Publication: What’s Holding Us Back?

Leave a comment

I recently wrote a short paper critiquing the way we practice social innovation and social enterprise, based on observations and conversations from both the UK and Australia. It is borne out of growing frustration that despite huge amounts of time, finance and talent, we are not seeing any significant change in the underlying problems that people are trying to solve.

It highlights the mistakes that I have seen time and time again made by people and organisations trying to tackle social and environmental problems. It also presents opportunities for us to be more effective, and outlines potential steps we could take.

The paper can be downloaded below:

What’s holding us back

Advertisements

The dangers of a ‘cult’ of entrepreneurship

3 Comments

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the rising trend of entrepreneurship. On reflection, I’m not really sure what I was trying to say with that blog, apart from perhaps that entrepreneurship is good. Or cool. Or something.

Because of events over the last couple of weeks, I’ve swung round to take a different perspective on it.  One of the developments is that I’ve lost some of my attachment to the concept, and have therefore I think a slightly more objective and balanced view on the matter.

Entrepreneurship has its place and is hugely important. It’s important for economic development, although I don’t care too much about that. My interest is more in its societal value, and in that sense it drives new solutions to social problems and new ways of thinking. But the answer to every problem is not to set up a new organisation. A new enterprise is not always the answer. I do think a lot of socially minded entrepreneurs are aware of this – some definitely more than others – but I have noticed a definite trend in social entrepreneurship becoming more fashionable.

Recently I was chatting with Tom Dawkins about how we’ve observed more people aspiring to be a social entrepreneur. It is the concept they are attached to, rather than a specific cause (great article here). Many, Tom included, stumbled in to social entrepreneurship without knowing the term, but simply because it was their way of tackling a social need they had identified. Social entrepreneurship is not an end in itself, it is a means, a toolkit for getting good done.

Now I think it’s great that more people want to learn the tools to get good done and people are drawn towards it. The problem is, you don’t just need social entrepreneurs to tackle social problems and you potentially draw people away from other roles that are hugely valuable.

What about the social ‘intrapreneurs’ who are working within existing organisations to leverage greater good? The social activists raising awareness and challenging thinking/policy on areas that need change? The connectors who unite people around a cause and do greater good as a result? The innovators who see ways to link together existing organisations and programs, in a way that is more efficient than starting up a whole new one?

When I spoke with Gina May Diana, who is one of the co-founders of an awesome new enterprise called ‘OneCanGrow’ she put a Cheshire cat smile on my face when she spoke about teaching young people to become ‘social changemakers’ through their project rather than just social entrepreneurs. This is the way to do it, not just limit them to one means of creating social change.

I think it’s important to teach young people the following:

1) Awareness of the social problems out there in the world

2) That it is possible to make a difference

3) That doing so is potentially hugely rewarding

4) That you can earn a living doing so

5) The tools and mindset to create social change

And here’s where I will make a crucial distinction. I think that what is typically considered ‘entrepreneurial thinking’ has widespread value for anyone. By that, I mean creative problem-solving, commitment, accepting the possibility of failure, bringing people together.

Such thinking can help on a number of levels. But actually being a social entrepreneur; setting up new enterprises to tackle social problems, is only one way to solve these problems.

I’m going to end up with a horrible cliché!

There are many ways to skin a cat…

(yes, I did just compare a cat to a social problem)

Learning to love your ego

Leave a comment

A gripe I have with social entrepreneurship and the social sector more broadly is that ego often rears its head and interferes with the primary purpose of these areas; to do good. Much of the time the two are aligned; doing good meets our more philanthropic urges and can also give us the status and praise that our ego needs. But there are inevitably moments when what is best for our ego is not what is best for the greater good, and this is where you see people taking ownership, getting competitive and allowing the cause to take a back seat.

