deal with issues of climate change and social equity, these kinds of business are cropping up. They could be used to solve the health care crisis in America. To clean up the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, reduce our carbon emissions, provide inexpensive and nourishing food for poor families to feed their children, vaccinate the third world.

The money invested could be reinvested and continue to solve our most pressing problems, rather than giving money away which has no lifespan beyond the initial donation.

Last night was an amazing time. I was so fortunate to be invited to a small private reception to meet Professor Yunus, and then go to hear him speak to several hundred people about his work serving the poorest people on the planet. His work is actually reducing poverty in Bangladesh by significant amounts. He has opened specialized services focused on beggars, and creating Social Finance opportunities such as Grameen Danone and Grameenphone, Bangladesh’s largest mobile phone company owned in part by the 7.5 million co-operative owners of Grameen Bank.

A Vancity board member asked me at the reception why I had come down to hear Muhammad Yunus speak, and I replied that this kind of activity is the very reason I initially chose to do my banking at Vancity, and why I later decided to work there. Banking is really only marginally interesting to me, but using the platform of banking to solve social problems that we face in our communities is a powerful draw for me. Exploring that intersection where money and community come together is extremely powerful and much needed.

Last night Muhammad Yunus proved how true that is.

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