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.”

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

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.)

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.

"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

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!