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social entrepreneurs

On MLK Day, The Perseverance of the Social Entrepreneur


Today we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who arguably could be called one of the first social entrepreneurs. The thing about social change is that it can be incredibly difficult, heart-breaking and time-consuming. It takes a tremendous tenacity to persevere until change comes.

One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King, which I think of often, counsels us to be patient and believe in change. Speaking on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in March of 1965, King said:

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?”….

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.

How long?  Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow….

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

You can watch a clip of that speech above, or click here to watch it if you are reading this in an email.

And I’m also reminded of this beautiful blog post that Kjerstin Erickson, a social entrepreneur working with African refugees, wrote three years ago. As does any social entrepreneur, she had grown tired of the slow pace of change. But with King’s words she found solace and the will to move forward:

And yet, we’ve all found ourselves in moments like these. It’s part of the process of reconciling the world we want with the world we live in. To make it through such times, we often have no option but to turn to the words of those wiser than we. On this national holiday, it’s a fitting tribute to Martin Luther King’s legacy that to recognize the role that his words continue to play in the internal struggles of so many of us seekers. For me personally, King’s words on the human struggle for a loving world are the first I turn to when in need of clarity or solace. To me his brilliance lies in the way that he never told anyone anything new, but rather elucidated the truths they always already knew. If you find yourself struggling with any of the questions I asked above, perhaps you will, like me, find your answer within yourself through the words of these timeless passages.

All of us working toward social change must remember these words. There are times when the end goal seems so far away, when the hurdles appear completely insurmountable. It is at those very times that you must pick yourself up, take a deep breath, and move another step forward.

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Echoing Green Fellowship Application Goes Live Soon

It’s that time of year again. The Echoing Green application is about to go live. In their annual competition, Echoing Green looks for promising entrepreneurs starting up new organizations aiming to create large-scale social impact. The Echoing Green Fellowship awards up to $90,000 of start-up capital and two years of technical assistance to help get your organization off the ground. They fund nonprofit and for-profit startups.

The application will be open online from December 4th to January 7th, but you can get a head start by:

  • Reviewing the application questions
  • Reading the guide about how to answer the questions
  • Watching a few short videos on the application process
  • Signing up for informational webinars targeting underrepresented applicants (including African Americans, US Latinos, and women)

And while you are waiting for the application to go live you can also read my past interview with Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green and my review of her book, Work on Purpose.

To learn more about the Echoing Green fellowship or to access the application when it goes live, go here.

Good luck!

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Creating UnSectored Social Innovation: An Interview with Jeff Raderstrong

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jeff Raderstrong, founder and editor of UnSectored, an online platform for people interested in developing collaborative efforts to create social change. In addition to the online platform, the UnSectored community uses offline events and activities to identify intersections, facilitate discussions, encourage cross-sector collaboration, and promote cross-sector change efforts. Jeff is also a community engagement consultant and has worked for Venture Philanthropy Partners, among other organizations on the front lines of social innovation.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: You and some friends started the UnSectored blog a year ago to encourage the nonprofit, public and private sectors to break down their walls and work together on social change. How has it worked so far? What are you seeing?

Jeff: The blog was a first step in changing the conversation around social change to focus not on individual components—social enterprise, nonprofit, corporation social responsibility, government innovation, etc—but to consider the entire ecosystem. Social change is a complex task and, to us, it seemed silly to have all these conversations separately, with people not really paying attention to what those with similar (or identical) goals were doing.

In that way, the blog has been successful in providing that space. The response we received was way more positive than we were expecting, because our core message is a pretty simple one—that social change is the responsibility of all individuals, organizations, and sectors, and that everyone should work together. But there had not been a place for discussion around that idea, so it resonated with people.

There’s still a lot more work to do, obviously, and UnSectored can’t do all of it. We are providing the platform for the community that believes in this idea—what’s next is up to the people who join that community.

Nell: Your fellow bloggers at UnSectored are all part of the Millennial generation. Do you think the notion of “unsectoredness” (is that a word?) is a particularly Millennial one?

Jeff: Answer to first question: Yes! You just put it on the internet, so it’s now a word!

