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!

Burning Out

I remember learning as a girl, perhaps significantly while building a fire, that fire needs 2 things to burn: fuel and oxygen. [Well, three actually—an ignition source, but that’s not relevant to the current analogy.]

FUEL: It’s more than things to do—there is always something to do. It’s the kind of “things to do” that produce results, the kind that allow you to channel energy to release/transform more energy. And just like building a campfire, things tend to go a good deal smoother when you’ve got a good stack of fuel in various sizes readily available [usually because, surprise, surprise, you went out and looked for it] You need to gather “kindling” little things that require little effort, little risk, little faith, to demonstrate the potential of the bigger efforts, the ones that need “all the love you can give…” You start to see situations in terms of fuel, ordering all that needs to be done into manageable, relatively uniform chunks of progressive requirements/potential. And you’ve got to constantly be watching the fire, evaluating what type of fuel it needs next.

OXYGEN: This part always seems to be harder for me. I never seem to struggle finding stuff I want to burn. But if you pile it on too fast, or too dense, you starve the flame, even risk extinguishing it altogether. The last little while I’ve been seriously pondering what I’ll have to change in order to survive a lifetime of this. [“Sustainability” has taken on new meaning for me lately.] I am tired. And I’ve only been at this 8 months. It takes discipline to leave “air space” in the fire. You have to build it in, plan for it, protect it…occasionally stir things up a bit to make some more of it. There has to be time for study, time for exercise, time for laughter and meaningful relationships, time for rest [other than just exhausted sleep].

These are things all social entrepreneurs must figure out, because as you move deeper and deeper into the wicked problems you’re working to solve, it gets clearer and clearer that “this could take a while.”

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 Entrepreneurship in "VC English"

Jim Fruchterman of Benetech Inc. presented a strikingly simple translation of the venture capital value equation for social entrepreneurs:


“I want to be part of that!” (Part II)

This second half of the reflection has been a bit delayed. You can read Part I here.

The JetBlue “All You Can Jet” experience and the growing momentum of the Tipping Bucket adventure seem to have crammed a great deal of experience and exposure into the last 60 days. You’ve probably experienced something similar–like 6 months of interaction have been compressed into 1.

One of the themes that’s emerged from the blur is this linguistic anomaly: I don’t think I have ever heard someone say they want to “do” social entrepreneurship…or “work in” it…or “try” it.

The language of social entrepreneurship is fundamentally different. They want to BE.

Social entrepreneurship is about being part of something, something bigger than yourself, something lasting and meaningful. Social entrepreneurship is something that you give yourself to. Before long it takes over. And, next time you turn around, you are a social entrepreneur.

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.

A New Prescription for Innovator Growing Pains?

Aaron Sklar’s exposition on the potentially analgesic effects of integrated evaluation really got me thinking. He points out that innovation is by nature uncomfortable, and suggests carefully-defined and continually re-defined meaningful metrics can play a role in easing that discomfort by clarifying the”end” to keep in mind.

Perhaps there’s even more to it than that:

So often in life, discomfort is the result of poorly managed expectations: It’s the classic “this won’t hurt a bit” you hear from the well-meaning nurse as she jabs a 4″ needle into your hip, the regularly-spaced reassurances of how important your call is while you wait interminably on hold, the gut-wrenching panic when you try on “your size” at a new boutique only to discover you can’t even button the trousers.

In addition to, or perhaps as a result of providing structure in a new (ad)venture, integrated, authentic, continual evaluation creates a different set of expectations in an organization. We expect to discover things that don’t work, we expect middle-of-the-ride course corrections (and the accompanying jolts), we expect transparency and honest critique, and we expect iteration.

It’s amazing the levels of “discomfort” we can adapt to if we expect it, and the performance we have the capacity to achieve through it is even more exciting.

The Trouble with Stakes

Last evening, during the President’s health-care speech, I found myself frustrated. Why can’t someone just talk to me straight!? Why can’t anyone simply compare the perspectives, analyze the arguments, and explore the implications free from rhetoric, empassioned mantras, scare tactics, and tear-jerking stories. Why can’t we have some kind of genuinely objective perspective?

The answer’s pretty simple: the genuinely objective observers don’t CARE enough to do the careful analysis.

The people who care, the ones who invest time and energy and resources, are the one who have something on the line. They have a stake.

The connection from there was at once natural and surprising. So often in the non-profit and social entrepreneurship worlds, we extoll the virtues of (and even decry the absence of) objective, third-party impact assessments and evaluations. We proclaim (often quite correctly) that it is impossible for those at the heart of a venture, doing the day-to-day work, pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their programs to accurately assess their own impact and effectiveness.

The problem, of course, with these stakeholders (and any stakeholder) is that they CARE.

Essentially, we’re saying that in order to provide a reliable assessment, you must not be a stakeholder in the venture. You must not care.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a hyperbole. But it seems worth looking at. If what we want from non-profit and social entrepreneurship evaluation is thorough exploration, careful analysis and strategic recommendations, can we truly rely on evaluators without a stake?

What IS Development?

I’ll be honest, I got a little annoyed with the results of my google search on this subject. Most of the sites I got to (including this potentially great one from the world bank targeted to primary school children) all basically said the same thing; Development is about rich countries giving money to poor countries to help them become rich countries. Some were full of buzzwords like sustainability and economic mobility. Some were sappy, some were dry and some were downright condescending. Most were pretty oversimplified. And none of them, for me, captured what I think development is all about.

Development to me, is about releasing potential energy. Like a drawn bow, or a loaded spring, or just an arm pulled back to throw something, developing communities (whether they’re in Bamako or Boston) are FULL of potential energy—they vibrate with it. But there are things about living there that prevent this force, this generative energy, from being released.

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