I decided a while ago that I didn’t want ego to my motive for doing the work I do – as there would inevitably be times when it bumped in to the more philanthropic motives and indeed that’s proven the case on a number of occasions. There’s no place for ego in a line of work that is dedicated to helping others right? So I made a great decision – I’m going to ignore my ego/beat it into submission until it buggers off. Yeah, because that’s really going to work.

I was faced with a big decision recently, one that really challenged my ego. And my initial reaction when faced with this decision was unquestionably ego-dominated. This was a confusing moment for me, as I hadn’t I decided that my ego wasn’t allowed to influence me? Hmm…obviously it’s not quite that simple.

And then an insight came to me. That it’s futile to try to ignore your ego. Unfortunately having an ego is a symptom of a larger condition called ‘being human’, and I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that all of us share this condition, and therefore all of us have some ego. It’s human nature. We are naturally driven to survive and procreate, so being successful and having status facilitates that. Ego is a strong adaptive mechanism for humans and is an incredibly powerful tool for achieving success and status. Every human has it. Yes, even Ghandi did (sorry Ghandi).

So rather than turning your back on that little creature in the corner of your room called ego, it’s best to look it in the eye (quiet – it’s my blog, and I’ve decided it has eyes. Yeah it’s got ears and a nose too, get over it) and say, ‘Hey, I just met you, and this is craaaaazy, but you’re my ego, and I’ll do what I choose’. Or words to a similar effect. Acknowledge its existence, its potential value in helping you to achieve your goals, but then when it comes in to conflict with your more philanthropic motives then send that ego to the corner of the room. Again, it comes down to first accepting that it exists, and then taking action based on this knowledge. You can use ego to help you, but don’t let it rule you. And don’t pretend it’s not there, as it always will be.

In the bigger picture, for the reasons I’ve stated around human nature I don’t believe pure altruism exists. Although I do recall reading a psychological debate about it that went back and forth with research for 20 years, eventually descending in to semantics and even mocking, snide remarks in the research publications (which were hilariously petty – these are supposedly adults…). Ironically, whilst debating altruism, the two main protagonists were motivated by the need to prove themselves right – their own egos. But I digress…

I believe we are influenced by many motives, which play in to the hundreds of decisions, big or small, that we each make every day. Altruism/philanthropy is one motive, ego is another and then there are more basic motives such as food, safety, sex and the more complex motives such as love, social, growth that are more associated with humans than other animals. The respective strengths of these motives varies depending on situation, context, how well they are being met etc. And there’s overlap between them and so on and oh no…this is in danger of descending in to psychological theory so I’m not going to explore this in more depth for now.

What I will say is that I’m yet to figure out how or why altruism/philanthropy fits in this complex picture of human motives. Although there is an interesting line of research-led thought that this suggests that this is the direction the human brain is evolving towards. I’ll leave that for another blog I’m writing.

I’ve come across some social entrepreneurs who I’m still waiting to really meet, as thus far I feel I’ve only conversed with their ego. Yet, these are people who dedicate their time and efforts to doing good. They’re driven by their ego, but they’ve decided to pursue the success of status that comes with creating social change, rather than just making money. That’s great, and I’m glad the social sector has them rather than the corporate sector. But I think ego as a dominant motive will only take you so far. Perhaps it will come through in small daily decisions, or culminate in one massive decision, but ego will make it harder to put your own desires aside in the favour of the ‘greater good’. It’s also fragile and needs regular feeding in order to be happy.

Ego is an incredibly powerful driving force. But I think those of us working within the social sector need to be aware of the role it plays within each of us so that when push comes to shove, and we have to choose between doing something that benefits us or that benefits the cause we’re trying to help, the hammer comes down on the latter. Every time.

I’ll end with a quote from Jack Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organisaton:

“Ego and money make for good slaves, but poor masters.”

 

Is ego your slave, or your master?