Second question: I do not think there is anything inherent about the ideas behind UnSectored that make it explicitly a millennial endeavor. The work on UnSectored has been done primarily by millennials, but I think that’s just a function of the people I reached out to (my peers) rather than who the idea resonates with most. We have gotten response on this from people of all ages and backgrounds—I think it’s a universal idea.

That being said, I do think it’s a relatively new idea, born out of the more collaborative and connected nature of the brave new world we live in. The new tools available to people make it much more easier now than ever before to work together. For millennials, this isn’t “new,” this is the way we were raised. Because of that, we get it a little quicker than others, but I don’t think that makes it “ours” at all.

Nell: In addition to the blog you are also doing UnSectored Talks and Working Group Actions. What are these and what are you hoping they will accomplish?

Jeff: We have four components to UnSectored: Blog, Talks, Actions, Campaigns. The blog is relatively straightforward, as are the Talks: Both are ways to engage with open and intentional conversations around social change. The Talks are offline, the blog is online.

The other two components are trying to leverage the power of the UnSectored community to move from discussion to action. The Actions are the offline, coordinated version of this, and the Campaigns leverage the online platform of UnSectored. By giving people the option to engage in discussion and action, both online and offline, we hope to meet people where they are and get them to engage the best they can.

Nell: How geographic is your movement? Is it growing beyond the D.C. Metro area?

Jeff: It’s centered on DC, but we’ve been talking to people around the country. Because we aren’t funded and rely on volunteer time, it’s hard for us to have events in other places. But, we are looking for creative ways to partner with other organizations around the country. If you have some ideas, let us know!

Nell: Many of your fellow bloggers work for high-profile organizations within the social sector space (Venture Philanthropy Partners, Calvert Foundation, Council on Foundations, etc.). Do you find that your employers buy into the UnSectored idea and if so what are they doing to make it a reality?

Jeff: They definitely do. I think we all get inspiration for UnSectored from our other work. More and more, people at all types of organizations—high profile or not—are beginning to see how working together can produce better outcomes and create more transformative change. Personally, I’ve worked on the Social Innovation Fund initiative from the Obama administration, a great example of “unsectoredness” at work: The federal government partnering with funders and service providers to better leverage resources and encourage innovation. This initiative, which many of your readers are probably familiar with, is a great example of UnSectored’s core principle: That by working together, we can do much more than working alone.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2012

In the world of social innovation, May was most definitely about innovations in philanthropy and funding of social change. From social impact bond experiments, to hybrid foundations, to impact investing, to the Giving Pledge 2.0, there was much discussion and debate about how funders of social change should and are innovating. And that is very exciting because it is not enough for social entrepreneurs to push things forward, we desperately need new financial vehicles to fund those social change efforts.

Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in May, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. If you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest. And if you want to read 10 Great Reads lists from past months, go here.

  1. First up is social impact bonds (or pay for success bonds), a very exciting, new way to fund nonprofits that achieve improved social outcomes that result in public sector savings. McKinsey released a new report on the potential for social impact bonds in the US. And Minnesota is one of the first states to experiment with these bonds with a $10 million pilot.  Twin Cities Business magazine explores the idea and Kate Barr of Minnesota’s Nonprofit Assistance Fund gives an overview of the idea, resources and further conversation.

  2. This month’s second annual meeting of those wealthy individuals who signed Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge (a public promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity in their lifetime) showed some real interest in impact investing, or using their money to make money while creating social change at the same time. Laura Tomasko argues why their interest in impact investing (both mission-related investments and program-related investments) is such an exciting opportunity. And Lucy Bernholz takes their interest in impact investing in another direction arguing that “this century’s great philanthropists should aim not just to match history’s great givers in their largess, but also in the creation of mechanisms and institutions that serve the future as well as their predecessors served the past.”

  3. Finally, in a very exciting move, the Obama Administration has proposed an expansion to the rules about how foundations can use program-related investments (low or no interest loans to social change organizations) and some community foundations are already getting into the game.

  4. And from the nonprofit side of the financial equation comes the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s effort to debunk the myths around endowments as a road to nonprofit financial sustainability.

  5. Financial sustainability must always be on the mind of social change organizations, as this cautionary tale from the North Carolina YWCA that had to close its doors because of poor financial management and oversight demonstrates.

