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Posts Tagged ‘social change’

Runner - The Happy Rower on flickr
You are running coach, the analogy goes, and you have to choose between two runners. One of them has textbook form, smooth and efficient in his stride. The other is a mess, straying out of his lanes, arms and legs flailing unattractively. Despite this they are neck-and-neck at the end of the race. Who would you want to coach?

You would choose the worst runner, the guy with terrible form but who somehow managed to stay in the race despite this, because your coaching has the possibility to make the greater impact. You can’t do much with the guy with perfect form; he’s just not fast enough. But the sloppy guy, with refinement and coaching, might just be able to be really fast. In sporting parlance his ceiling is higher.

I feel like that’s where we are at with StartSomeGood right now, as we stand on the brink of unveiling the new version of our site to the world.

It’s been two years since the first version went live and, simply put, we have done almost everything wrong.

We built the first version of the website with only conceptual feedback from our target market – we didn’t show them the actual site until it was live. We didn’t talk enough about what we were doing while we were building it, and so failed to prime the community for our launch. We didn’t even have a LaunchRock page up to collect emails, so we started with zero on day 1. We put far too much time and effort into coaching efforts which didn’t sufficiently move the needle. We recruited the wrong people and compensated them in an unstrategic fashion, giving away more entity than we should have to people no longer with us.

We failed to test or monitor a lot of what was happening on our site. We were so tech-resource constrained I think it was too depressing to constantly focus  what couldn’t, in the short-term, be fixed. We just worked harder and harder to connect with and serve entrepreneurs, but these efforts couldn’t all be scaled and didn’t overcome all the shortfallings of the site itself. This lack of attention to metrics and testing meant we didn’t have as much data or insight as we should have when we became (slightly) less constrained in our tech resourcing and were able to invest in this new site.

So many mistakes.

But we’re still here. Along the way we listened, we learned. And now we are ready to show you some of those learnings embodied in this next iteration of our platform.

We interact constantly with our community, social entrepreneurs and community benefit organisations looking to raise funds in a new way. We’ve been intimately involved in over 300 campaigns now, and have seen what has and hasn’t worked. We’ve been knocked back by organisations we wanted to work with and have always asked why. We recruited an amazing advisory committee LINK who have helped stretch and inspire our thinking, as have a wide range of informal advisers and friends.

I can’t claim that we’re doing it all perfect now because we’re not. We’re busy and over-stretched and making compromises. The new version hasn’t had enough testing or rounds of user-feedback, but it’s had infinitely more than the first version. We would have done more but our updated UI/look-and-feel was done probono by Source Creative, who were lovely and generous and did a great job but didn’t have capacity for ongoing testing and additional rounds of tweaks, which was fair enough. It’s often better to put something out there and learn from how people actually use it anyway.

Raising a small amount of family-and-friends investment has allowed us to get this new version shipped and we’re committed to being much more focused on testing and analytics than we were with the first version.

There are a number of key improvements I’m excited to show you:
•    We’ve simplified our navigation and lightened the feeling of the site, giving it a cleaner and more modern look
•    We’ve put more emphasis on success stories and user-interactions, highlighting the people-powered nature of the site.
•    We’ve added alternatives to paypal, initially just for US ventures but coming soon for everyone else.
•    We’ve upgraded the venture dashboard, to help you launch and manage campaigns and;
•    We’ve improved the how to info and resources on the site to educate people about how to succeed at crowdfunding.

So where are we as a business? I truly believe we stand on the brink of great things.

Despite our abundant shortcomings we have built a vibrant community of entrepreneurs and changemakers. We have 10,000 subscribers to our newsletter, 10,000 followers on Twitter and 30,000 followers on Tumblr. We have successfully funded over 130 projects in 22 countries, and this is just the beginning.

We have a fantastic, talented, passionate team spread Australia, the US, England and Sweden. Everyone is involved because they believe in our mission and are driven to scale our impact and help changemakers around the globe. You can meet our newest colleagues here.

