I've hung my overcoat at the crossroads of media technology and social change for the last 20 years as a journalist, author, and consultant. That includes a book - CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley) which chronicles the rise of online social activism - and bylines at The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, techPresident.com, Social Edge, Industry Standard, Inside, Worth and Contribute magazines, among many other publications. I co-founded three companies, including the pioneering '90s protoblog @NY and CauseWired, my consulting firm currently advising clients on the social commons. In my spare time, I'm an adjunct instructor of social media and philanthropy at New York University.
Are You A Social Entrepreneur? 5 Key Questions You Need to Ask
by Tom Watson
Startup Month here at Forbes is focused in its initial stages on the make-up of successful entrepreneurs. Yet what about that rapidly expanding class of driven, Type A-plus start-up mavens who track a double bottom line – those B Corp-loving, nonprofit launching, cause-oriented talents known as social entrepreneurs? What does it take to launch the next great social enterprise or recruit tens of thousands to the next important social cause? Do you have what it takes? Are you a social entrepreneur?
Well, first a quick definition. In my book, a social entrepreneur is anyone driven to start an entity in pursuit of a social goal. The form used doesn’t necessarily matter: it can be a foundation, a company, a blended entity, a loose cooperative, or an entirely unincorporated alliance of the willing. But to me, the willingness to the start the actual entity, and pursue its growth and success, really matters. Complaining on Twitter about a particular social ill or community problem does not make you a social entrepreneur – building a campaign and working hard to mobilize support online and offline does.
As the career profile for social entrepreneur grows – and more colleges and universities offer it as a program of study – plenty of young people are considering this path. Here then are five questions to ponder in asking the question: are you a social entrepreneur?
1. Are you willing to bootstrap?
Sure, you may have an overnight success and raise investment dollars quickly. But the odds are against it. Successful social ventures usually take year to mature. Charles Best, the founder of DonorsChoose.org, which has facilitated more than $117 million in donations to projects in public schools over the last decade, has a simple litmus test to identify the world-changers from the job-seekers. “At the end of a meeting where you were given water, do you take your cup with you and throw it out, or do you leave it for the custodian to clean up?” asks Best, who first launched DonorsChoose as a high school history teacher to provide public school students in New York with similar opportunities their private school counterparts enjoyed. “Corporate folks leave the cup behind, presuming someone will clean up after them. Boostrappers presume nobody will throw out the cup unless they do.”
Social entrepreneurship 101: Be willing to do it yourself.
2. Can you look down the road?
In 2005, serial social entrepreneur Andrew Rasiej ran for office of Public Advocate in New York City on a platform of increased high-speed Internet access and more open municipal data. He lost. Yet for Rasiej, the cause he’s dedicated much of his career to – increasing the public’s access to digital technology and information – didn’t necessarily rely simply on winning that race. “I knew that even if I didn’t win the office it didn’t mean I was finished being a public advocate,” he recalled. Dealing with the adversity of an unsuccessful political campaign wasn’t something he needed to overcome, because it wasn’t really an obstacle at all. As founder of Personal Democracy Media, adviser to the Sunlight Foundation, and founder of MOUSE.org, a nonprofit helping under-served public school students to become technology leaders in their schools, Rasiej was always advancing the ball – and sees the longer journey as the real story of his work. This viewpoint is common among successful social entrepreneurs. Mari Kuraishi, co-founder of GlobalGiving, an online giving platform started in 2002 (and which I profiled back in March), puts it succinctly: “Are you the type of person who loves the anticipation as much as the result? That’s not a necessary condition, but it helps. There’s a lot of anticipating in a startup!”
Social entrepreneurship 101: Stay patient, take the long view.
3. Is failure an option?
“Being prepared to fail is as important as being prepared to succeed,” says Rasiej, and it’s a point of view you’ll hear from most social entrepreneurs – heck, most entrepreneurs. The willingness to take a chance in succeeding against the odds is a clear marker for the leader of a start-up. Ben Rattray, the founder of the successful online petition platform Change.org, offers this question to those who might follow in his footsteps: “Assume that you work intensely on a social entrepreneurship venture and, after 2 years, fail. At that point, looking back, will you regret having pursued that idea?” Rattray knows about about the ups and downs of a social venture – he founded Change.org in 2006 and scrambled to keep it going, before finding a big upside over the last year and powering campaigns like the movement to pursue an investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin (see my interview from April here).
“A lot of people are excited about social entrepreneurship because it’s the hot new thing,” says Rattray. “They also succumb to unrealistic expectations because of the ‘outlier effect’: all the companies you see are successful (nobody writes about the 90% of ventures that fail), leading people to assume that success isn’t that hard. But the reality is that the odds of success for any venture – particularly social ventures – are quite low.” Adds Kuraishi: “Everyone is different in the way they deal with it, but there are ways that are self-defeating, and others that are painful but ultimately allow you to keep going, wiser in one way or another.”
Social entrepreneurship 101: Prepare to fail, and grow from the experience.
4. Do you know your limitations?
It doesn’t necessarily demand personal humility to start something; indeed, sometimes hubris is a virtue. But to make it succeed over time – and serve that long-standing social goal? That demands both humility and patience. Understanding what you’re good at is crucial.
“When I first started Games for Change, I knew games had the incredible potential for deep learning and social impact, but wasn’t sure I had the skills to run a non-profit,” recalls veteran social entrepreneur Suzanne Seggerman, who founded the social change video games nonprofit in 2004.
“Then I learned about the concept of ‘starters and finishers’ and understood finally that I was a ‘starter’ and needed to be paired with a ‘finisher,’ which at G4C, I was. In social entrepreneurship, people always focus on what they’re good at, what they’re interested in. I think it’s perhaps even more important to figure out what you’re bad at – what it’s a struggle to do.”
Games for Change facilitates the creation and distribution of social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts, and Seggerman explained that it takes a partnership of differing talents to build a long-last social venture. “There’s a spectrum of abilities – starters are on one far end – these are the people who are full of ideas, constantly coming up with new solutions, innovative approaches. They sometimes have an ADD-type profile, with shorter attention spans, and probably lots of project ideas, they are often spread a little thin, with their hands in too many pots. On the extreme other end of the spectrum are the finishers – these are the detail-oriented task-masters. They get things done. They take the big ideas of the starters and implement them. If you want to start something, figure out where you fall on this spectrum and make sure to team up with someone on the alternate end.”
Social entrepreneurship 101: Understand your talents … and limitations.
5. Can you build a team?
Seggerman believes that teaming extreme starters and extreme finishers “can sometimes make the most extraordinary successes.” Or to put it another way: can you realize what you’re good at and supplement that talent by putting together a great team to pursue your social cause?
Here’s how Mari Kuraishi asks the question: “Do you have the people skills to bring together one or more people either as co-founders or a core team that is going to go through the first part of the roller coaster ride you can trust completely and who will have the energy and drive – when perhaps you won’t – to keep the enterprise going?”
Social entrepreneurship 101: Be prepared to build a team.
Notice that none of these questions is related to your belief in your cause or your commitment to changing the world. Yet each of the successful social entrepreneurs quoted in this article have that drive. In many ways, that’s the easy part. Many of us can identify what needs to changed. Some of us can organize a campaign or an organization to pursue that change. But few can see the social enterprise through to sustainability over the long haul.
So with a little added perspective, ask yourself anew: are you a social entrepreneur?
Please send ideas and non-violent screeds to Tom Watson via socialventures <at> causewired.com. Follow Tom’s occasionally fascinating musings of 140 characters or less on Twitter here. Subscribe to this RSS feed for updates to Tom’s Social Ventures blog.