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.

Are You a Platypus?

A few thoughts on David Wiley’s ESR conference keynote, in which he described FlatWorld Knowledge as “a bit of a platypus” in the market.

Think about it: A venemous duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed egg-laying mammal really shouldn’t exist. It’s no wonder that the european naturalists who first discovered the thing at first thought it was some kind of elaborate practical joke.

But the platypus does exist, last surviving member of its genus, and the remarkably well-adapted anchor of the Australian wetlands.

The point is this: Many of the most disruptive social innovations of all time have been playpuses–unexpected, even illogical ideas that reasonably shouldn’t exist. Like banks for people with literally nothing to put in them. Or peasant farmers who give eye exams. Or college textbooks you give away for free.

Each of these organizations, and many who will yet change the face of social entrepreneurship have adapted like the platypus–in some ways to better function in their environments (with webbed feet and self-sealing nostrils) and some in ways that help them shape that environment (like the beaver tail, or even the venom.)

One might argue that you have to be a platypus to make in the space.

But this much is sure. Any platypus out there can relate to the classic Ghandi quote that for me was the crux of David’s talk: “First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Long live the platypus.

10 Commandments of Impact Investing

From Geoff Wolley (of HuntsmanGay Capital Impact) keynote at the BYU Economic Self-Reliance Conference

1. Thou Shalt Not Underestimate the Amount of Time and Commitment Required to Be a Social Entrepreneur

2. Thou Shalt Not Save the World
Give yourself a reality check–try to get 10 people around you to change their minds/behavior…chances are 9 of them won’t. Be realistic.

3. Thou Shalt Know Thy Client or Topic
In general, we do a better idea of serving the “desperate poor” rather than the “poor but moving.” Pick a market and understand it, over time.

4. Thou Shalt Avoid Double Risk
Don’t try to create a new slice of the pie (category of expenses) for your client. Doing so doubles your work–you have to sell them the need for the service, then sell them on you as the best provider.

5. Thou Shalt Avoid Plans That Require the Client to Invest in Infrastructure
The poor operate on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. Adapt.

6. Thou Shalt Not Doubt Your Client’s Smarts
The poor know things intuitively, and understand those things to a level, that the rest of us will probably never figure out. Bridge the vocabulary divide and give them product they can sell.

7. Thou Shalt Not Become an Armchair Social Entrepreneur
Beware of constant “conferring”… set your own ratio of field work to conferences and guard it zealously.

8. Thou Shalt Love Risk…Just Not Stupid Risks
One word: Pilots. Don’t build a huge company before you prove that it will work on a small scale. Take risk in bite-sized pieces.

9. Thou Shalt Work Within the Culture, But Don’t Always Accept Its Ways
Prevailing wisdom isn’t always wise. If things are failing, make sure you really know why.

10. Thou Shalt Always Be Grateful to the BYU Economic Self-Reliance Center

“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.

“I want to be part of that!” (Part I)

Attended the kickoff event for the BYU chapter of Students for Social Entrepreneurship last night. I left behind half a dozen strangely quiet students. The palpable energy caught me off guard, probably because of its stark contrast to my depleted state.

A few steps later, one of the girls just stopped.

When the others turned to face her, she sort of shook her head and blurted out, “I want to be part of that!” I didn’t catch anything else as they walked away, but it made me smile, and I wondered if perhaps I’d just witnessed what Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green calls a “moment of obligation.”

Maybe someday I’ll tell you mine.

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?

Kiva Can’t Get Growth Capital!?

Had a conversation (if you can call shouting into each others’ ears in a dim room over pounding bass a legitimate conversation) the other day with Matt Flannery, founder of Kiva. Went something like this:

SJ: “So, what’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?”
Matt: (with not a moment’s pause) Funding.
SJ: (after a moment of disbelief) Funding? But…you’re Kiva…Funding!?

Yes, funding. Kiva, Matt explained, currently covers about 80% of program and operating expenses through the optional user donations that accompany each loan. The other 20% is made up by various fellowships, grants, and major funders. Kiva is essentially self-sustaining.

But Matt wants more–he wants to grow. And what founder of an organization that fundamentally altered the philanthropic landscape wouldn’t? But the funds for that growth have been hard to come by. In Matt’s words: “No one wants to fund infrastructure.”

Now I’m not saying that micro-finance is a silver bullet, or that Kiva’s model is perfect. There are legitimate questions about impact, about transparency and about long-term sustainability.

But there were a whole lot more questions before Kiva jumped in and changed the game. And if anyone should be given the risk capital to take a shot at these new, deeper issues, it’s Kiva. There are hopeful signs for change on the horizon, but if the foundations and investors of the world can’t or won’t wake up soon, we’re just going to have to find another way.

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.