Work the Edge

On my last trip to Portland, a group of fellow social entrepreneurs and mentors enjoyed lunch. Predictably, some of us had victories to celebrate while others it seemed were nearing the end of their metaphorical rope. A string of evaporating deals, missed deadlines, and ‘complicated’ international relations had left one colleague emotionally dangling from a knot at the end of said rope.

As the rest of us commiserated, one of our mentors leaned forward and simply said; “you just keep working the edge.”

Lunch ended, but the phrase kept coming back to me. It’s been months now, and I don’t think the full meaning has crystallized yet, but this much I know:

Whether we’re tucking into a massive slab of steak, turning a misshapen hunk of granite into our generation’s David, or trying to vanquish diarrheal disease in the Central African Republic, the best approach (sometimes the only one with any hope of success) is to consistently work the edge.

Attack whatever bit of the problem is most accessible. Nip away at it where it’s thinnest for now and some day (probably sooner than you think) the impenetrable, dark, tangled heart of the thing will (miraculously, but also reliably) have become “edge.”


"Seeing" Female Social Entrepreneurs

A genuine answer to Teju’s genuine question: “Where are all the Women?”

Each of us encounters more information in every moment of everyday life than we can possibly consciously process. So, as a natural survival mechanism, we developed ways to skim information, pick out the important bits and let the rest fade into the background. To recognize examples (and non-examples) of things, we form “schemas” for them.

So, when we’re looking for apples, objects that are elongated…or orange…or metallic…are automatically (efficiently) rejected. These schemas save us enormous amounts of time. In fact, individuals unable to form them are usually unable to function in society.

But what happens when something contradicts our schemas?

Barring some kind of conscious effort, we simply don’t see them. They don’t register as members of the set we’re looking for. With conscious effort we can get past the double-takes, and reconcile the mismatch with a conscious exception–that often comes out in language (eg. “male nurse.”)

Women simply don’t fit most people’s schema of the entrepreneur–so when they look around for entrepreneurs, they see men. (Case in point: GOOD magazine writes about the innovative Thrust Fund, and calls Kjerstin Erikson a man.)

Perhaps it’s because women place greater value on teams and networks and tend to exhibit less of the “charismatic lone wolf” leadership style we’ve come to expect from entrepreneurs. Perhaps it’s because the organizations they lead tend to experience less of the financial volatility and drama we associate with entrepreneurship. Perhaps it’s just good old-fashioned sexism.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that despite their under-representation in research, funding and the media, there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of female social entrepreneurs out there working for sustainable social change–and doing a bang-up job of it.

It’s time we all learned to “see” them.

10 Commandments of Impact Investing

From Geoff Wolley (of HuntsmanGay Capital Impact) keynote at the BYU Economic Self-Reliance Conference

1. Thou Shalt Not Underestimate the Amount of Time and Commitment Required to Be a Social Entrepreneur

2. Thou Shalt Not Save the World
Give yourself a reality check–try to get 10 people around you to change their minds/behavior…chances are 9 of them won’t. Be realistic.

3. Thou Shalt Know Thy Client or Topic
In general, we do a better idea of serving the “desperate poor” rather than the “poor but moving.” Pick a market and understand it, over time.

4. Thou Shalt Avoid Double Risk
Don’t try to create a new slice of the pie (category of expenses) for your client. Doing so doubles your work–you have to sell them the need for the service, then sell them on you as the best provider.

5. Thou Shalt Avoid Plans That Require the Client to Invest in Infrastructure
The poor operate on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. Adapt.

6. Thou Shalt Not Doubt Your Client’s Smarts
The poor know things intuitively, and understand those things to a level, that the rest of us will probably never figure out. Bridge the vocabulary divide and give them product they can sell.

7. Thou Shalt Not Become an Armchair Social Entrepreneur
Beware of constant “conferring”… set your own ratio of field work to conferences and guard it zealously.

8. Thou Shalt Love Risk…Just Not Stupid Risks
One word: Pilots. Don’t build a huge company before you prove that it will work on a small scale. Take risk in bite-sized pieces.

9. Thou Shalt Work Within the Culture, But Don’t Always Accept Its Ways
Prevailing wisdom isn’t always wise. If things are failing, make sure you really know why.

