I recently had the pleasure of representing StartSomeGood at the Australian and New Zealand Internet Awards, a joint venture of the domain administrators from both countries which recognises outstanding projects enabled by the internet. I was happy enough just to be there as a finalist for the Innovation Award and was thrilled and surprised when we were announced as the winner.
If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go with others.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different experience between founding Vibewire in 2000 and StartSomeGood ten years later. There were some pretty amazing technological and social shifts during that time which I want to explore in a separate post. What I want to talk about today is, I think, the single biggest difference for me experientially between founding Vibewire and StartSomeGood and that is that with StartSomeGood I have a co-founder.
While I had some truly amazing collaborators over the eight years I led Vibewire, I didn’t have a single person right from the start who was as committed, as on the line, as I was. Having Alex as my constant collaborator at StartSomeGood has been an extraordinary contrast. Even in the midst of our most stressful moments, and they’ve been many, having someone else that you can be completely open and raw with, who is as invested and committed to finding a way forward as I am, changes everything.
Practically, of course, having a co-founder means you can do more from day one, allowing each of you to focus on different critical areas. Having two heads instead of one leads to more and better ideas. But most important, I think, is the way having a co-founder alleviates some of the stresses of startups by making those stresses shared, allowing each of us to express it and get it out rather than bottling it up, and the encouragement and support that comes from this.
One of the keys to sustainability with a cofounder, and with a romantic partner as well for that matter, is compatibility in your freak-outs. One of you needs to be strong when the other is weak. If one person’s freak out triggers the other to freak out it’s just an emo mess. But it just seems that when I’m having a hard day and questioning everything Alex is strong and when he’s struggling I feel able to be practical and optimistic enough for the two of us, and so we continue.
Judged solely in terms of the skills and experience we bring to the table we are not perfect co-founders. Neither of us is technical enough; our skills and preferences overlap more than is optimal. We have too really push ourselves to pick up and stay on-top of things neither of us is naturally inclined to do and, bless him, Alex has stepped up to more of that than me and kept the good ship StartSomeGood moving forward with his leadership and commitment, such as during the recent site re-build. But what matters most this skill-set match is our attitude match; it’s what makes it possible for us to work through the ups-and-downs of a startup together, even as we’ve never lived in the same place.
I’m working near as hard as I ever have at the moment but there’s a lightness and satisfaction to it, a sense of progress and possibility and pride in our achievements. This is not simply from having a great co-founder but a great team, a group of people who share our vision and commitment to making it happen, who bring great energy and innovative thinking to their roles, who I trust to get the job done without supervision or micro-management.
One thing I’m certain about: I’ll never launch a venture without a co-founder again. The difference it makes to your enjoyment, sustainability and ultimately your chances of success are just too great to set out on the epic journey which a startup represents without one.
TACSI, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, has recently taken over management of ASIX, The Australian Social Innovation Exchange, and are exploring how best to carry on their work of connecting and enabling innovators. I’ve am thrilled to be participating in this process by facilitating the input of social entrepreneurs, innovators and those who support their work to help guide the way forward.
This is happening in three ways:
Firstly with 18 Individual interviews with 18 thought-leaders in our sector, including social entrepreneurs such as Brad Krauskopf from Hub Melbourne, Rebecca Scott from STREAT, Brodie McCullock from Space3 in Perth and Marcus Westbury from Renew Australia. Organisations represented include the Foundation for Young Australians, Social Traders, The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, the Centre for Social Impact and the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence. It's a real treat to be able to speak with all these inspiring and committed changemakers and a big responsibility to reflect their insights to the TACSI board.
Thirdly if you’re reading this I’d love you to take ten minutes to fill out this survey.
We all seem to understand instinctively that social innovation emerges best from a supportive community with a diversity of participants and support. The question becomes: how do we achieve that? What is the role than an organisation like TACSI and a program like ASIX can play in helping to foster both a community of innovators and a culture of innovation.
If you care about social innovation in Australia and how social innovators can best be supported this is a chance to help set a direction that makes a real difference for all of us. The survey will only take a few minutes (only six questions!) and your contributions will help guide my report to the board of TACSI and help them map a way forward for ASIX which supports our community and the work that needs doing to create better futures.
This is all happening very fast with my report due next week so the survey will only remain open until Saturday morning. Please check it out. You can also follow the conversation and share your thoughts on Twitter via the #asixnext hashtag.
If you have any questions about the unification of ASIX and TACSI they should be directed to Martin Stewart-Weeks, a director on the TACSI board and co-founder and Chair of ASIX.
The social entrepreneurship world is all atwitter about the latest New York Times column by David Brooks which questions the effectiveness and strategic usefulness of social entrepreneurship. On some level it feels hardly worth responding to, just check out the opening paragraph:
If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good….
So, this is clearly going to be another one of those columns typical of David Brooks-types, to take their limited personal experiences and exposures to what’s happening in the world beyond their local coffee shops and think tanks and spin that out into a grandiose theory to describe some supposed trend in the world. So you can guess what’s coming next:
It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.
That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.
World, meet Brooks’ latest straw man, a caricature of social entrepreneurs based, it seems, on a few people he has met at “a certain sort” of coffee shop and conference, although he doesn’t tell us what sort that is (presumably the sort that draws someone like David Brooks).
This is almost too-silly on its face to waste effort on, as the google search Brooks clearly couldn’t be bothered doing will instantly turn up numerous social entrepreneurs working on exactly these issues: increasing the rule of law and reducing corruption, both in the United States and all around the world.