Social entrepreneurship: Breaking down the myths

1 Comment

I enjoyed reading this article. The Guardian have been pretty active over the last few years with the growth of social enterprise, so it’s little surprise to see that articles like this have found a home with them. I strongly agree with that David Floyd says about the ‘cult’ of the social entrepreneur (and it being potentially harmful), although the article loses its way a bit towards the end and unfortunately doesn’t explore the suggestions that different personalities and characters are required to initiate and sustain social change.

My agreement with what the author says about the concept of the ‘heroic social entrepreneur’ partly stems from the fact that I myself got caught up in the hype of it, and have only recently started to gain perspective.

For me, and I think many others who go down this route, the interest stems from how you could have a positive social impact on a bigger scale. I had already learned how to do so on a local community level, but spreading this wider required a different set of tools. I was already aware of the charity model, but had seen how poor organisational skills and sustainability thinking had led many of these to spend a great deal of time chasing up funding to survive, rather than having impact.

And so the term ‘social enterprise’ kept cropping up everywhere – the idea of an organisation with a social mission that if well-run is as efficient and effective as a successful corporate business. And guess what, there were plenty of organisations out there proving that this works. “Well”, I thought, “that sound ruddy marvelous!” (exact thought process may have sounded less like a 1930s Briton).

So If I’m going to set up one of these ‘social enterprise’-y things, what does that make me exactly? This wasn’t really a career path I had read about in school. And then I began to encounter the term ‘social entrepreneur’. This did not mean entrepreneurs who happen to be sociable people, but rather people building/running organisations with a social mission. There were evidently a lot of these people about, and there also seemed to be a lot of hype around them.

At times it’s presented as though these people hold the key to solving all the world’s problems. Sadly, the hype goes to the head of some of those people doing great things in the world. An easy thing to happen. I’ve not yet grown comfortable with the way that some people will lavish praise upon you when you tell them you’re setting up a not-for-profit (any tips?). And yet most of us who choose this route do so because we find it incredibly rewarding and are passionate about our work.

What turns me off is the way some ‘social entrepreneurs’ see being a social entrepreneur as an end itself. I’ve been guilty of this too at times. But it’s not; it’s a set of tools and mindset that enables you to create change, and that change is the bottom line. For some people that change is in isolated communities, for others it’s in poverty-stricken areas, for someone else it’s about youth development. For me it’s about student mental health. I chose ‘social entrepreneurship’ because it stood out to me as the best path through which I could really impact that area. It’s been very refreshing to regain perspective on that.

To go back to the first paragraph, creating and sustaining change does require a range of characters. The social entrepreneur plays a key role, especially in providing the initial drive to get an organisation off the ground. But there are other pieces of the puzzle – one person can’t do and know everything. A good accountant, an investor, advisors, techy…The development of an organisation requires the talents and efforts of a whole team, and the acclaim should be shared out equally – not just centred around one person.

What I’m also learning is that building and maintaining require quite different characters and skillsets. Some people are more suited to the former, others the latter. The visionary can help provide the initial spark to give a new project life, but may not be suited to running its day to day operations once things have calmed down.

I’ll round off by saying that I believe anybody can create change. I’ve seen hundreds of student volunteers amaze themselves by having an impact upon the mental health and wellbeing of their fellow students. Motivation and attitude are most important, you can pick up the skills as you go along.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a social entrepreneur, writer, politician. These are all just enablers. The bottom line is simple: what impact are you having?

The entrepreneurial craze: Driving a new-look modern life?

4 Comments

Since I started spending more time with these somewhat eccentric, entrepreneurial types, a certain trend became very apparent. Irrespective of how well their companies are going, or what stage they’re at, they’re buzzing with life and energy. They apply the same passion and enthusiasm to other areas outside of their work, giving you the feeling that they’re incredibly engaged with their life – every day of the week. It’s infectious.

More and more people seem to be taking up this new way of life (graduate entrepreneurship in the UK is on the rise). But why? It’s high-risk, goes against nearly everything we’re taught growing up, you work crazy hours and offers seemingly little stability (who would try to start a company during a recession!?). Not a great career choice, huh?

