Reality 101 For Dreamers: Four Critical Lessons For Social Entrepreneurs

Jan 6 2014, 12:59pm CST | by

Reality 101 For Dreamers: Four Critical Lessons For Social Entrepreneurs
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

Five years ago, I left the corporate world to pursue a social venture of my own – in this instance, a small consulting firm that chooses its clients carefully and emphasizes long, deep engagements and measurable social impact. As my own anniversary passes this week, I’d like to share a few lessons with other social entrepreneurs – lessons that build on not just what I’ve learned over the past five years, but over the last 15 working in (and writing about) the social sector.

These are fairly tough-minded rules, rather than lofty perorations. In my professional work (but not always in my commentary), I tend to focus as much energy on what’s possible within existing social systems as on revolutionary but unworkable ideas. So here than are four big lessons for social entrepreneurs:

1. Choose opportunities carefully

In my experience with social enterprises large and small – including startups, nonprofits, foundations and corporate programs – the single biggest threat to a successful cause isn’t economic uncertainty, but opportunity.

Driven social entrepreneurs live on it, of course. The chance to expand, branch out, fill a service gap, accept a new grant to change your model, act on the last great idea you heard on any given day: this is the siren song of social entrepreneurship. And in our super-connected, data-filled world, almost everything seems possible – and it seems possible now.

Yet time and again, the organizations I’ve worked with – and those I’ve followed closely as a journalist and analyst – succeed via a much slower route. Unlike writing an app or opening a new restaurant, social ventures take time to flower, to build support, to perfect their models, and reach for scale. And quite frankly, that’s how it should be, in most cases. Creating real change in poverty alleviation, or civil rights, or healthcare, or education, or environmental protection means working in already complex social systems – and in the case of nonprofits, with permission to operate without paying taxes, a privilege too often taken for granted.

For established nonprofit organizations – and especially for founders of social ventures – the lure of instant impact can drag an enterprise wildly off course and into rough waters.

2. Attack defeat

Everybody loses. And ever social enterprise stumbles. A grant fizzles, a new program shows no impact or makes a bad situation worse, somebody smart quits, fundraising flops, marketing makes a big misstep, somebody tweets an offensive message – these are everyday failures for most nonprofits and social ventures. And sometimes it’s larger – sometimes, the entire venture goes south and it’s time to close the doors.

But the point of “everybody loses” is exactly that. It means everybody, including all those well-known folks who took their causes to scale and created vast impact – yeah, the people up on stage at CGI and Skoll. What I’ve learned (often the hard way) over the past 15 years is that passivity, resignation, and Kleenex won’t help you when failure hits hard (and it will). From knowledge born of pain I can tell you that action helps, activity soothes, and creativity gets you past it.

So attack defeat. Do the painful post mortem with vigor and intellectual curiosity, stuffing your bruised ego back inside. Speak to people (this may be your board, your partners, your investors, your key partners, your employees), and do some writing. Figure out what went wrong and you own errors – and keep working hard on everything else. That fog will lift more quickly, and as I’ve found repeatedly, how you handle yourself in adverse and painful failure will impact others, and it may lead to new opportunities.

3. Work openly

This is not about organizational transparency or data – this is about your mind. One of the most debilitating afflictions a social entrepreneur can face is the dreaded Blinders Syndrome – the unshakeable belief in a set of ideas and ideals protected by a diamond-like impermeable coating that keeps out intellectual curiosity.

This crowds out both flexibility and your own evolution of thought, and it severely limits knowledge. Yet and the world shifts every day, and given the ease and speed of modern communications, there is always someone else working your side of the street. Listen to what they have to say, be open to new thinking and new research.

Being open means not merely consuming that data; it often means being active in a public (or semi-public) conversation. The digital age rewards thought leadership, particularly for social ventures. It also rewards meetings, even with competitors. In a landscape in which the concept of “collective impact” has taken hold with funders, your social enterprise almost always belongs in a coalition anway.

4. Accept the landscape

This is the hardest lesson of all, especially for committed social entrepreneurs driven by the glorious notion of “changing the world.” Every ad campaign for every great invention tells you that you can. Every motivational speech pushes you to try. Every social commentary highlights those who they say have succeeded. But like a happy retirement that promises a long and secure late life spent in wineries and septuagenarian surfing, it’s largely a pipe dream.

You cannot change the world, at least not on a global basis. Steve Jobs didn’t. Nelson Mandela didn’t. Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden and Barack Obama won’t. And neither will you.

But you can still make a huge difference – if you work (at least in part) within the built landscape, and not entirely against it. That governments, organizations, corporations and any flavor of human association can be flawed, corrupt, blind and agonizingly slow is a given; don’t waste your time complaining. That’s for isolationists and libertarians, neither highly represented in the social enterprise cohort. Rather seek to plug into the social commons where you can have a real effect, where you – as a communitarian – can move a large part of a small mountain.

In my work as a consultant (and leader of a tiny social enterprise) I know that among the organizations I work with there will be dysfunctional boards, weak messaging, poor donor relations, lousy strategic planning, and less than ideal technology. I’ve learned to say, “so what?” and – if I believe strongly in the cause – work a bit harder to fix the structural issues that are able to be fixed, and concentrate on moving the ball down the field.

Source: Forbes Business


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