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social entrepreneur

The Network Approach to Social Change

nonprofit networkAlthough I already mentioned (in my September 10 Great Reads list) a really interesting article about “network entrepreneurs,” I want to further explore the concept because I think it could be a game changer for nonprofit leaders willing to embrace it.

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in September, Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer describe a “network entrepreneur” as different from, and much more effective at creating social change than a typical nonprofit leader. As they put it:

A network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal.

And this mirrors Wei-Skillern’s earlier article from 2008, “The Networked Nonprofit” where she described how a “networked nonprofit” builds alliances far beyond its own walls and is thus much more effective at creating social change that a traditional nonprofit:

Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts. And unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values.

In essence, the network approach to social change is one of true leadership — leadership writ large. Because a true leader leaves their ego, and the ego of their organization, aside in order to assemble all the required resources (individuals, institutions, networks, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of leading an organization, a network entrepreneur is, in essence, leading a social change movement.

A network entrepreneur understands that social change lives beyond any single organization. It requires someone (or a set of someones) to marshall all the necessary resources, create a larger change vision and lead people towards that vision.

This concept is so critical to nonprofit leaders who are often working with such limited resources. If instead of working to build an institution, a nonprofit leader worked to build networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change.

So what does this network approach look like in practice for a nonprofit leader?

Instead of thinking just about your organization, your staff, your mission, your board, your donors, you must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside your walls. You need to analyze the other people and entities working on similar challenges, and not just in the nonprofit space, but also in other sectors, geographies and time periods (yes, history matters!).  Determine how other places, other people, other organizations, both past and present, addressed similar problems. You need to understand the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than your single organization can. Figure out who the influencers are in the space and how to connect your work with those other individuals, institutions, networks.

The network approach also requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding. Instead leaders must take an abundance approach that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder approach.

And the network approach involves having the confidence to think that there is potentially a larger solution and that you might be part of it. The dysfunctional power imbalance present for so long in the nonprofit sector has bred a crisis of confidence that keeps nonprofit leaders focused just on their own work, instead of seeing the larger picture and envisioning a larger solution or role in that solution.

The network approach to social change involves taking a big step back from the work you have always done. It requires asking a much larger set of questions. And having the faith, confidence and leadership to plug into the network for social change.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: September 2015

social changeIn September there was some surprising good news about climate change. Yes, you read that right. We are perhaps, slowly, starting to address that problem (mind blowing, huh?). And in other news, there was a call for funders to help nonprofits become better fundraisers and some tools to help nonprofits use data in that pursuit.

Add to that concern about what digitial technology is doing to our humanness and critiques of Teach for America, proposed changes to philanthropy policy and an emerging “network” entrepreneur, and it was a very interesting month.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in September. But let me know what I missed. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.

And if you want to see past 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. If the world of social change is getting you down, if the challenges we face seem insurmountable, look no further than the New York Magazine where Jonathan Chait sees hope in the battle against climate change. As he puts it: “The willpower and innovation that have begun to work in tandem can continue to churn. Eventually the world will wean itself almost completely off carbon-based energy. There is, suddenly, hope.” Wow.

  2. Writing on the Blue Avocado blog, Aaron Dorfman from The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy takes foundations to task for wanting their grantees to be financially sustainable, but not helping them build that capacity, “Why don’t more foundations invest in helping their organizing grantees develop independent funding streams? Here – as with many issues grantees face – even a little targeted capacity-building support would go a long way.” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

  3. One of the ways nonprofits can build fundraising capacity is by learning to use their data more effectively to raise money. To help in that effort, The Chronicle of Philanthropy put together a helpful toolkit of articles and case studies.

  4. And speaking of fundraising, the ALS Foundation continues to amaze me. In September, they released a nice infographic to the many donors of the 2014 Ice Bucket challenge reporting where their $115 million in donations went. Great donor stewardship and transparency!

  5. There seems to be a growing concern about what technology is doing to our humanness. Callie Oettinger writes “While social media has made sharing easier, allowing us to connect with the rest of the world, I often think about what would happen if people stopped trying to connect with the rest of the world and instead spent their time 1) creating value and 2) sharing value, rather than…creating crap and sharing crap.” And MIT professor Sherry Turkle released a new book, Reclaiming Conversation that argues we must “acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable [and] make corrections and remember who we are — creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky and face to face.”

  6. A new series launched at The Washington Post about the newest buzz phrase in the world of philanthropy, “effective altruism.” This is the idea that you should “optimize your donations to ensure that they are as “high-impact” as possible.” It is a fascinating and controversial idea.

  7. To counter the hype about “social entrepreneurs,” Jane Wei-Skillern (who wrote one of my favorite articles ever about networked nonprofits), David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer introduced a new concept they call “network entrepreneurs.” As they put it, “Where social entrepreneurs often struggle to scale their own organizations despite heroic efforts, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal. And as a result of this work, we celebrate the change-generating network itself above any single person or institution.”

