My Top 10 Social Media Moments

Over the years, social media has challenged, amused, embarrassed, inspired and enlightened me. In no particular order (but numbered, so I can call it a “top-10” list) here are some of my favorite moments:

10. Opting out of a page in ” the Facebook” in early 2005 with the quip, “I just don’t see why anyone would want one.” doh.

9. Sending what was meant to be a funny tweet about spending my 12th night in a month at JFK’s Terminal 5, only to get a reply from someone I didn’t even know 5 minutes later confirming my *prepaid* reservation at the Marriott down the street.

8. Discovering the Twitter backchannel at an academic conference–and getting WAY more value out of it than I ever had from any plenary, panel, or keynote.

7. Watching bloggers who had never actually met greet each other like long-lost sisters the first day of a social media conference. Being baffled. And then doing it myself the next year.

6. Finally “getting” Facebook as dozens of people from my graduating class (most of whom were never really “friends” in high school) came together to support a classmate whose baby daughter was born with a hole in her heart.

5. Watching a dozen inner-city teenagers actually fact-check–and spell-check–their homework, because their audience was the world (aka Wikipedia)…instead of just their over-earnest teacher.

4. Being brought up on stage and called out as the only person in the audience of a social media conference still rocking the flip phone.

3. Seeing my blog called “wise and delightful” in a tweet from someone I would have been tempted to faun over had I we ever been in the same room.

2. Realizing that one of the projects we’d funded through TippingBucket had helped to launch the Arab Spring.

1. Signing the check for our first $1,000,000 crowd-funded grant. (This one hasn’t happened yet. But it will.)

Those are my moments…
What are some of yours?

Ghandi vs. Robin Hood

(or, Whether to Accept Federal $ through a Congressional Earmark)

Had an unexpected conversation this week–with a DC lobbyist (referred by an angel investing group we’ve been working with) who seems absolutely convinced we would be a “slam dunk” for some of the millions of federal dollars congress will allocate to various non-profits through this summer’s appropriations bills.

“Some” meaning on the order of 10x what we’ve spent on everything we’ve done so far—enough to finish building out the site, update the iPhone app, create a Facebook app, start our fellowship program, host a social entrepreneurship training conference, and establish our evaluation endowment. (Not to mention start paying some of our employees a livable wage…)

So, what’s the catch, right? There isn’t one—except if you consider the fact that the money would come through earmarks in the bill a catch.

The IDEALIST says that earmarks were originally developed as way to empower members of congress to bypass the crippling bureaucracy of the executive branch agencies to fund time-sensitive projects for the good of the people.

The CYNIC says that earmarks are a symbol of all that’s wrong with government—a loophole exploited by corrupt politicians and lobbyists too mired in the morass of personal and political favors to even see it’s wrong.

The REALIST says that such diametric thinking is almost always an oversimplification and that the practice is still used in both those ways to accomplish both those ends.

The PRAGMATIST says that if they’re going to toss money around (and they are), we might as well be open for the pass, especially if we can catch it without getting our hands dirty.

Those are the voices screaming at each other in my head. What do you think?

Social Entrepreneurship: Economics of a Generation

Not often does a blog post get me to drop everything and respond. But suggesting that social entrepreneurship training sets up an entire generation for failure gets my attention.

The argument (proposed by Josh Cohen and Aaron Hurst of the Taproot Foundation) centers around the burgeoning demand among the emerging US workforce for careers that allow them to make a living and a difference, and social entrepreneurship and innovation training universities have begun providing in response. They conclude:

“Leading social entrepreneurship program Ashoka offers only 110 fellowships in the United States, and other social entrepreneurship opportunities are equally limited.
With 100,000 MBA graduates annually, social entrepreneurship is not a scalable solution for engaging Generation Y in work that fulfills their desire to make a positive impact.”

So…we’re setting this incredibly driven, innovative, ethical (even compassionate) generation up for failure because we don’t have a fellowship available for all 100K MBAs–not to mention the millions graduating in other fields equally committed to making a difference in the world?!

Last I checked, huge demand and limited supply was the perfect recipe for opportunity, not failure.

Social Innovation fellowships, though wonderful programs and responsible for much of the ‘boost’ the field has received in recent years, are NOT the essence of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship/enterprise/innovation is about perceiving opportunities, engaging stakeholders, and iterating solutions. And the field is flexible and emergent enough to allow each of those self-actualizing individuals to make a difference in their own way.

So, no, we don’t need a new conceptual framework. We need to dig in and get our hands dirty, engaging with a generation determined to make a difference as the myriad faces of “social entrepreneurship.”