  6. Has the drum beat against judging a nonprofit based on overhead costs gone mainstream? An op-ed in the LA Times argues that administrative costs are “no way to judge a charity.”

  7. At the Social Earth blog Thien Nguyen-Trung cautions against an overemphasis on growth among social entrepreneurs and instead argues for “impact offtakers” or an exit strategy for social entrepreneurs to hand off their solution to government or another larger entity instead of trying to reach scale on their own.

  8. And Patrick Lester seems to agree in his argument that it’s not enough to fund social change solutions: “Foundations and philanthropists need to step forward and fund not just innovation, but advocacy too–only then will our best ideas be taken to scale.”

  9. There were several articles about exciting, innovative approaches to solving food problems. From a $125 million loan fund for healthy food outlets in California, to urban farming in Detroit, to a very successful nonprofit grocery store in Portland, Oregon.

  10. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review Matthew Forti offers 6 things nonprofits should avoid in their theory of change (their argument for what they exist to accomplish).

Photo Credit: C. Frank Starmer

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Real Innovation in Social Change Lies in Reinvention

I’m excited to announce that I have a new post up at the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Mission:Innovation blog. It is reprinted below. The Chronicle’s Mission:Innovation blog is one of my favorites and was launched last year. Nicole Wallace, a senior writer at the Chronicle, manages the blog, which “reports on nonprofits that are taking bold, new approaches to the way they work, explores what charities can learn from other disciplines, and provides advice from experts on how organizations can better foster new ideas.”

I’m honored to contribute to the blog. Here is the article:

“Innovation” has become such a buzzword lately, particularly among people working on social change. But let’s take a step back and talk about what the word could really mean. Innovation is more than just new ideas. To me, it means taking a completely new approach to how we finance, structure, and prove social change.

The nonprofit world has never lacked new ideas to address problems. In fact, you could argue that nonprofits are innately entrepreneurial, being borne out of a recognized market failing and a new idea to remedy it.

The need, then, is not more new ideas. Rather, true innovation lies in reinventing a field built on social change.

Here are some ways that is starting to happen:

New support mechanisms. The avenues for sending money to social-change efforts are increasing significantly. What started 10 years ago with venture philanthropy has now expanded into nonprofit campaigns to raise growth capital, foundation loans and other investments in organizations, social-impact bonds, and investments that seek both financial and social returns. And that creates an opportunity for social-change efforts to be much more flexible and (we hope) successful, because access to enough and the right kind of money can often make or break a great idea.

A converging economy. We used to suffer from pretty strict delineations among the public (government), private (business), and nonprofit sectors, but that is changing. True innovation is happening where those lines blur—like businesses that make a profit solving social problems. Or governments developing new mechanisms to finance and evaluate nonprofit efforts, such as the Department of Justice’s Pay for Success program.

Proof of social change. Nonprofits used to be viewed as benevolent charities that received donations to support their good work. That’s not enough anymore. Nonprofit donors and social investors are increasingly demanding a social return on investment—proof that the organization is making a difference—in exchange for their money. And nonprofits are now competing not only with other nonprofits but also with for-profit social entrepreneurs. So nonprofits can no longer focus on how many children they’ve read to, meals they’ve served, or animals they’ve saved. They must track and prove how they have changed lives, changed systems, or changed communities.

Although these innovations are encouraging, there is room for so much more. What if:

  • The best and the brightest of Generation Y worked to remake existing organizations from the inside out instead of just starting their own social-change groups?
  • The social-capital market that’s emerging to provide financial vehicles for budding social businesses also included support for social entrepreneurs in the nonprofit world?
  • Venture-philanthropy funds (growth capital for nonprofits) shared investor prospects with social-venture funds (growth capital for social businesses) and vice versa?
  • All nonprofits interested in growth and with a proven model for success had access to enough capital and management expertise to expand?
  • A nonprofit that solves social problems received as many resources and as much respect and attention as a business that solves a consumer need?

These things require sweeping, fundamental changes to the current structures of the nonprofit, government, and private sectors. To me, that’s real innovation.