  8. I know I keep talking about how much I love the new History of Philanthropy blog, but this month was a perfect example of the tremendous value they bring the social change sector when Jeffrey Snyder explained how old and new philanthropy to support K-12 education differ. Fascinating. And it’s particularly interesting in light of Dale Russakoff’s new book that describes how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools in 2010 hasn’t accomplished a whole lot.

  9. And that wasn’t the only educational reform effort that came under fire in September. Samantha Allen of the Daily Beast chronicled a growing chorus of critiques of Teach for America.

  10. Philanthropic visionary Lucy Bernholz released a list of proposed changes to philanthropy policy that will keep up with changing times. As she put it: “It’s time to recognize that the tax code is no longer the fundamental policy frame shaping philanthropy and nonprofits…it should be obvious that tax privilege is only one factor that Americans consider when thinking about using their private resources for public benefit…The tax code was the 20th century policy infrastructure for philanthropy. Digital regulations will provide the scaffolding and shape for 21st century associations and expression — aka, civil society.”

Photo Credit: Evan Bench

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The Wonder of Social Change

WonderI recently finished the most amazing book. It wasn’t about nonprofit management, or social entrepreneurship, or leadership, or any of the other topics I usually write about here. But I think it is still quite relevant.

I read Wonder by R.J. Palacio at the repeated urging of my 9-year old son who read it voraciously over a couple of days and was desperate to discuss it. Wonder is a young adult novel about an amazing 5th grade boy named Auggie who was born with countless physical challenges but also a deep wisdom and uncanny ability to change the people around him for the better.

While the book is about Auggie’s more difficult than usual transition into the highly charged world of emerging adolescence, it is also, and more importantly, about what makes humans both incredibly imperfect and deeply beautiful.

The book takes place over Auggie’s 5th grade school year when he enters a private school that first struggles to accept him but later fully recognizes his gifts. Along the way we learn a lot about human nature, it’s depths of cruelty and divisiveness, but also it’s soaring ability to change and to love.

What moved me most about this book was the 5th grade graduation speech by the school principal, Mr. Tushman. In looking back over the last year of Auggie’s remarkable presence in his school, Mr. Tushman finds there the opportunity that we all have as humans to be “kinder than necessary.” He helps his audience, and all those who read Wonder, realize that as humans we hold in our hands – in every choice, in every action – the possibility for tremendous good:

In The Little White Bird [J.M. Barrie] writes, ‘Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’ Here Mr. Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary,” he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed…We carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind but the very choice of kindness…Children, what I want to impart to you today is an understanding of the value of that simple thing called kindness…In the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary…And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”

And it occurs to me that in the work of social change, we as social entrepreneurs are making a conscious choice to be kinder than is necessary. We are choosing to go against the status quo of growing poverty, crumbling educational and political institutions, climate change. We are choosing a different, harder, but better path.

So when the news of the day, or the many problems of the world get me down, I think back to Mr. Tushman’s speech. I think about the power that we all, as single individuals, have to make this world a kinder, better place. And I think of the many social change leaders across the country, across the world who are choosing every day to be kinder than is necessary. And that makes me smile.

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Lincoln the Social Change Leader

Today we celebrate President’s Day and one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln. We were reminded of Lincoln’s incredible leadership, wisdom and courage to make real change this past Fall when the movie Lincoln came out. The movie chronicles a very specific period in history when Lincoln led an unpopular effort to pass the 13th amendment to the constitution outlawing slavery. His decision to force the end of slavery as the Civil War was drawing to a close was not a political one, in fact it was politically very unwise. Yet he believed deeply that it was the right action at the right time for our country.

In this clip from the movie he talks about Euclid’s ideas about geometric equality as a metaphor for human equality and the need for the end of slavery.

As a true leader, Lincoln did what was right, not what was easy. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it. It demonstrates what true social change leadership looks like. Lincoln had a passionate vision for change and had the courage, strength and tenacity to bring it to fruition. He is a model for us all.

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Are You a Social Entrepreneur?

I’m excited to report that a week from today, July 26th, I will be participating in a live online chat at the Foundation Center’s Grant Space website, titled “Are You a Social Entrepreneur?“.

Abby Chroman, leader of global community curation for AshokaHub, and I will be fielding questions from the audience about social entrepreneurship, social change, nonprofit innovation, capacity capital, social return on investment and much more.

Some of the questions we’ll be discussing include:

  • What qualities do social entrepreneurs possess?
  • How is this concept different from traditional corporate structure, even one with a socially-minded mission?
  • How do you truly accomplish social change vs. simply doing “good” work?
  • How can nonprofits especially incorporate some of this thinking to be successful in fulfilling their missions?
  • How do you measure social impact and return?