Let’s have a look at the typical route through modern life first. It goes a little like this:

  1. Go to school, work hard and develop a good work ethic. Earn good grades to get in to a better university.
  2. Work hard at university, get a good degree, get on the career ladder in a field you want to work in.
  3. Spend the rest of your life working up the career leader to get a bigger paycheck so you can buy a bigger a house, a shinier car and have a fancier wedding.
  4. Teach your kids how to repeat.

Is it just me, or does that sound a bit dull? Not only does it sound like less fun than a Justin Bieber concert, but it also doesn’t really work anymore. My generation is struggling to complete step 2. There are far more graduates than there are jobs available, and most employers will pick experience over youthful enthusiasm.

Increasingly, I’m seeing people fruitlessly searching for jobs or getting unexpectedly laid off. This reality of the stable, settled life is being shaken up. Cracks are appearing and spreading in its foundations, slowly but inevitably. I’d argue that stability and security nowadays is more dependent on our own adaptability than it ever has been before. There are so many changes taking place, and the global financial crisis has truly shaken things up. I can’t see the 21st century becoming much more settled either, the world faces a great challenge and uncertainty.

This modern life hardly inspires passion either. I’ve always felt depressed when I’ve looked at that route, partly because I can’t bear the thought that I already know what the rest of my life looks like. I’m not the only one. Where’s the adventure? Where’s the purpose? The challenge? The surprises? You will be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t like more of these things in their life. It’s hard to put my finger in, but in the UK I gradually picked up on a growing feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration people had with their lives.

A friend of mine, Avis Mulhall, recently appeared in the Irish times to share her story. Particularly poignant for me was this quote from her interview: “I was earning between €120,000 and €130,000, I was in a long-term relationship, we had two houses and two cars, and I thought: ‘Is this it?’” That sounds pretty impressive for someone yet to hit 30, but Avis was far alone in experiencing that ‘Is this it?’ feeling.

It’s created a huge demand and market for these magic quick-fix solutions. Because that’s we’ve learned to look for in our hurried lives.  I see so many ads along the lines of ‘Find your life purpose in THIRTY SECONDS!’ Wow, perfect! I can squeeze that in during the X-Factor advert break AND boil the kettle. Splendid.

But it’s a little harder than that to build a life that you live with purpose and that gives you fulfillment. It takes months or even years, depending on how settled you already are. It requires a full-on change of attitude and way of thinking, not just small tweaks.

What I’ve seen in entrepreneurs, particularly those that are driven by good causes, is that they’ve managed to crack this. They’ve found a life in which they feel engaged and in the moment every day of every week. They love their work, and it makes everything else – travel, relationships, music…all taste a little sweeter. They’re a little more tuned in to all that life offers – whether it be joy or sadness. There’s no such thing as a weekend off and it’s hard to make ends meet (you manage, though), but it’s completely worth it, and you get to take complete charge of your own life. It’s awesome.

Compared to your average employee, these individuals seem so much more excited about their lives. Hardly surprising when you’re allowed to be creative, to contribute to something bigger than yourself and make the seemingly impossible a reality.

I don’t know whether this increase in entrepreneurship will continue, but more awareness of it as viable life choice will hardly do any harm. I really hope we’ll see more people rejecting the notion of spending 5 days a week for the rest of their lives doing an activity they don’t enjoy or believe in (sounds exhausting to me), and doing this to pursue aspirations of consumerism that bring little more than temporary fulfillment. Whilst I wouldn’t proclaim everyone go out, leave their jobs and try to start up a business, I do think a bit more of an entrepreneurial attitude could go a long way.

I hope we’ll see more people rejecting the status quo, the fear of judgement, of failure and chase whole-heartedly after their dream.

Because we all have one, don’t we?

“Once a man crosses the abyss that separates him from his dream, there is no going back.”

– Unknown