Photo Credit: mademoiselle lavender

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Technology for Good: An Interview with Craig Newmark

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist, the web-based platform that has fundamentally changed classified advertising. In early 2011, Craig launched craigconnects, his initiative to link everyone on the planet using the Internet in order to bear witness to good efforts and encourage the same behavior in others.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: You seem to be a different breed from other high-tech philanthropists. What is your philosophy about philanthropy? For you, what’s the best way to do it?

Craig: I’m a nerd, and can be somewhat simplistic. If there’s some area where I can help, I should to that. My broad theme is “technology for good”, where people work together using social media for the common good. So, I proceed on that basis, finding groups who are good at something, usually using tech, at least using social media for outreach, fundraising and more.

Nell: Why is Craigslist Foundation winding down? How and why did you come to that decision?

Craig: I’m not really a part of CLF, and I think the consensus was that it had run its course, and had accomplished a lot.

Nell: With Likeminded and craigconnects you obviously have an interest in making the social sector more transparent and integrated. Do you think that is happening? Are those working on social change (nonprofits, foundations, social entrepreneurs, social investors) getting better at sharing information and what will encourage that?

Craig: I feel that people in the social sector are starting to work together in more and better ways, but it requires folks like me to nudge them together. In particular, I’m chatting with nonprofits about promoting each other in social media, with little success so far.

Nell: A big part of craigconnects is to get nonprofits to collaborate more effectively. Collaboration is often a tricky concept in a sector where the reality of scarce resources breeds constant competition. How do you reconcile collaboration and competition in the space?

Craig: I don’t know yet, but will figure it out, with lots of help.

Nell: Part of the craigconnects model is that you vet the nonprofits that you showcase there based on ratings services like CharityNavigator and GuideStar, so what do you make of recent efforts to move nonprofit ratings systems to outcomes as opposed to use of funds? What are your thoughts on how we create meaningful ways to evaluate nonprofits?

Craig: I think that real measures of nonprofits will involve their effectiveness, but the means of doing so are still under development. Charity Navigator, GuideStar and GreatNonprofits are making real progress.

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The Next Generation of Philanthropy: An Interview with Jessamyn Lau

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jessamyn Lau. As Program Leader of the innovative Peery Foundation, Jessamyn helps shape the foundation’s strategy, develops programs, strengthens the foundation’s portfolio, and supports existing grantees. Jessamyn’s MBA from Brigham Young University and time spent with Ashoka U have given her the perspective and skill-set to help the foundation develop new methods to support and build the field of social entrepreneurship. Jessamyn is currently working with BYU’s Ballard Center to create the Peery Social Entrepreneurship Program (PSEP), a cross campus initiative providing opportunities for students and faculty to engage with social entrepreneurship through curriculum, experiential learning, and research.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: At the Peery Foundation you have done some really interesting experiments with social media, even adding an element of crowd-sourcing via Twitter to your strategic planning process. But recently you have gone back and forth about whether you want to continue your PFWhiteboard blog. What has your thinking been about how social media fits into the overall work of the Peery Foundation?

Jessamyn: One thing we know about social media is that it’s a good tool for is spreading the word about our partners and their work. 90% of what we post/tweet is about our portfolio partners. Every now and then we try to figure out how else to deliberately use social media. We’ve tried stuff that hasn’t worked (so we stopped doing it), and we’ve tried stuff that did seem to yield value for us and others. In general it’s still throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks. Intuitively we think social media is a good thing for our creativity, learning, and listening, however, we don’t feel tied to it as a core part of our strategy or practice. When it makes sense we use it, when it doesn’t we don’t.

Nell: What do you think holds foundations back from using social media and embracing greater transparency? What do you think will make that change?

Jessamyn: The tricky thing with social media is it’s really hard to link it to outcomes. Even when tangible examples of outcomes are illustrated it’s often a first-mover advantage and not something that will produce the same results if everyone did the same thing. If foundations could see how social media directly led to more impact it would be an easier sell. It’s a similar story with transparency. Being transparent requires change, time, dedication and a certain amount of risk. Without a clear and strong argument for how that leads to more impact it’s easier not to take the risk and stay quiet.