We have just announced a number of exciting partnerships, including with ING Direct who have committed significant funds to social entrepreneurs running campaigns on our site, and with the Global Food Startup Challenge, for which we are the global crowdfunding partner.

In terms of our financials we have started slow but all sites of our sort do. Crowdfunding is boom or bust. Once you pick up pace it tends to accelerate, but the vast majority of sites never even reach the point we are at, remaining extremely limited in terms of scope or traction.

I can understand the skepticism some feel about whether there is enough room for StartSomeGood in an extremely competitive crowdfunding market but I know we provide a unique service and truly believe we are the best home for most social entrepreneurs looking to raise money from their communities. The creative crowdfunding platform are simply not built with nonprofits and causes in mind. Our success rate (comparable with the creative crowdfunding sites), incredible partners and growing traction are strong positive indicators for this belief.

So if you’ve been holding off on getting your idea out there and launching a campaign for any reason I hope you’ll reconsider and give our site a try. If you launch before April 2 you’ll be in the running for the ‘Like-Off’ we are running, with a bonus $200 grant to the project with the most likes during a 24 hour period starting at midnight April 3 Greenwich Mean Time.

Please check out the new site and let me know what you think.

Onwards and upwards!

Image by The Happy Rower made available on a Creative Commons license via Flickr.

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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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It is two years since Hildy Gottleib’s The Pollyanna Principles came out but I’ve only come to read it  over the past few weeks. I regret not reading it sooner, so clearly does it articulate my frustrations, aspirations and beliefs about the social change sector.

Hildy clearly articulates the potential of what she calls Community Benefit Organizations (like Ashoka she believes that you should not, cannot, define a sector by what it isn’t but rather by what it is). The limitations of our thinking come through in this narrow conception of ourselves – that we are not for profit, first and foremost, rather than being for something – just as it does in the technocratic malaise so many community benefit organizations find themselves in. Too often the leaders and especially the boards of the organizations that serve us are caught up in a problems-focused, and have lost track of the true change they are striving, or could be striving, to bring about.

This is not simply an issue for community benefit organizations of course but for all of us. It is too easy to dismiss the notion of actually solving the problems, overcoming the challenges, which confront us. Instead we settle for incremental goals – “increase service delivery by 5% in the next calendar year” – rather than aiming our sights resolutely on what matters most, our vision for the future we want for our communities.

As the name suggests The Pollyanna Principles is a set of principles to assist community benefit organizations to create the future they seek for their communities. They are seemingly conceptual but as Hildy shows they are actually a deeply practical, powerfully simple and clear-headed approach to creating the real changes we need.

The principals are:

Principle #1:We accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for.

Principle #2: Each and every one of us is creating the future every day, whether we do so consciously or not.

Principle #3: Everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent, whether we acknowledge that or not.

Principle #4: “Being the change we want to see” means walking the talk of our values.

Principle #5: Strength builds upon our strengths, not our weaknesses.

Principle #6: Individuals will go where systems lead them.

Reading The Pollyanna Principals has made me pause and reflect on my successes and failures (sorry, learning experiences), on when I felt most inspired and the brick walls run into (crashed through) along the way. There is much wisdom here I wish I had been exposed to ten years ago. For anyone interested in change, and especially those in positions of authority in the organizations we need to perform at their best in service to community, this is an essential book. I know the issues Hildy raises and the approaches she proposes will continue to resonate in my mind for a long time.

In other words this has given me the best gifts a book can give: lots to think about, and hope for the future.

To celebrate the second anniversary you can buy The Pollyanna Principles at a discount right now. You can also read the first four chapters online.

Principle #1:We accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for. 

Principle #2: Each and every one of us is creating the future every day, whether we do so consciously or not.

Principle #3: Everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent, whether we acknowledge that or not.

Principle #4: “Being the change we want to see” means walking the talk of our values.

Principle #5: Strength builds upon our strengths, not our weaknesses.