PS: Check out Nathaniel Whittmore’s response here

The Social Change Drive-Thru

“Hi. I’d like a global micro-credit initiative, a large order of AIDS education a-a-a-nd…a maternal health clinic”
“Would you like to eradicate malaria with that?”

Sure, it sounds ridiculous. But the McDonaldization of society is has significant implications for social change in general and philanthropy and social entrepreneurship in particular.

Here’s an example: our most recent bucket–a partnership to provide cataract surgeries and training in Uganda–tipped this morning. (yay!) And we’ve already received numerous requests for photos, video, and other updates on the status of the program. (They’re not even on the plane yet, people!?) Nothing says “American” like instant gratification, eh?

This is exactly the attitude that the founders of Kiva perceptively tapped in setting up their program as a person-to-person loan experience. You select an entrepreneur (May I take your order?) make a loan (Sure. I’d like…) and within days or weeks start getting updates on the repayment of your loan and the success of that entrepreneur’s micro-business (Thank-you! Have a nice day.)

It’s apparent to all but the most casual observer that the cycle there is WAY shorter than the time it would actually take that particular $25 to make it through the system of international banks, national micro-finance institutions and local loan officers to the individual borrower (even if that pathway weren’t a morass of bureaucracy), let alone for that borrower to bring together all the other forms of capital (human, social, natural, etc.) necessary to launch and grow a business and begin repaying the loan. Yet, many Kiva users were distraught (and even angry) to discover that the individual borrowers profiled on the site had actually been given loans months ago.

Granted, there are many other issues in the current conversation about Kiva (and microfinance in general)–interest rates, revolving-door loans, profit, and more–but the “revelation” about this time delay opened the can of worms.

So, which is it, America? You want an authentic giving experience (the exact dollars you contribute going to the exact project you chose to support) or you want to see photos of newly-sighted Ugandans within hours of your gift? You can’t have both.

Changing the world is not a drive-thru. (We have figured out, incidentally, how to put it on the dollar menu, though. Check it out.)

Sustainability Outside the Box

You pretty much would have to have been living in a cave for the past decade not to have picked up on the sustainability buzz sweeping through sectors from chemical production to health care to broadcast journalism. The Wikipedia entry on “Sustainability” has had almost daily editing activity for the past three years and includes more than 300 (top notch) citations/references. Still, the definition is far from universally understood and far from static.

Ratner points out that the whole concept may be expressed as statements of fact, intent, or value with sustainability treated as either a “journey” or a “destination.” In terms of media attention and general public awareness, sustainability is primarily an environmental issue. We think of “going green” and carrying cute canvas bags to the super market. But succession planning and resource utilization strategy are just as much part of sustainability as those cute canvas bags.

The United Nations Brundtland Commission articulated what has now become a widely accepted definition of sustainability: “[to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

To many, sustainability is nothing more than a funding strategy. But sustainability for social change has to be about more than just funding. Hildy Gottlieb puts it a bit more colorfully; “all the money in the world will not sustain that house if the foundation is crumbling or there is no one who cares about the house.” A holistic (I suppose one could even say a “sustainable”) approach to sustainability must account for the utilization and management of all kinds of resources or capital: human, social, financial, intellectual, natural, etc.

Measuring, or even just accurately describing, dimensions of sustainabili250px-sustainable_developmentsvgty requires deep understanding of the underlying systems (Smil, 2000). This can be as simple as maintaining energy balance (calories in = activity out) in a human system or as complex as quantifying the carbon footprint of New York City. Either way, assessing the sustainability of a system necessitates in-depth examination of the social, environmental, and economic resources involved–and their various interactions.

Systems require inputs, and have three basic options for obtaining those resources; they can either be embedded in the goods and services of world trade; taken from the past (e.g. fossil fuels); or taken from the future as unsustainable resource usage. Social Entrepreneurship’s historic reliance on grant funding is a prime example of resources taken from the past. And the rest of us seem to floundering somewhere in the goods and services of world trade, trying to figure out where those resources might be embedded, and how best to get at them.