10. Thou Shalt Always Be Grateful to the BYU Economic Self-Reliance Center

“I want to be part of that!” (Part II)

This second half of the reflection has been a bit delayed. You can read Part I here.

The JetBlue “All You Can Jet” experience and the growing momentum of the Tipping Bucket adventure seem to have crammed a great deal of experience and exposure into the last 60 days. You’ve probably experienced something similar–like 6 months of interaction have been compressed into 1.

One of the themes that’s emerged from the blur is this linguistic anomaly: I don’t think I have ever heard someone say they want to “do” social entrepreneurship…or “work in” it…or “try” it.

The language of social entrepreneurship is fundamentally different. They want to BE.

Social entrepreneurship is about being part of something, something bigger than yourself, something lasting and meaningful. Social entrepreneurship is something that you give yourself to. Before long it takes over. And, next time you turn around, you are a social entrepreneur.

What’s Your ‘Gateway Drug’?

We owe much of the perennial growth of the drug market to a collection of substances known as ‘gateway drugs’— relatively quick, harmless highs that open the door for progressively stronger, more expensive drugs. But perhaps social enterprise can help turn this insidiously successful tactic to more productive ends…

Like junkies, successful change agents fixate on their cause. They crave it, sacrifice for it, and are willing to expend ever greater effort, against ever greater odds, to move it forward. Leaping headlong into that life would leave just about anyone exhausted, overwhelmed and cynical.  That’s where the ‘gateway drug’ comes in.

For example, a recent survey from DigiActive suggests that online activists often come into that community through other, more run-of-the-mill social networks. Social networks are a gateway drug for online activism. Once you’ve learned the norms, mastered the tools, and made the connections in facebook, creating online petitions or leading a discussion board comes pretty naturally.

The same could be said of disaster relief drives that cultivate life-long volunteers, the flickr comment that inspires an amateur photographer to start booking portrait sessions, or the sporadic blogger who ends up spearheading a massive social media campaign.

Metaphorically speaking, every cause needs addicts, junkies, even dealers. What current utilities, networks, or platforms could be the key to ‘hooking’ your next evangelist?

The Social Entrepreneurship Peloton

35 miles into a 60-mile ride this week, clipping along (I thought) at a respectable 18mph, I was passed by a group of 5 other cyclists. At their invitation, and with surprisingly little extra effort, I joined the back of their group and was thrilled a moment later to see I was pushing 25mph. I rode with the peloton for 20 miles, keeping 20+ mph through a stiff headwind. When I wore out and fell back, I could barely pull my own weight through that wind at 14 mph.

Heaven knows I’m not the first to use this analogy, but the experience was so compelling I had to put it out there.

Pelotons exist at this strange and wonderful intersection of competition and collaboration. The riders are still individuals, still driven to be the best, to push themselves. Each one wants to win. In order to win, you must ride fast, and you must ride fast until the end of the race. And regardless of her individual abilities, even if she could beat every other rider in the group in a one-on-one race, each rider knows she will be faster riding with the peloton.

As Seth Godin and Sean Stannard-Stockton both reiterated this week, the problems we’re working to solve are enormous, intense and insistent. They demand speed, stamina, and collaboration. They demand we ride as a peloton.

The good news is that social media has made it easier than ever to find (or build) a peloton. I first ride with my personal peloton; the team of partners, volunteers and mentors whose strengths complement mine, and who simultaneously push and support me. Then I join the larger pelotons of my sector, my region or my mission and find myself, with just a little extra effort, moving faster, stronger, and more efficiently than I thought possible. When the time is right, I’ll take my turn to “pull,” leading out into some new risk, some unproven model, facing some new opposition and immensely grateful to have my ‘competitors’ still riding behind me.

The Trouble with Stakes

Last evening, during the President’s health-care speech, I found myself frustrated. Why can’t someone just talk to me straight!? Why can’t anyone simply compare the perspectives, analyze the arguments, and explore the implications free from rhetoric, empassioned mantras, scare tactics, and tear-jerking stories. Why can’t we have some kind of genuinely objective perspective?