But the majority of questions are up to the audience. This live chat will happen entirely in the chat window on the Grant Space website. When the chat goes live, you can submit your questions and comments and interact with Abby and me and other readers, but you can also send questions ahead of time.

So join us! Registration is free at the Grant Space web site here. I look forward to your questions!

Photo Credit: Colin_K

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The Social Capital Markets Conference 3.0

I just registered for this year’s Social Capital Markets Conference held in San Francisco in October. It is my favorite conference in the social innovation space for a number of reasons, and I think this year’s conference (the third) may just be even better.

The Social Capital Markets Conference brings together social entrepreneurs (both for-profit and nonprofit, although the latter have gotten less airtime in past years) and those who invest, or would like to, in them.  Last year it really felt as if the conference and the incredibly talented and visionary people attending it were at the beginning of something pretty amazing, new ways of providing sufficient capital to social solutions.

This year promises to go much broader and deeper exploring the financial tools and vehicles that social entrepreneurs need and how we create them. For starters, Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy is addressing the conference’s tendency in past years to downplay nonprofits and philanthropy at the conference by leading a new “Tactical Philanthropy Track” that will, as Sean has said:

Bring more donors and nonprofits to the “social capital markets table.” To that end, we’re building a series of panel sessions that examine the way in which philanthropy is an integrated part of the social capital markets, not a separate activity. Our sessions will give donors, nonprofits, investors and for-profits the opportunity to examine together the role that philanthropy plays in social capital markets.

Secondly, representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be at the conference to discuss their decision to put $400 million behind their new Program Related Investments program, which I’ve discussed before as a watershed for the social capital market. The SoCap conference website explains what the Gates session will do:

Gates foundation will discuss the foundation’s PRI initiative including the rationale for charitable investment, the value of investment partners to leverage expertise and capital, and the foundation’s hopes for philanthropy in the social capital market. Remarks will be followed by a deep dive into their experience putting this PRI approach to work with Root Capital.

The Gates Foundation decision to put 1% of their capital into a fund to provide risk capital to social entrepreneurs has the potential to encourage other foundations to similarly experiment with new tools for investing in social entrepreneurs, which ultimately means more dollars in the social capital market.

It’s exciting to see what started three years ago as a small conference of less than 600 (a number achieved only at the last minute by a deluge of laid off investment bankers from the financial collapse) becoming arguably the most important conference in the social innovation space. I hope to see you there!

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A Food Fight that Could Change a Country

It seems that social entrepreneurship has come to mainstream America, at least mainstream television. ABC recently launched a new show that provides an on-the-ground look at what a social entrepreneur experiences as they work towards big change.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution which airs Friday nights on ABC is a fascinating look at one social entrepreneur’s journey to “create a food fight that could change a country.”  Formerly The Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver has in recent years become obsessed with changing the way people eat.  He started in his home country of England convincing the government there to completely revamp their public school food program, doing away with processed foods in favor of healthier, more natural meals for their children.

Now he’s come to America, specifically Huntington, West Virginia, determined by the Centers for Disease Control to be the most unhealthy city in America, to revolutionize how that city eats.  His goal is to alter the current trend of high rates of obesity, diabetes, untimely deaths.  He is starting with the school system and along the way waging big fights with the school cooks, the local radio DJ and many other disbelievers.

I find two things fascinating about this show. First, it gives viewers a clear understanding of the drama, the ups and downs, the process of building support for the change a social entrepreneur seeks. As David Bornstein put it:

An important social change frequently begins with a single entrepreneurial author:  one obsessive individual who sees a problem and envisions a new solution, who takes the initiative to act on that vision, who gathers resources and builds organizations to protect and market that vision, who provides the energy and sustained focus to overcome the inevitable resistance, and who – decade after decade – keeps improving, strengthening, and broadening that vision until what was once a marginal idea has become a new norm.

The social entrepreneur is the person who continuously fights through the resistance, the hurdles, the blank stares, the vehement objections until what was once crazy, becomes obvious.

Jamie Oliver is this social entrepreneur.  He has a huge vision and a methodical plan for bringing that vision to reality. He wants to change the way America eats.  And he’s starting with one school in one city in America, slowly building support for his new vision. He finds a group of high school kids who all have personal experience with the dangers of unhealthy eating and forms them into a group of evangelists building support for change among their peers, their relatives, and eventually leaders of the community.

Each week we see the struggles that a social entrepreneur encounters when they are trying to move people, communities, institutions toward big change. It is a thankless struggle, but typical of the social entrepreneur, the pitfalls energize, instead of demoralize, Jamie.  With each setback he is more and more determined that he is on the right path.

