Lights! Camera! Impact!: Social enterprise lessons from the Café Impact Studios

Lights! Camera! Impact!: Social enterprise lessons from the Café Impact Studios

Social entrepreneurs are empowered.

We are empowered by the innate wisdom of our communities. We are empowered by what we know about social and economic justice. We are empowered by purpose and passion – our sense of mission.

But, what is all that empowerment for?

On the outside, we are empowering others. On the inside, we can sometimes feel powerless.

We balance the heady sense of tackling huge problems with the heartbreaking smallness of knowing our work matters, but never enough. We cannot know everything, but we know enough to realize that we are happiest in motion, not in contemplation.

These are the big thematic lessons gleaned from 10 new social change videos from Café Impact, a de facto laboratory in social entrepreneurship formerly known as iOnPoverty. The 10 “how-to” videos feature career building topics such as starting a social change career, changing the world with finances, networking, scaling one’s impact by going small, uncovering a person’s passion and purpose, and making your mentor matter. Watch the videos to draw your own insights.

We got started in 2011 and have learned a few lessons along the way. These include:

Organizational Names Matter: The first name for Café Impact was iOnPoverty. The idea was to drive actions each of us, acting individually, could and should do to advance the cause of economic justice. In our minds, it connoted the “i” in “individual.” In everyone else’s minds, we were confused with donation-seeking anti-poverty groups.

Core Competency Matters: We learned that we are pretty good at making videos, but lousy at reaching a large online audience. Social media marketing isn’t what we know how to do. Instead of hashtag activism, we should have stuck to our core competency — making cool videos.

Leadership Matters: To achieve its full potential, Café Impact’s business model depends upon media distribution, online marketing and social media monetization – not purely video content production. Early confusion about the expertise and experience really required to scale the business resulted in over-reliance on outside consultants and advisors. As the social enterprise’s CEO, I was miscast. Yes, I know a bit about social entrepreneurship and, yes, I’m experienced at launching startups. But if possible, avoid the costly and humbling mistake of assuming that, because the vision is yours, you are the best person to implement it.

Building Online Communities is Over-rated: Over time, we came to realize that people who want to change the world actually want to do it – not talk about it online. Spending a significant amount of time and money developing a robust website with lots of social media bells and whistles was for naught. In this discovery, Café Impact is not alone. Any number of leading “change institutions” have suffered the same fate.

Know What Viewers Want: We structured and presented the video content as interviews with insightful social entrepreneurs. This, of course, is how the social sector thinks of itself. Social entrepreneurship competitions, venture philanthropy, impact investing, grant makers, etc., endlessly feature the iconic social entrepreneur – aka, the visionary leader. Instead, operationally our viewers wanted “learning points” organized thematically. Fun to follow the leader, but to become a leader your information has to be readily accessible.

James Joyce wrote, “Mistakes are portals of discovery.” True enough, if you can find them – and find them fast enough to matter.

I still don’t know whether or not Café Impact is discovering its mistakes fast enough. But in the interim, if you know anyone with gobs of money who wants to invest in the next cohort of social entrepreneurs, activists and change agents, tell them about us.

And, watch the videos. You may find your own pot of gold nuggets.

Jonathan C. Lewis is the founder and host of Cafe Impact, as well as the founder and president of the Opportunity Collaboration.