Principle #6: Individuals will go where systems lead them.

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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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It’s amazing to me how different starting a social change initiative is now to what I went through starting Vibewire ten years ago. There now exists the most incredible infrastructure for anyone with an idea to communicate it and find others who share your interests, to build a team of contributors from anywhere on earth and inspire people with your vision and story. It’s so easy to share your voice through blogs and microblogs. If writing is not your thing video is cheaper and more accessible than ever. Social networks make it so much easier to maintain and engage with your friends, contacts and acquaintances, to share your new idea and seek feedback and support. A growing diversity of options allows you to fundraise around your idea in a variety of ways: not only those options which have traditionally existed for registered charities but various online competitions and new crowdfunding options for all sorts of different projects.

If you’re a social entrepreneur StartSomeGood , of which I am a co-founder, exists to help you turn your ideas into action and impact. If you have a social change idea you’re ready to start working on, or you’ve done a pilot you and want to expand, or have a great idea for a new product or service, then we want to hear from you! StartSomeGood is now accepting applications to be featured on our platform when it goes live in late February.

StartSomeGood is a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding platform for social good projects. Campaigns can be run by pro-profit, nonprofit, associations and unincorporated groups. In other word, your legal status doesn’t matter; your vision and drive does.

To qualify to be featured on StartSomeGood your initiative must:

•    be social-impact focused;

•    be creating social impact through your actual operations (ie. We want to support implementers, not simply fundraising programs passing funds on);

•    have a specific project which will be funded by your StartSomeGood campaign (launching a business/organization counts as a project);

•    have a compelling pitch, watchable-video and decent marketing plan.

You can apply now at www.StartSomeGood.com/apply. StartSomeGood.com will go live before the end of the month and we would love to have you be part of it!

The world is full of entrenched problems that need new thinking, of causes that need new champions. Creating the change we need will take all of us, contributing in myriad ways. Some as the entrepreneurs; some as supporters and advocates and storytellers. There has never been a time with more ways to make a difference than the moment we live in. There has never been a better time to tell your story, share your idea and start some good.

What is the future you wish to create?

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I put this up on Slideshare about a month ago but forgot to post it here, so here it is: the deck from the presentation I gave at the Powershift Virginia conference on using social media to affect social change. Hope you like it!

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This was written as a guest post for Beth Kanter’s blog, exploring how Ashoka is fulfilling our mission on Twitter:

AshokaTweets homepage screenshot

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public is relatively new to Twitter, having launched our main account, @AshokaTweets only in January. However in that time we’ve worked hard to build a community nearing 6,000 connections, sharing our news and stories in new ways and convening conversations that matter. This post will explain how we have approached Twitter and what we have learned.

But first, some back story:

Ashoka was founded on the belief that social entrepreneurs are the most powerful force changing the world. For almost 30 years Ashoka has been seeking out and supporting the best innovators working to create systemic change to join the Ashoka Fellowship. Supporting these visionary leaders, raising the profile of their work and facilitating collaborations and sharing has allowed many to pursue a life of changemaking, scaling their impact and, in many instances, affecting national policy in addition to thousands of members of their communities.

After 29 years of electing over 2,000 incredible social entrepreneurs as Fellows we have been able to observe some powerful themes in their work. And the most significant is this: great social entrepreneurs empower their communities, and invite and inspire those around them to become changemakers themselves.

With this insight we gained a deeper appreciation for the fact that innovation happens at many levels and we saw more clearly the kind of world we were working to create, a world many of our Fellows are leading towards, one in which every person has the opportunity to create positive change in their community, and where our collective intelligence and initiative will allow solutions to outrun the challenges we face. This led to our new tagline and mission, creating an Everyone a Changemaker™ world.

It was this mission that drew me to Ashoka, and which drew Ashoka to me. Building an Everyone a Changemaker™ world is a very different mission from simply looking for the world’s elite social entrepreneurs, it involves using the stories and examples of these entrepreneurs to inspire people to action, sharing lessons learned across our networks and opening up the innovation process to more people. This called for a new approach to outreach and communications and led to me joining Ashoka last year in a new position of Digital Marketing Strategist.