The answer’s pretty simple: the genuinely objective observers don’t CARE enough to do the careful analysis.

The people who care, the ones who invest time and energy and resources, are the one who have something on the line. They have a stake.

The connection from there was at once natural and surprising. So often in the non-profit and social entrepreneurship worlds, we extoll the virtues of (and even decry the absence of) objective, third-party impact assessments and evaluations. We proclaim (often quite correctly) that it is impossible for those at the heart of a venture, doing the day-to-day work, pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their programs to accurately assess their own impact and effectiveness.

The problem, of course, with these stakeholders (and any stakeholder) is that they CARE.

Essentially, we’re saying that in order to provide a reliable assessment, you must not be a stakeholder in the venture. You must not care.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a hyperbole. But it seems worth looking at. If what we want from non-profit and social entrepreneurship evaluation is thorough exploration, careful analysis and strategic recommendations, can we truly rely on evaluators without a stake?

Vibrant Young Social Venture Seeks…


Things with Tipping Bucket are, well, typical…I think. Bursts of excitement that keep me up at night dreaming of trips to Boston to interview fellowship candidates and trips to Botswana to interview newly-trained midwives interspersed with nights where I feel like the massive parasite of doubt and indecision writhing in my gut will certainly finish me off by morning.

Mostly it’s somewhere between the two. And lately I feel like there are so many “next steps” that I spend most days playing the social entrepreneurship edition of DDR; stomping around, mostly off-rythm, ending up right where I started, but really tired.

So, here are a few of the hats I wish fit me and the “next steps” I could use some help with…

HR Master

  • Develop policies for hiring, performance reviews, etc.
  • Create job descriptions for employee and volunteer positions

Market Analysis Wizard

  • Create target market profiles/personas
  • Conduct market sizing research

Development Guru

  • Outline a “prospects list” management strategy
  • Build foundations prospects list
  • Build individuals prospects list
  • Develop fund raising action plan

Technical Sensei

  • Research/recommend/configure CRM solution for prospects list management
  • Research/recommend partner for project sites construction and maintenance

PR Genie

  • Outline TippingBucket launch PR strategy
  • Outline tTB branding strategy
  • Create messaging guidelines
  • Write press releases
  • Generate/refine messaging and content for the website (how it works, about us, etc.)

#75 … Check.

We incorporated the Tipping Bucket as an official non-profit in UT sometime around 10pm this Wednesday. I didn’t actually even realize I had another check mark to add to the list until my sister Molly congratulated me on crossing another one off. Several reflections on this:

First, and rather simply, how grateful I am for people who keep me in touch with my dreams!

Second, and slightly less simply, how important it is to be patient with dreams. Now, in now way am I qualified to extolling the virtues of patience. But there was a little lesson in this experience for me. See, I started the list–wrote the first 60+ items–as a gawkish 13-year-old in Mr. Maddox’s 8th grade science class. I’d capped it off at 100 before high-school graduation.

I haven’t the slightest idea how I’m going to accomplish most of the items on my list (reading all the Caldecott, Newbury and Pulitzer prize-winning works since 1900, for instance). But that’s never bothered me.

Far more vexing have been the times I’ve been tempted to “revise” my dreams. See, I no longer wish to have anything to do with purebred Persian cats (#4) nor do I particularly relish the idea of #52 (Watch all the Star Wars movies in order) after literally plugging my ears through the last half of episode 3 so as to be spared any more of the tortured dialogue. Continue reading

What IS Development?

I’ll be honest, I got a little annoyed with the results of my google search on this subject. Most of the sites I got to (including this potentially great one from the world bank targeted to primary school children) all basically said the same thing; Development is about rich countries giving money to poor countries to help them become rich countries. Some were full of buzzwords like sustainability and economic mobility. Some were sappy, some were dry and some were downright condescending. Most were pretty oversimplified. And none of them, for me, captured what I think development is all about.

Development to me, is about releasing potential energy. Like a drawn bow, or a loaded spring, or just an arm pulled back to throw something, developing communities (whether they’re in Bamako or Boston) are FULL of potential energy—they vibrate with it. But there are things about living there that prevent this force, this generative energy, from being released.

Continue reading