Mayday! Mayday!

OK, so the title of this post may be a bit melodramatic, but the experience has been intense (and insightful) so I figured I’d share.

TippingBucket is in what’s known in aviation as a departure stall.

A departure stall happens when a small, but usually heavily-laden, plane takes off down the runway–even lifts off–but simply can’t get the airspeed to climb. Now, this would be no problem if it weren’t for the 100-year-old oaks…or skyscrapers…or mountains that lie between the plane and it’s destination. But a plane attempting anything more than a 5k hop across a flat, uninhabited desert simply has to climb.

But here’s the key: the problem of a departure stall can’t be solved with a longer runway. Since about June, when the financial engine started sputtering, my primary focus has been extending the runway; scrambling every month to get the bare necessities covered for that month and losing sleep at night over where the funds would come from for those bare necessities next month. Miraculously, that runway has extended under us a month, sometimes a day, at a time for the past 6 months.

But the plane still isn’t climbing. And the only way out of a departure stall is more airspeed. Back off the angle of attack. Lighten the plane. Take another shot at takeoff.

So, we’ve touched down for a bit, tightened processes, focused in on our core mission, and are gearing up for another shot at getting TippingBucket not only off the ground, but 35,000 ft high doing acrobatics at the forefront of the crowdfunding movement where it belongs.

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.”

Dirty Development?

Got a note the other day from one of our donors:

I think this site is a great idea, and I went ahead and added my drops to the bucket, but I have to admit that I feel a little funny giving money to a country whose government is so violently homophobic. I know that’s all too common in sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s certainly no reason to deny children clean drinking water, but it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

And there in a nutshell is one of the great dilemmas of development work. In most of the countries with the greatest need in our world, social conditions are–shall we say–less than ideal.

By giving anything–money, resources, volunteers, even attention–to these countries, are we not somehow complicit in their corruption, their repression, their cruelty? Are we not somehow saying that it’s okay to be violently homophobic, to treat women like cattle, to make those who oppose you conveniently ‘disappear,’ to rule by fear and perpetuate idignity, to live in splendor while millions around you starve?

On the other hand, should all citizens of a country suffer because their government embezzles millions from the aid they receive? Should children continue to die of malaria because the government oppresses their mothers? Should peasants remain landless and destitute because their courts can’t be trusted?

Where’s the line? and how do you know when you cross it?

I don’t really have an answer–and the deeper I get into this world, the more often I get that “bad taste in my mouth.” Still, I believe in compassion, I believe in cooperation, and I believe that it is better in the long run to dig in and engage with a problem (even if you get your hands dirty) rather than standing on the sidelines waiting for the situation to be less messy.

SROI : In Search of a Verb

The concept of “social return on investment” is absolutely core to balancing the proverbial double (or triple) bottom line of social enterprise. It’s therefore no surprise that the need to accurately and consistently evaluate and express that value has been a topic of much discussion and hot debate. It’s a critical dialog–but I think the current conversation has a verb problem.

Much of the time, these conversations refer to SROI measurement. First off, only things that exist on an ratio scale can even BE measured. And I think we can all agree that there is no “absolute zero” on the scale of social good and that the “units” are hardly regular or continuous. (Seems to me we’d be lucky to even agree on an ordinal scale for something as context-dependent as social good.) So, in the strictest sense, measuring SROI is not even an option.

Organizations that acknowledge the stickiness of the measurement issue often claim to calculate SROI instead…It sounds less concrete perhaps, but often ends up just as arbitrary. One well-known (and arguably quite effective) US foundation literally uses a multiplier termed the “(Foundation Name) Factor” to calculate how much of the “measured” social change is attributable to their programs. Most SROI calculation schema I’ve encountered have produced this same unidimensional, artificial, even misleading oversimplification–though the amount of time and effort required to arrive there varies widely.

I’m in no way suggesting we stop looking for ways to wrap our heads around the effects of our efforts, but I think the obsession with quantification does not serve us well. So…

Should SROI be measured? Good luck with that.
Should it be calculated? Perhaps, when it fits.
Should it be demonstrated? Whenever possible.
Should it be explored? Always.

Failing Forward

A friend shared a video with me (well, with the world) a few days ago, that makes some interesting connections to development. You can see it here.

The video is about failure. About its role in innovation and competition. About its consequences (both painful and productive) and about how it can transform our view of the past and shape our futures.

Easterly talks a lot about failure in White Man’s Burden. And I have to agree that most of the efforts of international aid have done little good, and in some cases, a great deal of harm. But if something as relatively simple as designing a race car entails such dramatic, such profound, such persistant failure, how can we expect something as complex, convoluted and nuanced as “development” to come without it?!

Perhaps the problem is not so much that we fail, that our efforts fall short of our goals (and the needs of the people we work with). Perhaps the problem is with how we fail. The parts of Easterly’s argument I find most compelling are the bits about evaluation, about context and localization, about empowerment and accountability.

  • Would we fail differently if we focused our problem-solving on local outbreaks instead of global pandemics?
  • Would we fail differently if recipients instead of donors set the criteria for success?
  • Would we fail differently if we explored outcomes instead of simply tracking outputs?

It seems to me that failure is inherent to dealing with any problem worth solving. That no effort, no matter how carefully planned, how painstakingly executed, will come off without hitches, without un-intended consequences. That we will probably (realistically…objectively) fail more than we succeed.

