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Posts Tagged ‘social entrepreneurs’

A couple of weekends ago I spent Sunday hanging out as a mentor at Social Startup 48, a Startup Weekend-style event where participants create a company from scratch over a single weekend, only for social impact. It was a fun, inspiring and thought-provoking experience and I’m thrilled to have been involved. There’s nothing I like more than participating in creating new things, working to support new changemakers to realise their vision.

To my fascination the event was mildly controversial in social entrepreneurship circles in the lead-up, with push back against the announcement on the Australian Social Innovation eXchange (ASIX) website and Emerging Leaders in Social Change LinkedIn Group (members only). I threw myself vigorously into the later conversation, before I had any involvement in the event.

The issue people had with it was, largely, the slogan: “How fast can you make a difference?” Change doesn’t happen quickly they insisted, any and all change efforts require long-term study before making a move or trying anything else. Non-experts will only stuff it up. Something like that.

And of course, this is very true for many change efforts. Bringing diverse stakeholders together is often slow difficult work, as can making change inside any large institution. Building trust within community requires a long-term commitment, especially if you are from outside that community. Understanding all the dynamics of an issue (is this even possible?) and the work already done requires careful study.

But these are not the only pathways to creating change.

Social entrepreneurs are the inventors of the social change world, and just as it was for science for many hundreds of years,  it is the inventors, the tinkers, those who get their hands dirty to go to work on figuring things out through action and learning, who have often created huge and innovative leaps forward in delivering social outcomes.

The point is not that one approach is better than another but that we need both. The greatest advances occur when the breakthroughs pioneered by the inventors is scaled through market mechanisms, government action or cross-sector partnerships, or by reaching a tipping point in cultural consciousness.

An event like Social Startup 48 would seem to naturally attract those drawn to the later approach, but not exclusively. Look through the list of participants and you would see researchers, academics and bureaucrats amongst their number. Working in teams to make decisions fast is an amazing learning experience no matter where you’re coming from.

It’s also true that in science the greatest breakthroughs are often earlier in people’s careers. It is the ability to see things from new angles, less encumbered by the prevailing wisdom or business-as-usual, which often (again, not always) leads to transformational breakthroughs, not experience.

So inviting newer, younger and more diverse actors to participate in creating change, however “fast” or “slow” they go about it initially, is a crucial part of creating change. We need new ideas and new participants to contribute to many wicked problems and creating more participation in our changemaking systems is a critical democratic advance in its own right.

It’s also worth thinking about what motivates people to walk the unquestionably long and hard road of affecting systemic social change. Could this motivation itself not arrive in an instance, when eyes and hearts become open to the need for change and the possibility of being involved in making it happen? In my experience many changemakers can trace their decision to commit to proactively creating the future to a specific formative event. If done right Social Startup 48 could be that experience for people and even if none of the specific ventures designed over the weekend reached any sort of scale the experience of conceiving and launching a social venture, learning about what works and what doesn’t, will inform their future endeavours. Vibewire was the third organisation I founded and StartSomeGood is my fourth. You learn most by doing.

Certainly spending Sunday afternoon hanging out in the Queen Street Studios with everyone and seeing ten very busy teams hashing out their business models, core stories and make plans for pitching gave me a lot of joy – 50-odd people prepared to spend their weekend and sacrifice their sleep to make a difference is something to be celebrated! There was an amazing buzz as teams huddled to make rapid-fire decisions then scattered to fulfill tasks: coding, shooting video, taking photos, developing a business plan, preparing the slides for their pitch, designing a logo (or organising to have four different teams logo’s designed in the case of Crowdworthy) the focus ramped up across the day as they approached the deadline or pitches to be submitted.

The pitches were well-executed and the many of the ideas were well thought-through and compelling and the progress made was very impressive overall. You can see videos of all the pitches in the storify I made and check out the Social Startup 48 ventures listed on StartSomeGood.

The collaborative consumption movement was in full swing – fully eight of the ten ventures were a platform of some kind. This was in-part a result of the rising profile of and huge untapped potential for a more collaborative approach to consumption and community-building but also, I think, a result of teams having been somewhat pre-assigned, so as to spread certain skillsets, especially technical, around the groups. I can see the logic behind this but I think a more purely self-organised approach playing out on the Friday night would result in a less equal spread of skills across teams and therefore a greater diversity of teams which would produce more diverse ideas and ventures.

There are other little tweaks and improvements I am going to suggest to the organisers, which is the whole point – you have to run an event like this to figure out what works. No amount of research or modeling would ever teach you as much as putting yourself on the line and actually organising the event, seeing who turned up and how they responded, listening to your community and learning from what happened and doing it that much better next time. Social Startup 48 gave 50 people the opportunity to take that courageous first step, without which no other steps would follow.