Our recently re-launched Changemakers.com website is to most high-profile example of Ashoka’s new approach to building community and fostering innovation, but so too is the work we are doing in social media and, in particularly Twitter.

The question we asked ourselves when we were planning to launch a Twitter account was: how could we use Twitter to help build an Everyone A Changemaker™ world? In thinking about this question we realized that one of Ashoka’s most important roles as the oldest and largest organization focused on Social Entrepreneurship was as convener, that we have the opportunity to bring together diverse insights and experiences to help map the most effective way forward in tackling many of the world’s most pressing challenges. We wanted to continue to play this role on Twitter.

In addition I felt it was important that we be as human as possible, highlighting not only our Fellows but our staff, and empowering them to be more effective advocates. This was also the chance to share news in a more timely fashion, as well as to proactively reach out and form connections, answer questions, and spark conversations.

Our goals, therefore, where to:

-be timely;

-be human;

-be proactive;

-convene.

Timely means sharing our news rapidly, as it came in, rather than simply crafting careful news stories for our website at a rate of no more than one a week. It means monitoring the online conversations about social entrepreneurship and issues we care about (we now use M|Buzz from Meltwater to help us do this) and directing attention to news hits and interesting blog posts. It means responding to questions rapidly and directing people to where they can find the information they are looking for.

The goal of being human has led me to run several Introduction to Twitter seminars and webinars for our staff. We currently have over 45 of my colleagues on Twitter where they are sharing their passion for our work and growing our reach and connections exponentially. The next step will be to integrate this onto our website where soon you will be able to see a list and live stream of all our staff on Twitter, along with one for our Fellows. Ashoka does such a diversity of work, from eHealth projects to new social change financing models, it’s impossible for a single person like me to accurately represent it. Now those with the knowledge and passion for these topics can participate themselves, in their own words, in the conversations of relevance to them, bringing new ideas back into the organization and better informing the wider sector on what we’re up to.

Being human also means acknowledging who the person behind an organizational Twitter handle is. The bio of AshokaTweets says “Tweets by @tomjd and friends”.

Being proactive certainly rules out using RSS feeds to populate our Twitter feed (with one exception, set up purely for that purpose and soon to be phased out). Each tweet is hand-crafted and relevant to our audience, something we checked by asking our followers want sort of information they wanted from us in a poll. We also participated in conversations with organizations such as Skoll Foundation, Social Actions and Change.org to agree on some shared hashtags to denote our areas of work, which led to widespread adoption of #socent for Social Entrepreneurship. We also use Twitter to proactively reach out and respond to comments about Ashoka, social entrepreneurship and social change

Finally, in considering how to use Twitter to convene conversations that matter we came up with the ideas of a monthly real-time discussion on Twitter, #SocEntChat, short for Social Entrepreneurship Chat. #SocEntChat takes place on the first Wednesday of every month from 4-6pm US EST (although the recent chat on Rural Innovation in Africa and India was moved to a more Africa and India-friendly time of 12-2 US EST) focused on a specific topic. Recent chats have looked at green entrepreneurship, mobile innovation and building cultures of social entrepreneurship on university campuses. We have had contributors from North America, Asia, Africa, Europe, South America and Australia, representing entrepreneurs, staff from large non-profits, activists, enthusiasts, bloggers and more. Conversations focus on next steps and areas for further exploration. All the transcripts can be accessed from our Squidoo Lense.

The next #SocEntChat is being held on Wednesday September 2 on the topic of Rethinking Mental Health. We would love you to join us.

We still have a lot to learn about Twitter and the microblogging medium will continue to evolve in interesting ways. What is clear is that a platform that allows people to connect with one another and talk about the things they care about is a platform made for social change, a place where we can build constituencies and communities capable of collaboratively creating a better future. In other words, a place for changemakers.

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