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.

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.)

Reflections on the first 525,600

..minutes, that is, since Tipping Bucket was officially organized, April 8 2009.

There’s a scene in the 1991 film “Hook” (I know, you haven’t thought about that movie in 10 years…me neither) when the thoroughly grown-up, and very hungry, Peter Pan sits down to a ‘feast’ at what looks for all the world like a completely empty table. As the rag-tag band of lost boys around him begin stuffing their faces with the apparently sumptuous but invisible bounty, Peter is first bewildered, then annoyed, then furious until a very large, very buttery, very…real stray gob of mashed potato mortar lands right in his face and the lost boys’ feast is suddenly visible in all its glory–to him, and to all of us.
I feel like that gob of mashed potatoes finally landed a few weeks ago: Standing in the doorway of a friend’s apartment and hearing someone behind him shout, “Dude! It tipped–the bucket’s overflowing!” I could almost feel the warm goo dripping off my nose. After months of planning and prepping, debating, decoding, brainstorming, building, breaking, blundering and budding with an incredible group of individuals who either loved the idea or loved me (occasionally both) the ‘feast’ we’d been talking incessantly and gesturing wildly about was actually materializing.
Other people could see it.
Other people could use it.
And it was working!
We’ve tipped four buckets, octupled(?) our membership, and raised $7000 since then, and the food fight is just getting started. The scene in “Hook” ends when the littlest lost boy, dripping with pudding, potato and pot roast and grinning from ear to ear turns to Peter and murmurs, “that was a great game.
I’m confident it will be.

Change the world for $1? There’s an app for that!

Pleased to announce the release of the Tipping Bucket iPhone app–a fun simple way to keep up with the latest Tipping Bucket projects and ‘be the change with your spare change.’

Special thanks to Jacob Richardson, Brad Morgan and Derrick Bowen–stellar programmers who could have easily put together some meaningless sticky game that would capture the fleeting attention of hoards of Japanese teenagers and win them $10,000 in the BYU app competition, but they chose instead to build an app that would help bring renewable energy to a school in the DRC, healing creativity to victims of domestic abuse in Utah valley, restorative vision surgery to Thai peasants and so much more. Kudos guys for building an app with the potential to change the world.

Water Wings for the Social Stream: Blogging

Anyone can blog. But blogging that’s more than ranting, regurgitation, or simply routine is well, rare. Here are some practical tips from our public relations and social media mentors on how to RAISE the quality [and the impact] of your posts.

Relevant: The most important, and most overlooked question to ask about any piece of writing is SO WHAT? Why does the topic matter to your reader–if it doesn’t yet, why should it? Anything that doesn’t communicate that in the first few sentences probably isn’t worth reading…or writing.

Actionable: No one becomes a guru, or a witch-doctor, or a highly-successful consultant without making a concrete difference to people. Thinking through possible applications and spelling them out for the reader will help them realize [and recognize] the value of your content.

Imaginative: Blogging should be fun! [and blog posts should be fun to read, but that’s not an automatic corollary] As Tom Davenport points out in his very fun recipe for good online content a dash of humor and a pinch of personal context go a long way. So does a fresh, unexpected perspective looking energetically beyond the typical.

Short!: In a world defined in 140 characters, people with time and inclination to read essays are few and far between. 250 words or less. Period.

Erudite. Do become an expert–just don’t talk like one. Contribute, explain what you know, but do it simply, accessibly. Which probably means you shouldn’t use words like erudite.

5 Steps to (almost) Effortless Empowerment

Corporate America spends millions each year searching (usually at vaguely fluffy off-site retreats spattered with trust-falls, group “sharing” and warm-fuzzies) for employee “empowerment.” These concrete tips take little time, even less money…and actually work.

1. Call People By Name Research has shown that hearing our own name on a regular basis, especially from those in positions of power makes us more likely to take risks, accept responsibility, invest in a community, and generally push our personal boundaries.

2. Pay SMART Compliments We’ve all seen the difference that specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timely goals can make. Imagine what would happen if we applied the same criteria to our expressions of gratitude and affirmation, and “Hey, good job.” became “Wow. Your presentation this morning was awesome–your re-write of the opening totally hooked them, and the pacing through the financials was right on. Seriously can’t wait for next week.”

3. Give Negative Feedback Researchers in the field of “expertise and expert performance” continually cite our cultural dirth of negative feedback as the main reason so few of us ever escape mediocrity. We’d fire an athletic coach or music teacher who refused to point out and correct mistakes–so why do CEOs and managers get away with it?

