Going virtual is greener, more accessible — and not without drawbacks
  • Global impact investing events have rapidly transitioned to virtual ones in response to COVID-19.
  • These events have often been exclusive in an industry that strives to project inclusivity.
  • Transitioning to virtual from in-person events may bring more people into the impact tent, while sacrificing the personal experience that comes with a face-to-face meeting.

London. New Delhi. Buenos Aires. Merida. Amsterdam. San Francisco. Salt Lake City. Berlin.

Those are just the places I have been for impact investing events over the years, and my tour has been among the less robust. Impact investing is truly global, with regional variances in ecosystems, regulations and community needs, so it makes sense for events to reflect geographic diversity. 

But does it always make sense for everyone in that sector — particularly a sector that is trying to make the world greener and cleaner — to travel to all of them? That’s where the accusations of elite jet-setting have merit, and where the transition of these marquee gatherings to a digital future can create an inclusive environment.

SOCAP, one of the largest of the annual impact conferences, will be virtual this year instead of its weeklong takeover of San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center and slashing tickets to $150 from $795. The Global Steering Group for Impact Investment will also go virtual after hosting its annual summits in a new city each year. (Johannesburg was expected to be the 2020 venue.)

There’s an obvious upside to virtual conferences: they become accessible to those who cannot afford to travel, take a week off, or pay what are sometimes five-figure attendance fees. 

“We’ve seen the shift to virtual as an equalizer, especially for impact events that once cost thousands of dollars to get access to,” Nate Wong, interim executive director of Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact, wrote in an email to Karma. “For those just getting into the sector and looking to break in, like many of our student analysts, it’s been a game-changer in terms of access.”

Wong also pointed out that going virtual does not have to mean sitting still for yet another Zoom call. For the Beeck Center’s first online-only event, a shared spreadsheet was used for people to add and comment on ideas in real-time, which Wong said was actually more efficient than a discussion may have been.

“Co-creation is enabled more, and there can be less groupthink, if we use the technology and tools well,” he continued. “Instead of translating ‘in-person’ events to just a version that’s virtual, how can we actually get more creative with using the virtual environment in ways we haven’t used before?”

Creativity is a must for rethinking workshops and other training courses typically held in person. Village Capital, which supports impact-driven seed-stage startups, regularly leads workshops with entrepreneur support organizations from St. Louis to Mexico City to Nairobi. 

“We looked across entire program cycles — what goes into recruitment, what goes into day one, what goes into program management — and we’re starting to split up these different elements into more digestible chunks,” Emily Edwards, who leads Village Capital’s global venture platform, said in a phone interview. Since COVID-19 began, what her team would have conducted as a weeklong intensive workshop has morphed into a pre-recorded video series that participants can watch at their own pace. It’s a shift that Edwards said Village Capital will consider keeping even after normal travel resumes.

“It helps with lower costs and with accessibility,” she said, noting that taking several consecutive days off is difficult for those with caregiving responsibilities. “The money we would have spent flying people places, we can use to support entrepreneurs in other ways.”

Even the organizations transitioning to virtual events are quick to note that nothing can replicate the value of an unplanned face-to-face conversation. This is where my own love of travel and happenstance starts to drown out the very real concerns about the environment and accessibility. I met someone who became a professional mentor while in line for coffee at my first SOCAP. An after-hours conversation at last year’s GIIN Investor Forum in Amsterdam led to me co-authoring my forthcoming book. 

Stories like mine are why in-person events are valuable in the first place, and why going 100% virtual should not be the end goal. 

“The interactions and networking surrounding events don’t necessarily happen as much in a remote format, thus the perchance collision doesn’t take place — it requires more ‘brokering,’” said Wong.

Edwards, speaking about Village Capital’s peer selection model for their own portfolio companies, is also not sure that the trust-building among their entrepreneur cohorts can be done solely online.

“Our peer selection model is built on mutual trust and respect and feeling like you can share enough with your cohort to get some insight, so it’s already a delicate and complicated thing to do in person,” she noted.