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Archive for April, 2012

The social entrepreneurship world is all atwitter about the latest New York Times column by David Brooks which questions the effectiveness and strategic usefulness of social entrepreneurship. On some level it feels hardly worth responding to, just check out the opening paragraph:

If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good….

So, this is clearly going to be another one of those columns typical of David Brooks-types, to take their limited personal experiences and exposures to what’s happening in the world beyond their local coffee shops and think tanks and spin that out into a grandiose theory to describe some supposed trend in the world. So you can guess what’s coming next:

It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.

That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.

World, meet Brooks’ latest straw man, a caricature of social entrepreneurs based, it seems, on a few people he has met at “a certain sort” of coffee shop and conference, although he doesn’t tell us what sort that is (presumably the sort that draws someone like David Brooks).

This is almost too-silly on its face to waste effort on, as the google search Brooks clearly couldn’t be bothered doing will instantly turn up numerous social entrepreneurs working on exactly these issues: increasing the rule of law and reducing corruption, both in the United States and all around the world.

Brooks is right that a country where law and order have broken down is not fertile ground for social entrepreneurship. You won’t find a lot of NGOs in Somalia. But surely no-one would argue that business and government should be left simply to monitor themselves? Once democratic rights are won they must constantly be maintained and re-imagined to serve the needs of each generation. It feels particularly odd for a conservative like Brooks to dismiss the role of citizens to hold the political system to account from the outside.

Hence the need for third sector players like Transparency International, founded by social entrepreneur Peter Eigen, which works to expose and reduce the culture of corruption worldwide, exactly the sort of initiative Brooks seems to be calling for. Change.org, founded by Ben Rattray, just listed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year, is expanding political participation and involvement, the Cost of Freedom Project is working to help people register to vote, the starting point for political participation in the US, and  organizations like Teach for America, Global Citizen Year and The Association of Young Americans amongst many many others are inspiring the next generation of involved citizens.

In Australia organizations like Vibewire, Our Say and Left/Right play a similar role. Third sector advocacy organizations like GetUp in Australia, MoveOn in the United States and Avaaz globally, and those like them focused on every issue you could imagine, very directly engage in lobbying government and mobilizing public sentiment around specific policy debates. You could literally go on listing social entrepreneur-founded and led organizations which engage directly with the political process all day, hundreds of counter-examples to what Brooks claims is the “prevailing ethos” of social entrepreneurship which seeks to “evade politics”.

Naturally you could also list (and meet in coffee shops) social entrepreneurs working to affect change outside the political process, on issues like hunger and landmine removal, educational reform and peace-building, leadership development and mentoring, inventing more sustainable technologies and distributing life-saving medicines and everything else you could imagine. Do all these social entrepreneurs successfully change the world? Of course not. But market failures and government negligence abound and working to support each other locally, regionally and internationally is both a form of community self-preservation and a fundamental human instinct which has saved and changed millions of lives.

In the diversity of efforts arrayed against a variety of challenges we find things that work and, often in partnership with government and increasingly with business, push those solutions forward to reach greater levels of impact, to save more lives, empower more communities, facilitate greater participation in our democracies and support those still fighting for that same opportunity in their countries.

We need all these changemakers, and more, to bring about change on all scales and create better futures for our communities. We need to support programs that inspire new people to get involved in creating change, not deride their desire to serve as naive and ineffective as Brooks does. Social entrepreneurs are the innovators and risk-takers of civic society, often pioneering new approaches which are adopted and scaled by governments, and holding governments responsible for the impacts of their decisions. Their optimism is based not on naivety but pragmatism, on being resolutely focused on getting things done.

I only hope that Brooks chooses his coffee shops and conferences a little better in future as I’m sure he’d learn a great deal from greater contact with a wider spectrum of social entrepreneurs and come to appreciate the many ways their passion and commitment manifests in an open society.

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A formula for happiness

Sun, dirt between the fingers, physical work and accomplishment, being outdoors, time with family and friends, fire and food and storytelling.

A visual diary of a perfect first weekend back in Australia, at my parents property in Hartley Vale spent hanging out, building a path and catching and cooking yabbies. As beautiful as America is there’s nothing like the Australian bush and it was relaxing and centering to be back amongst it.