4. Speak Their Language Advice to learn your co-workers “love language” may sound like an invitation for a law suit, but applied appropriately, it can help build trust, diffuse conflict and increase creativity. Individuals tend to express (and therefore receive love (and affirmation, appreciation, validation, etc.) in several distinct ways. Learning which each of your employees or team members responds best to can help you communicate positive reinforcement so that it actually makes a difference. Look for these 5 main “dialects”…

  • Words of Affirmation : Chances are, you already think nice things about your co-workers an a regular basis. But since most of them aren’t mind-readers, it doesn’t do much good unless you speak up!
  • Quality Time : Ever heard the saying, “time is money.” Well, in business particularly, it’s often true. So making time for colleagues–to work through a problem, share a lunch, even listen to them vent–often communicates their value to you more clearly than anything else.
  • Acts of Service : for these individuals, simple gestures (rinsing their coffee cup, offering to take their place at a meeting, picking up the slack when their 2-year-old gets chicken pox) speak louder than words.
  • Physical Touch : again, keep this appropriate, but for some people nothing “says” good work! like a good-old-fashioned pat on the back.
  • Gifts : even small tokens of appreciation–certificates, awards, gift cards, time off–can go a long way with a person whose language is gifts.

5. Listen! Ever notice how the few people you know who are really good listeners also tend to be some of the most popular, productive, and powerful people you know too? So take a good honest look at your listening skill and set a concrete goal to improve.

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.

"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.

Social Entrepreneur Search

Last week, Social Edge formally rolled out Social Entrepreneur Search (read the full announcement here) an open-source database designed to encourage “finders” and “funders” to support the efforts of successful social entrepreneurs.

Anyone can customize and embed the widgets that access the search data and even use the search to highlight specific entrepreneurs, regions, issue areas, or funders by creating and embedding custom widgets like this one–a spotlight on social entrepreneurs working in Health and funded by the Skoll Foundation:

<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://seapi.dk.exygy.com/js/embed.js”></script><script type=”text/javascript”>exygy_embed_results(“9″,”572349203″,”0″,”IA==”,”colorRed”, “http://seapi.dk.exygy.com/&#8221;);</script>

The project gets plenty of “cool” points in and of itself, but here are some reasons I find it truly remarkable:

First, the project represents a true collaboration.These organizations recognized a need–for the entrepreneurs they support, not necessarily themselves–and took concrete steps to fill it. They put aside organizational ego, stepped out of their own silos, and fronted the resources to build something open, extensible and powerful.

Second, the search is a step toward what we’ve taken to calling “catalytic capital.” The open database of vetted programs could encourage more organizations interested in social entrepreneurship but lacking the experience and human capital to vet projects themselves, to venture into the space and could help address some of the growth capital issues many of these remarkable organizations face after they’ve tapped the typical major funders.

And third, as a free resource equally accessible to interested individuals, educators and media representatives from the brand-new blogger to the New York Times, the Social Entrepreneur Search has the potential to raise the profile of social enterprise, so the examples of successful (and even struggling) social entrepreneurs the world over can inspire innovation and challenge the status quo on an ever grander, and ever more personal scale.

A little nagging concern stems from the fact that all of the participating organizations are mezzanine funders (and therefore nearly all of the social entrepreneurs featured in the database are beyond the startup phase). The Social Entrepreneur Search won’t turn up the next paradigm-shifting changemaker. And given the typical foundation’s aversion to anything “not invented here,” and the typical reporter’s blood-lust for the scoop, I wonder how well it will actually attract funding and exposure for the featured organizations.

The search may also inadvertantly reinforce what Charles Light calls the social entrepreneurship “cult of personality”–a focus on the contributions of a few singular luminaries that leaves thousands of other individuals, teams and organizations striving in relative isolation to build meaningful social change “often reinventing the wheel as they struggle to discern lessons from a relatively small number of exemplary peers.”

Still, the search is undeniably a step in the right direction–and may well provide both a solid foundation and a jumping-off point for genuine collaborative efforts that will help expand the field and magnify the impact of social entrepreneurship in this next decade.

Embracing Micro-Failure

How granting others permission, authority and even incentive to fail can lead to quicker, deeper, more lasting success.

“Look at all of your work as an experiment — a pilot — and plan upfront for several review points along the way that allow you to correct your course or exit altogether. First drafts are rarely your best work. It is the thousand little edits and mid-course corrections that create excellence. Smart failures are a badge of honor.”   – Larry Blumenthal

Here are a few thoughts on how leaders can enable micro-failure:

  • Permission to Fail – Let people know it’s okay to fail. And be explicit. (One team I know adopted the motto: “Have you failed today?”) Not only will it contribute to a positive team environment, but individuals with permission to fail also have permission to take risks and push boundaries, question assumptions, and ask for help when they need it.
  • Authority to Fail – Giving your colleagues, employees, or volunteers tacit or even explicit permission to fail does little good if they haven’t even got enough rope to hang themselves. It’s a lot easier to delegate tasks than to delegate authority. But real autonomy and decision-making power ensures credit as well as accountability. And it’s a lot easier to learn from a mistake we feel we own.
  • Incentive to Fail – It sounds counter-intuitive, but find ways to reward and celebrate failures (or at least the resultant lessons.) Regularly sharing micro-failures within a team, passing around your own “fail whale” trophy, and mapping past failures to current success can help make your organization a “fail-safe” environment.

After all,

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”   -Theodore Roosevelt