The second thing that is interesting to me is that a social entrepreneur is being chronicled in the main-stream media. The idea that someone with a big plan for solving a big problem makes it to prime-time television is really exciting. We’ll see if the ratings, and thus the profit margin, hold up enough to keep it in the mainstream. I’m  hoping so.

So, if you want to see a social entrepreneur on the front lines and be inspired by their vision, commitment, passion and ability to build momentum around an idea, check out Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC tonight.

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Friday, April 9th, 2010 Innovators, Social Entrepreneurship 1 Comment

Nonprofits and the Emerging Social Capital Market

Socap ImageLast week’s Social Capital Markets Conference was an amazing experience.  You really felt as though you were at the beginning of something pretty innovative.

The financial market collapse of the last year has given the emerging social capital markets, where social impact and money converge, a voice and credibility.  Indeed some social investments, like those in the microfinance arena, have actually far outperformed the financial returns of the traditional capital markets in the past year.

Will it last?  And will money begin to flow more readily to organizations and projects that promise a social return?  Will, as some at SoCap forecasted (or perhaps hoped), impact investing become a significant part of a normal investor portfolio in the next five years? Will social impact become a necessary and prevalent part of the traditional capital marketplace? Who knows.   This whole space is evolving, and it is much too soon to understand how it will all play out.

One thing, however, that was lacking in last week’s conversations, and is worth a larger discussion, is how nonprofits, those organizations that have been creating “social impact” since before it was cool, fit into this emerging market. As I mentioned in earlier post, attendees to the session I moderated, “Growth Capital for Nonprofit Social Entrepreneurs,” appeared hungry for information, tools, advice, insight about how their organizations could play in this emerging space.

If you think of the overall market as a continuum with traditional charities on one end and traditional businesses on the other, the social capital marketplace, then, is everything in between.  It most certainly includes social businesses–businesses that not only make a profit, but also contribute some sort of social impact (like wind farms or organic groceries).  And there are emerging investment vehicles that can provide investors a financial return (sometimes equivalent to a traditional market rate return) in addition to a social impact return.

But the social capital market must also include new financial vehicles for nonprofit organizations. In order to effectively provide the public goods that for profit businesses (both traditional and social businesses) can’t or won’t provide, nonprofit organizations require seed funding, growth capital, capacity capital, loans, equity, grants, operating revenue and so on.

Although there was some discussion of these financial needs, the nonprofit side of the social capital market discussion was not as prevalent last week. And indeed some at the conference, including conference co-f0under, Kevin Jones, refer to nonprofits as “our cousins” in this space.  Indeed, the keynoter at the first SoCap conference  last year encouraged the audience to “set aside” nonprofit organizations because they were not what that conference was about.  And I have had a few conversations with leaders in the social business space who have told me: “Innovation will never come from the nonprofit side.  It must come from the social business side.”

But nonprofit organizations are very much part of this conversation and this emerging market. Social impact is not a new thing.  As much as those of us assembled at SoCap last week would like to believe that we are pioneers in all things, we are not.   Many of the financial vehicles emerging in this new space are exciting and new.  But creating social impact through entrepreneurial efforts is not new.

Nonprofit organizations have been around for a long time.  And their reason for being has always been to create some sort of public good that was not addressed by the market.  That is not to say that it has been done right.  Many would agree that the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it are dysfunctional, even broken.  And I think most of us would agree the government sector is fairly broken as well.

But we cannot discount and dismiss either sector.  In the true spirit of the social innovation space, we must recycle and reuse the nonprofit and government sectors, just as we are refashioning the private sector.  We must reconfigure the assets of all three sectors to turn them into more effective, more productive, higher functioning sectors that can work with, not separate from, each other to create solutions.

What does that look like?  It means that venture philanthropy funds are sharing investor prospects with social venture funds and vice versa.  It means that investors interested in a social return have portfolios that include not only social businesses, but also nonprofit deals.  It means that foundations are investing in both for profit and nonprofit social impact organizations.  It means that the SoCap conference list of attendees and speakers come equally  from all three sectors (public, private, nonprofit).  It means that the majority of nonprofit organizations that have an interest in and capacity for growth have access to growth capital and management expertise to scale.  It means that a nonprofit that is solving social problems is just as sexy and gets just as many resources, respect and mind-share as a social business that is doing the same. It means that those working on changing laws to help social entrepreneurs look at both for profit and nonprofit structures, incentives and restrictions.

The creation of the social capital market is a bold, chaotic, possibly insane, but potentially game-changing endeavor that has the power to completely rework how money flows through the market to shape society. Let’s not get bogged down in dichotomies and factions, rather let’s take a bigger picture view of the essence of what we are attempting to do.  And that is to completely reconfigure, and create a productive convergence among, the three sectors. Now that would be innovative.

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