Another issue is strategic planning, which, at times, can become more of a bane than a boon to foundations. When it comes to social media many foundations think they need a strategy and a full blown plan before they will start using it. As with many things it’s hard to know exactly how Twitter or Facebook will be useful until you give it a go and play around a
little.

For the most part I think the change will only come with an increase of millennial philanthropists, foundation ED’s and program officers who come with a share-as-default mentality and bias towards creative experimentation in public.

Nell: You recently did a fascinating blog post about how the social entrepreneurship movement is encouraging young people to think they can solve the world’s problems, without much real world experience. How do we balance Generation Y’s zeal to find solutions with their youth and lack of experience?

Jessamyn: I don’t think I know the full answer to that, yet. My opinions on this point are still developing as the Peery Foundation works closely with BYU to build a cross-campus social entrepreneurship program. I’m not sure the overall problem is too much zeal or youth, or even too little experience -all of these things provide incredible value in the right context. I think what’s lacking are clearer expectations and support for students to build self-awareness and deliberate preparation in their development as social innovators. As I said, I’m still figuring it out -watch the PF Whiteboard over the coming months for more on this.

Nell: The Peery Foundation is one of few foundations that do mission-related investments. How did you decide to move into that realm and what do you think holds other foundation back from MRIs?

Jessamyn: Our primary function is to support and serve the social entrepreneurs we work with. We try to keep our funding as flexible as possible. Peery Foundation funding is generally unrestricted and the structure of a grant is often co-crafted with the entrepreneur. We have come to realize that entrepreneurs with differing business models, or at differing life-cycle stages, need different types of capital. Once we believe in a SE and their model for addressing poverty we want to always be open to providing the type of capital that they need at the time they need it.

We’re still at an early stage in developing our capacity to provide debt and other funding outside of philanthropy. In our philanthropic funding we’re not paper heavy and our agreements are very trust-based. It was definitely daunting to explore this new realm of traditional investment due diligence and contractual agreements. So far we’ve found the kind of support we need to help us make the leap fairly painlessly through the Toniic Network, and from sources such as Silicon Valley Community Foundation and University Impact Fund, and still feel like we’re able to retain our low-paper, trust based partnership approach to the extent that makes sense.

Nell: In some ways philanthropy has been a bit left behind by the impact investing movement. Why do you think that is and do you think philanthropic giving and impact investing will become more integrated?

Jessamyn: The potential of impact investing is huge, though I’m not sure I agree with the statement that impact investing (ii) has left behind philanthropy (charitable giving from individuals, corporations and foundations totaled over $290B in the US alone for 2010, impact investing is estimated at $50-100B in 2011). Though there is a lot of attention and discussion surrounding impact investing, there are still relatively few organizations actively channeling dollars to ii. Even in the future (when I think ii will absolutely eclipse philanthropy by the numbers), I see ii and philanthropy as very complimentary. In many cases philanthropic capital prepares the way for ii dollars, or continues to fund pieces of a model (overhead or continuing innovation) that ii capital can not.

Indeed, there are many incredibly efficient and effective models of social entrepreneurship with models not conducive to impact investment capital – they will probably always rely on philanthropic dollars. There will always be an important role for philanthropy to play. Philanthropy is the ultimate risk-taking capital. We should not lose sight of this or think that ii is here to replace philanthropy.

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Are You the Next Echoing Green Fellow?

Echoing Green has launched their annual search for social entrepreneurs. Each year, Echoing Green identifies promising social entrepreneurs with bold ideas to solve society’s most pressing problems and provides them with up to $90,000 in seed funding, strategic support, leadership development, and a powerful community of nearly 500 other Fellows and alumni. To date, Echoing Green has invested nearly $30 million in seed funding to almost 500 social entrepreneurs and their organizations.

Echoing Green is a great organization and a real pioneer in the social entrepreneurship space. To find out more, you can read my interview with Lara Galinsky, SVP at Echoing Green, and read about English at Work an Echoing Green fellow and Social Velocity client transforming the lives of ESL service workers.

Echoing Green’s online Fellowship application will be open from December 5, 2011 to January 9, 2012. You can find out more about the Fellowship application process here and you can sign up to receive the latest news on the process here.

Good Luck!

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