Congratulations to the great team behind Social Startup 48 – I hope this is the first of many ss48 events in Sydney and around the world.

To get more of a taste for the weekend along with videos of all the pitches and many of the presentations check out storify.

[View the story "Social Startup 48 - Sydney" on Storify]

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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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Language matters. It frames our expectations and can limit or expand our thinking.

I’ve written before about my preference for the term “peerfunding” over “crowdfunding”. More recently I’ve begun to see a spectrum of activities which can be more crowd or peer-focused, making both terms relevant but the distinction important.

To me, crowdsourcing is a competitive process – the crowd is either helping select amongst alternatives or competing to win an award. As an example, GeniusRocket is a design crowdsourcing site – their community competes via the submission of ideas and proposals, to have their work selected and be paid by GeniusRocket’s clients.

The Pepsi Refresh Project is another example of the crowd in action. The crowd is helping Pepsi select where to invest its philanthropic dollars. It’s crowdsourcing because it’s a large mass of people who have little-to-no contact with each other making submissions, in the form of votes here and designs with GeniusRocket, to the organizer of the contest.

What Creating the Future is doing, on the other hand, is peersourcing. They have invited their community to co-create the criteria and process of the scholarship fund they recently raised funds for on StartSomeGood.

In this instance the participants are not an anonymous “crowd” and they are not competing with each other. Instead they are co-creating something together. They are peers, colleagues, collaborators. Whilst the number of responses isn’t large the quality of thinking behind the responses makes them enormously valuable.

If we simply refer to Pepsi Refresh, GeniusRocket and what Creating The Future are doing as “crowdsourcing” I think we are missing a key differentiator between them. I am loath to create more jargon but I fear that calling collaborative efforts like Creating The Future, or the way Beth Kanter aggregates contributions and best practices through wiki’s, Facebook and her blog crowdsourcing is to miss the most important aspect of these approaches: that they build a community of peers and invite co-creation, rather than setting up the “crowd” to compete for the organizers favor.

I believe what we and our ventures do at StartSomeGood is peerfunding rather than crowdfunding. On StartSomeGood, as with other fundraising platforms for entrepreneurs and creatives, the majority of the funding comes from the fundraisers existing community. Supporters feel an affiliation for the project and affection for the organizer, or connect to the cause via a shared identity or experience. These funders are not a crowd, they are peers, and they will be your most important asset in creating change.

I’m thrilled to see a project which was successfully peerfunded on StartSomeGood now move on to peersourcing the details of how the scholarship will work. Check out their thinking so far and feel free to contribute!

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I recently published this on the StartSomeGood blog and wanted to share it here too for anyone who might have missed it there.

During my recent trip to Australia I attended two beautiful weddings. At one of them I was asked to do a reading. I agonized just a little over the choice, consulting with several friends for ideas and preparing a short-list of my favourite poems and speeches. I wanted something that spoke to the glorious adventure my friends were embarking on, that didn’t pretend it would be easy or always fun but which acknowledged the significance, magic and importance of the journey itself. Eventually I realized that as is true for so many things Dr Seuss said it best.

I want to share this with you because I think the journey of a social entrepreneur, like that of a marriage, contains all the elements the good Dr. writes of. The journey of being an entrepreneur, but especially of being a social entrepreneur, setting out to do something much harder than simply make a buck, is a long road filled with obstacles and incredible highs and meaning. Most of all it is an expression of true agency, the decision to create a more perfect world, the dedication to see this decision through: “You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”

Like a marriage being a social entrepreneur is a journey of a thousand miles fueled by hope, passion and commitment. It is filled with uncertainty, requiring a determination to stick with it through good times and bad. Marriage is a statement of connection with an individual while being a social entrepreneur is a statement of connection with a community or even with the whole world.

When you choose to devote yourself to a cause it’s often a choice driven by a sense of need, of needing to do something about an issue, needing to reach out, connect, help those in need. Putting your shoulder to the wheel of history and moving it in the direction of justice is mighty work, and there will be setbacks. “Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.” You will feel tired and dispirited sometimes. You will feel uncertain about the way forward. You will wonder “what next?”.

But we need you. We need your passion, your smarts, your refusal to give up. The world needs people as brainy and footsy as you to be part of creating a better future. To help us see things we couldn’t see before, to go places previously unexplored, reveal things previously misunderstood. And as you go on this journey you will find connections and create successes that will fulfill and sustain you, inspire and uplift you. You will have fun, despite the hard work, because there’s nothing more exciting than creating your own destiny and working with a community of people in the pursuit of the future you all imagine together.

Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

Nb: when I read this to the bride and groom I changed “guy” to “guys”. Because there’s two of them.

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
by Dr. Seuss

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.

And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!

You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.

