Aarthi Rao

Moments of Serendipity in Driving Social Change: Making your own luck and other observations from the Net Impact Conference

Just as good business requires good strategy achieving social impact takes strong ideas and effective mechanisms for planning and executing those ideas. But while a good plan can guide operations, the best ideas often arise unexpected moments. A few of these moments of serendipity came up at this year’s Net Impact Conference in San Jose, California.

In a keynote talk DoSomething.org CEO Nancy Lublin explained that instances of crisis in which teens reached out to the organization via text message inspired Crisis Text Line, a new text-based helpline spun out of DoSomething.org. Thousands of people text requests for help to 911 everyday, only for those messages to disappear into thin air. Crisis Text Line, which has already helped prevent over 100 suicides and other emergencies, allows people to access urgent services through a text message platform, she said. The service came together when youth started texting DoSomething.org during critical moments such as those related to alleged bullying and rape. While the initial texts were chilling reminders of the threats facing youth, it inspired this much-needed service.

For her co-panelist, Premal Shah of Kiva, serendipity came when Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize and elevated financial inclusion to the global agenda. This moment helped transform Kiva from a shoestring start up to one of the most well known names in micro lending. In this case, serendipity seemingly rose out of luck, but there are steps mission driven organizations can take to cultivate cultures that generate new ideas and partnerships.

Shah explained that by having a diverse board, Kiva was able to expand its operations in ways they never could have predicted. In another moment of serendipity, board member Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, offered to use some of his own capital to give new users a free “trial” of Kiva when he learned of the website’s difficulties in attracting new users. The trial allowed new users to extend a $25 loan to an entrepreneur in a low-income country without dipping into their own pockets. Once entrepreneurs repaid the loan, the free users were sold on the viability of the partnership and were willing to make additional loans with their own funds. This program mobilized more than $1 million in additional funding for Kiva.

Another tactic for promoting serendipity is to cultivate an organizational culture of sharing ideas and asking tough questions. Lublin mentioned this as an important organizational tenet for DoSomething.org, and that all members of the organization, from interns to senior managers, could propose new ideas, spurring feedback and debate.

Asking questions and encouraging information exchange can lead to unexpected benefits for social ventures. In a session about driving sustainability through responsible sourcing, Starbucks Vice President of Global Responsibility Ben Packard noted that conducting social audits of various players in its international supply chain produced opportunities for the company to strengthen its business and philanthropic activities. The audit was simply a step in ensuring compliance with the company’s policies. Nevertheless, it delivered important information to headquarters about the issues most pressing to smallholder farmers by giving the company an outlet for asking new questions directly to coffee growers. This enabled management to improve supply forecasts and better target philanthropy to growers’ true needs.

Simply sharing information can also motivate performance and spread social good. Drew Hylbert, vice president of Technology and Infrastructure at OPower, finds that informing households of how much energy they use in comparison to their neighbors triggers energy saving behaviors the household may not otherwise adopt. A family may not react to data that only reports its own usage habits, but responding to families’ competitive natures and spreading information changed behavior and helped OPower reach a tipping point. The company has helped save more than 3,000,000 kilowatt-hours of energy.

An organization or business can’t expect serendipity to pay the bills. Still, the stories from this year’s conference reinforce the idea that cultures promoting brainstorming, exploration, and debate – and then responding and adapting to new possibilities as they arise can result in opportunities for growth and greater social impact. For the many aspiring social entrepreneurs attending the conference, this may hold an important lesson; a business plan is a critical first step for launching a new social initiative, but its ultimate success lies in knowing whether and how to respond to the evolving realities that will push the idea to new frontiers.

Aarthi Rao is a MBA candidate at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley focused on social impact strategy.

business development