Brooks is right that a country where law and order have broken down is not fertile ground for social entrepreneurship. You won’t find a lot of NGOs in Somalia. But surely no-one would argue that business and government should be left simply to monitor themselves? Once democratic rights are won they must constantly be maintained and re-imagined to serve the needs of each generation. It feels particularly odd for a conservative like Brooks to dismiss the role of citizens to hold the political system to account from the outside.
Hence the need for third sector players like Transparency International, founded by social entrepreneur Peter Eigen, which works to expose and reduce the culture of corruption worldwide, exactly the sort of initiative Brooks seems to be calling for. Change.org, founded by Ben Rattray, just listed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year, is expanding political participation and involvement, the Cost of Freedom Project is working to help people register to vote, the starting point for political participation in the US, and organizations like Teach for America, Global Citizen Year and The Association of Young Americans amongst many many others are inspiring the next generation of involved citizens.
In Australia organizations like Vibewire, Our Say and Left/Right play a similar role. Third sector advocacy organizations like GetUp in Australia, MoveOn in the United States and Avaaz globally, and those like them focused on every issue you could imagine, very directly engage in lobbying government and mobilizing public sentiment around specific policy debates. You could literally go on listing social entrepreneur-founded and led organizations which engage directly with the political process all day, hundreds of counter-examples to what Brooks claims is the “prevailing ethos” of social entrepreneurship which seeks to “evade politics”.
Naturally you could also list (and meet in coffee shops) social entrepreneurs working to affect change outside the political process, on issues like hunger and landmine removal, educational reform and peace-building, leadership development and mentoring, inventing more sustainable technologies and distributing life-saving medicines and everything else you could imagine. Do all these social entrepreneurs successfully change the world? Of course not. But market failures and government negligence abound and working to support each other locally, regionally and internationally is both a form of community self-preservation and a fundamental human instinct which has saved and changed millions of lives.
In the diversity of efforts arrayed against a variety of challenges we find things that work and, often in partnership with government and increasingly with business, push those solutions forward to reach greater levels of impact, to save more lives, empower more communities, facilitate greater participation in our democracies and support those still fighting for that same opportunity in their countries.
We need all these changemakers, and more, to bring about change on all scales and create better futures for our communities. We need to support programs that inspire new people to get involved in creating change, not deride their desire to serve as naive and ineffective as Brooks does. Social entrepreneurs are the innovators and risk-takers of civic society, often pioneering new approaches which are adopted and scaled by governments, and holding governments responsible for the impacts of their decisions. Their optimism is based not on naivety but pragmatism, on being resolutely focused on getting things done.
I only hope that Brooks chooses his coffee shops and conferences a little better in future as I’m sure he’d learn a great deal from greater contact with a wider spectrum of social entrepreneurs and come to appreciate the many ways their passion and commitment manifests in an open society.
Clay Shirky is fond of saying that when it comes to online communications “more is different.” Similarly, when it comes to philanthropy, less is different.
The last half-decade has given rise to many incredibly exciting advances in the area of online giving and community building. Causes has allowed us to give to organizations right from inside Facebook. Razoo, First Giving, Citizen Effect and the like made it possible to create personal fundraising campaigns for causes we care about. Kiva made microfinance something we could all participate in, and Global Giving connects us to development projects around the world.
These platforms, along with similar trends in political giving most famously leveraged by the Obama for President campaign, have created an explosion of a new type of philanthropy: mircro-philanthropy. But we will never fully realize the transformational potential of both the new technologies and behaviors behind micro-philanthropy if it continues to be locked up in walled gardens with only American 501c3 organizations given access.
My colleagues and I at StartSomeGood.com are changing this dynamic. We believe that the “nonprofit sector” is less important than the “social good sector”, that great world-changing ideas can come from anywhere and that socially-minded for-profits can be as effective at bringing about change as traditional non-profits.
We know that important work is being done by unincorporated groups and social change freeagents. We want to break down the silos that say only a specific type of incorporated institution in one country on earth is given access to sophisticated online fundraising tools. We want to dispel the myth that tax-deductability is an important driver of giving behavior because, truth be told, below a certain threshold it simply isn’t.
What are important drivers of giving behavior? Great stories, inspiring visions for a better world, a personal connection to an issue and relationships with people affected or involved are just some of the elements we know inspire people to contribute to a social good initiative. These elements are powerful, irrespective of tax status. More important, by far, are the ideas, inspiration and credibility of the entrepreneur doing the asking.
There is no shortage of challenges confronting our communities and our world, but within each obstacle lies an opportunity. An opportunity to rise up to meet those challenges head on, fostering new changemakers and more resilient communities in the process. We do not have an ideas shortage. Rather, we face an implementation shortage, caused in part by the walls we have built around the fundraising process - defining too narrowly where these opportunities should originate and why people would choose to support them. These walls have led to less change, less opportunity and less difference.
StartSomeGood.com is breaking down these walls, and I hope you will join us.
Photo by JMC Photos on flickr, made available on a creative commons license.
Last week I launched the third in the Stories of Change eBook series I have developed at Ashoka. It's a really interesting one - 20 social entrepreneurs ranging in age from 14 to their 60s and representing 5 continents think ahead to the year 2020 and the world they would like to see, as well as the steps they are taking this year to move us in that direction. I've grown fascinated by this idea of people who "live in the future" lately - people who have a vision for a different world and consciously work to shift events to bring this world into being. This book contains the words of many of these people and it was a real pleasure to gather their stories. I hope you enjoy it also. [scribd id=27075293 key=key-9xro7yneqqoi3135jje]