You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t. Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kraks howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike. And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

Kid, you’ll move mountains!
So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

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This is a guest post I wrote for the Case Foundation blog and was published on the day of the StartSomeGood launch (in their offices):

Clay Shirky is fond of saying that when it comes to online communications “more is different.” Similarly, when it comes to philanthropy, less is different.

The last half-decade has given rise to many incredibly exciting advances in the area of online giving and community building. Causes has allowed us to give to organizations right from inside Facebook. Razoo, First Giving, Citizen Effect and the like made it possible to create personal fundraising campaigns for causes we care about. Kiva made microfinance something we could all participate in, and Global Giving connects us to development projects around the world.

These platforms, along with similar trends in political giving most famously leveraged by the Obama for President campaign, have created an explosion of a new type of philanthropy: mircro-philanthropy. But we will never fully realize the transformational potential of both the new technologies and behaviors behind micro-philanthropy if it continues to be locked up in walled gardens with only American 501c3 organizations given access.

My colleagues and I at StartSomeGood.com are changing this dynamic. We believe that the “nonprofit sector” is less important than the “social good sector”, that great world-changing ideas can come from anywhere and that socially-minded for-profits can be as effective at bringing about change as traditional non-profits.

We know that important work is being done by unincorporated groups and social change freeagents. We want to break down the silos that say only a specific type of incorporated institution in one country on earth is given access to sophisticated online fundraising tools. We want to dispel the myth that tax-deductability is an important driver of giving behavior because, truth be told, below a certain threshold it simply isn’t.

What are important drivers of giving behavior? Great stories, inspiring visions for a better world, a personal connection to an issue and relationships with people affected or involved are just some of the elements we know inspire people to contribute to a social good initiative. These elements are powerful, irrespective of tax status. More important, by far, are the ideas, inspiration and credibility of the entrepreneur doing the asking.

There is no shortage of challenges confronting our communities and our world, but within each obstacle lies an opportunity. An opportunity to rise up to meet those challenges head on, fostering new changemakers and more resilient communities in the process. We do not have an ideas shortage. Rather, we face an implementation shortage, caused in part by the walls we have built around the fundraising process – defining too narrowly where these opportunities should originate and why people would choose to support them. These walls have led to less change, less opportunity and less difference.

StartSomeGood.com is breaking down these walls, and I hope you will join us.

Photo by JMC Photos on flickr, made available on a creative commons license.

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Last week I launched the third in the Stories of Change eBook series I have developed at Ashoka. It’s a really interesting one – 20 social entrepreneurs ranging in age from 14 to their 60s and representing 5 continents think ahead to the year 2020 and the world they would like to see, as well as the steps they are taking this year to move us in that direction. I’ve grown fascinated by this idea of people who “live in the future” lately – people who have a vision for a different world and consciously work to shift events to bring this world into being. This book contains the words of many of these people and it was a real pleasure to gather their stories. I hope you enjoy it also.

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On Wednesday night I attended the YouthActionNet Awards nights at the gorgeous Finnish embassy. YouthActionNet is an awards program run by the International Youth Foundation which recognizes young social change leaders from across the world. To enter you must be the founder of an organization or initiative aged between 18-29.

Meeting and hearing the stories of these emerging social entrepreneurs was uplifting and inspiring. They are tackling some of the hardest problems in the world; creating a culture of non-violence, moving a community towards sustainability, providing quality education to slum communities. It’s impossible not to feel more hopeful when hearing of their commitment to addressing these issues and feeling the heart that goes into their efforts.

Despite this I had mixed emotions as I watched the ceremony and the preceding panel discussion. Two years ago that had been me up on the panel, speaking with passion about the work of Vibewire, the organization I founded. Even though at that stage, in November 2007, I already had a departure date set and a succession plan in motion, I remember the intensity of my feeling of commitment to both the organization and our cause, the sense of deep personal connection born of seven years hard work to get to that point.

A year later I was back at the ceremony having just moved to Washington and started work at Ashoka. Life was a wonderful blur. I had been through the desperately-difficult process of leaving Vibewire, had travelled for several months, landed in America, got a job, got married, attended Burning Man and finally settled in DC. So: exciting.

Now a year later I’m just another mid-career mid-level staffer at a big NGO. Don’t get me wrong, I love my work and find it challenging and fulfilling, and I’m inspired by our mission. But it’s obviously different. It’s what I need and where I want to be right now, but I do sometimes miss the unique sense of destiny you get when you’re running your own show, convinced of your own power to change the world, and the community you feel when you spend time with other people on a similiar journey.

Thinking about this reminded me that my friend and fellow YouthActionNet alumni Anna Rose filmed me speaking at the 2007 Awards night so at the risk of self-indulgence I’m going to post it here:

Look how young I was!

Read more about this year’s YouthActionNet Fellows here. It’s also very cool to see the first group selected as “Young Social Pioneers” by the Foundation for Young Australians, a national version of the YouthActionNet program.

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