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.

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.

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

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.

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.