The new path, no straight lines allowed.

Building the path.

The dam fuller than I've ever seen it.

Bush tucker! A yabbie (a type of native Australian freshwater crustacean) from the dam.

The view looking towards Mount York.

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Sydney Harbour, the day after we got home.

1,449 days since heading out there I am back again, just ten days short of an even four years away.

It was 1,399 days, or just a day less than 200 weeks, from my arrival in the US to my departure from San Francisco last Sunday. I landed in New York in June 2008 after a near-36 hour day traveling from Bangkok before catching the train to Washington DC, the first of many times I would travel that corridor past the broken factories and over the inlets of the East Coast.

I arrived knowing only a handful of people, unsure of what I would do next or where exactly I would end up. I had only a few weeks to figure things out and secure a job offer which would lead to a visa before K caught up with me, just a few weeks to justify the decision to leave so much behind in Australia and strike out to live my dream of working in the US.

We spent two years in Washington DC, meeting incredible people and having many side adventures and wonderful experiences. I went through significant adaptation pains at Ashoka, learning to work inside a large established non-profit after ten years as an entrepreneur while teaching an old organization new tricks, but relished the opportunity I had as the first social media director of such an influential and groundbreaking organization, pushing myself, constantly learning new things, working with amazing colleagues and experimenting with emerging forms of media and communications. I am really proud of all that was accomplished during that time, including launching and growing Ashoka’s Twitter account to over 600,000 followers, publishing three ebooks, crowdsourcing a promotional video and generally introducing Ashoka’s many departments and country offices to the power and potential social media and how it could help achieve the mission of creating an everyone a changemaker world.

After two years in DC it felt like time to keep moving. We considered New York but decided San Francisco was more our kinda town, a decision we never doubted once we got there. Over two years in the Bay I worked with a number of non-profits to connect their missions with social technologies before launching social good crowdfunding start-up StartSomeGood with my friend Alex Budak who I met at Ashoka, which I’ll be continuing to work on from Australia.

We loved San Francisco: the people, the culture, the environment. San Francisco combines the most ambitious people on earth with the most relaxed in a unique, harmonious ying/yang. We got out into the countryside at every opportunity, exploring the hills of Marin and the wineries of the Russian River, staying in Paso Robles, Yosemite and Big Basin Redwoods Forest, driving Highway 1 and hiking Mt Tam. We made and deepened some great friendships, meeting some incredible entrepreneurs, creatives, visionaries and festivalists. We adored our part of the city, the Mission District, which reminded us so much of Newtown, where we had lived in Sydney.

And now, somewhat astonishingly, this chapter is over and I’m left trying to make sense of it all.

Over the past four years I got married and got my scuba diving license, jumped out of a plane and learned to drive a car, founded a Burning Man theme camp and visited 11 countries, worked for someone else for the first time in eight years and founded a new company, drove across America and bought my first road bike, was granted four different visas and denied re-entry once. I visited 20 American states and wish I’d made it to more (namely: Utah, South Dakota and Louisiana). K made it to 30 over the course of selling her families wine.

We had, to sum it up, a really good time. But not without its challenges and set-backs, its moments of frustration, fear and doubt. Such is the rich tapestry of life.

Homecoming is always an emotionally-complicated experience. I’m excited to explore Sydney and can’t wait to spend time with my old friends, while at the same time being sad to leave San Francisco and missing my friends back there. Everything is so familiar but at the same time different. I’m obviously older and I hope I’m a little wiser as a result of all these experiences. The relationships I formed will stay with me and I’m so grateful for them. The ideas I’ve been exposed to and inspiration I have gained will inform whatever happens next. Now I want to contribute to the burgeoning social innovation scene in Sydney and while continuing to grow a global community of social entrepreneurs on StartSomeGood.

K and I brought something else back with us as well, our first child-to-be, due in August. We never contemplated for a moment taking this next step in our relationships and our lives anywhere other than Sydney, with universal healthcare and our families and friends here to support us.

And so on to the next stage. While this particular chapter is over the adventure continues always. Onwards and upwards!

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