But, it also seems to me that failure is not a reason to stop striving. I’m not willing to throw up my hands and turn my back because I didn’t stop the spread of AIDS in Africa (or the gang activity in the middle school down the street) with my first attempt…or my fiftieth. But I would be equally foolish not to learn from those failures. If I am continually failing differently, those failures will become stepping stones, and eventually I will succeed.

The Thing about Revolutions

A lesson from my first summer doing “real” development work in Paraguay:

Aparently, the consensus among the “adults” at the school is that I am a revolutionary, inciting the proletariat to various acts of sedition and generally upsetting the delicate balance of their system. Oops.

Actually, it was a conscious choice. During my first oh, month and a half here at the school, it looked for all the world like the only hope I had of making changes was to start from the bottom up—work with the students because their leaders were if not physically, at least mentally absent more often than not. So I all but wrote them off and started working with the students, organizing workshops, doing interviews, etc. but mostly just working with them….and the goats…and the lettuce. It looked for all the world like any change here would happen in spite of the leadership, not because of it. And I was okay with that.

Right? Wrong!

Here’s the thing about revolutions: At first glance, it looks like starting from the bottom is the only way to go if you’re in the market. After all, that’s where the numbers are, that’s where the passion is, etc. However, looking a little more closely, one of the critical success factors of this type of revolution is a profound and sudden transfer of power at the top. In other words, starting at the bottom only really works of you can guillotine the ones at the top. Oops.

So, I’m adjusting my strategy a bit. And peace talks are proceeding nicely.

Becoming an Agnostic

Question from an application I recently completed: “[fantastic mentoring organization] attracts leaders from a wide range of fields: traditional non-profit, social entrepreneurship, traditional for-profit, public service, and academia. What sector do you most closely associate yourself with?”

This question comes up a lot–in my opinion, more than it should.

I have started describing myself as “sector agnostic,” a term I first heard in a presentation by David Bornstein. It’s not merely a matter of semantics, either. For years, we’ve talked about and worked to move past the “silo-ing” that wastes resources, squelches collaboration, and limits the impact of all kinds of organizations–businesses, non-profits, agencies, and departments alike.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths any social entrepreneur (or intrapreneur) can offer is an ability and commitment to “associate closely” with ALL these sectors; to take lessons, adapt best practices, seek inspiration and integrate principles from each of these traditionally segregated arenas to get beyond the semantics and the status quo and focus on solutions.

So what does that look like? How do you recognize a sector agnostic?

I think there are some subtle cues: Their circle of friends and mentors is wide and varied…so is the magazine selection on their coffee table. The examples and stories they bring up in conversation come from everywhere and nowhere, yet they always end up relevant. You might even find yourself stumbling as you describe their work; “well, technically…” But they never seem to.  In fact, you seldom hear them using neat conceptual handles at all. Labels just don’t stick with them. All they seem to think and talk about is what works.

The world looks pretty different as a  sector agnostic. And I like it.

Social Venture Startup: Lessons Learned(?)

Had some fun with a presentation for a group of students at BYU last night.

For those who don’t have 4 whole minutes, or who just find my voice annoying, here’s a quick recap:

Be Social.

This isn’t referring to some sort of holistic life balance—since I obviously haven’t figured that one out. I’m talking here about the social life you give your idea.

When something truly innovative and exciting takes root in us, a lot of people have this really counter-intuitive reaction to protect it, to be afraid to share it, to put it out in the world. Trust me. I did this. All it took was one person asking me “what’s to stop Causes from just implementing this next week?” and I panicked. I deleted the blog post I’d put up about TB, I didn’t attend any of the social venture competition networking events. I really guarded that idea.

And I regret it.

Talk to people. Share with them, ask for feedback, let your idea have a life. The chance of someone actually stealing it is a tiny price to pay for what you’ll gain by talking to people.

The second way I would tell you to be social is to purposefully engage with social media. That means you have to get beyond Facebook stalking  You don’t have to produce a lot of content, probably the best thing you can do is listen to other people, and then let them know that you’re listening in meaningful ways.

And, if you haven’t figured out Twitter yet. You need to. Period. Let me just say that I the two most lucrative and beneficial connections I have made to date both happened through Twitter. You’re missing out if you don’t get it yet.

Double-Dip at Every Opportunity

Second piece of advice is to double dip whenever you can. Please don’t apply this at parties—that’s not what I mean…
I just mean that you should find ways to get credit for your work. Better yet, find a way to get paid for it. If you can’t make the things you’re doing that you’re passionate about fit into your studies, your work, etc. it may be time to change your major/job. There’s a lot more flexibility to the academic system than most students take advantage of.

“They’re more like guidelines anyway…”

Speaking of flexibility. Your business plan is a working document. Remember that.

Use ALL the resources that are available to you to get ideas, mercilessly edit your own work, and perhaps most importantly, do everything you can to get things as concrete as possible—the numbers you need are out there. And if you carefully track both your sources and your assumptions, you’ll be much better able to adapt when things come along and change your plan—and trust me, they will.

Oh, and remember to put your contact information in your business plan. We got all the way through the competition without catching that little detail.


The last thing is to ask for help. There are people out there just waiting to get excited about your idea and jump on board. Open your mouths. My favorite question has become “what would it take to get this for free?” After getting into a few $1500 conferences in exchange for a few hours manning the registration desk (an awesome networking opportunity anyway!) I ask this question all the time now.

You’ll be surprised what you can get.