A critical transition taking hold among the corporate giants in that system of world trade is the idea of sustainability as a competitive advantage The Cisco thinktank has articulated S2AVE (Shareholder and Social Added Value with Environment restoration), to emphasize how organizations can successfully and profitably address all three elements of the ‘triple bottom line’ simultaneously through innovation. Stated plainly, this represents re-envisioning sustainability efforts as value creation rather than simply risk management. It implies moving beyond the dooms-day predictions or barely supressed panic induced by dwindling grant funds and on to working creatively and concertedly on how we can best meet needs (perhaps better and more important than meeting goals) today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Puppets and Puppeteers

Case study for Participatory Development:

As I’ve seen in my experience (with our student council and also with “taking stewardship” of the hay fields at home), we are set up in a relatively superficial system of “student leadership” or “being our own boss”–there is ALWAYS someone with higher authority playing a prominent puppeteer. It’s a bad relationship because the kids know it, so they loosen their grip on whatever influence they hold and become lazy–relying on that puppeteer to jerk their arm where it needs to go. And the puppeteer gets so set on the “system” of strings attached that they lose sight of the fact that they are only supposed to hold the limbs of the puppet upright and watch them move themselves. If a puppet becomes less aware of the strings attached to it and more aware of its ability to direct its own movements, it will move more (that just seems natural in my mind–I even picture the puppet growing muscular from use. And as the puppeteer twitches the strings less, they will find that their shoulders ache less from holding the system up and they will be able to enjoy the smoother, freer movements of their show.”

Who knows, the puppets might even come up with a brand new dance that makes the audience go wild and the show will be sold out for weeks!

The Competition Conundrum

Read this post on United Prosperity this morning. It reminded me of Nathaniel Whitmore’s self-proclaimed snarkiness on Twitter a few weeks back at the announcement of “yet another” web-based social change content aggregator. I reacted:

This looks sadly like a manifestation of one of the downfalls of our current philanthropic system. Why, when a project like Kiva already exists, has crossed numerous startup hurdles, and is well on their way to actually making it in to the mainstream, would someone choose to create a competing organization with no significant competitive advantage (that will spend money on redundant overhead, not to mention having to learn many of the lessons already learned by their predecessor) instead of throwing their energy, passion, and whatever innovating ideas they have behind the existing successful project!? It’s hard to see that as anything other than ego getting in the way of the best interests of the cause.

It was an honest question. Still is. But it’s got me wondering something else.

Does everyone who’s thrown themselves behind an idea develop a competitive advantage blind-spot?

Some days I think I have. Someone sends me a link to a site I’ve looked at dozens of times and I can fire off a response email with half a dozen points of differentiation without even looking at the screen. I even find myself getting impatient when others don’t seem to see how clearly different the Tipping Bucket is from this other site they’ve come across.

When it comes to assessing the “competitive landscape,” I’ve pretty much stopped listening.

I’ve spent so much time analyzing, evaluating, classifying and subdividing the players in this space…I’m so familiar with the subtleties of distinction and overlap, that I hardly listen when some well-meaning associate starts a sentence with “Oh, it’s like…”

Thing is, it’s those perspectives that really matter. These cursory, uniformed, unsophisticated perceptions shape the market, and social entrepreneurs (myself included) would do well to pay attention to them.

Poverty Kills

Great tweet from Dave Peery this morning:

“It wasn’t the earthquake in #haiti that killed so many people, it was the poverty. SanFran ’89, we experienced a 7.0 earthquake – 63 dead.”

Poverty is the real killer in any number of natural and social disasters:

  • The 2005 mudslides in California killed 14. A year later, comparable rains in the Philippians cost at least 400 lives.
  • In the US, 7 of every 1000 children die before the age of 5. In Afghanistan, it’s 257.
  • In the US, a newly diagnosed AIDS patient can expect to live about 20 years. In Zimbabwe, they’ll likely be dead in a year and a half.

Weather patterns, viruses, and childhood are not inherently different in developing contexts, but scarcity or lack of resources from clean water to medical treatment, to building materials fundamentally alters how they are experienced. Poverty is like an exponent for suffering. The poor experience drought-squared, disease-squared, disaster-squared.

It’s time we figured out how to “square” our efforts as well.Dis

Tipping Bucket Baby Pictures: 6 Months

This is a quick snapshot of some of what’s happened since May.

Since the SVC:
Miles flown – 39,564
Nights spent in airports – 12
Conferences attended – 5
Presentations given – 8
Business cards distributed – 262
Thank-you notes written – 65
Project partners invited – 11
Partnerships negotiated – $158,500 (approx)
Bones broken – 2

I’ve LONG since lost track of hours spent on things like web-design or re-working financials or just trying to figure out what order to do things in. And I’ve long since lost track of the number of people who have helped and encouraged me in various ways…but I guess we know it’s at least 65…and I’m behind on thank-you notes, by the way.

There is, of course another way to look at the last 6 months.

Since the SVC:
Websites launched – 0
Applications launched – 0
Donations processed – $0
Buckets tipped – 0

…somehow I don’t get the same feeling from this one. They tell you that it always takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think it will. They’re wrong. So far I’m thinking it’s more like 3-5 times as long.

But we have made some significant progress. And with the momentum from the past several months, we’re realistically looking at a launch in the next 90 days. Stay tuned!