NexThought Monday: Enough With Impact; Focus on Entrepreneurs
“One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
We’ve reached critical mass. Social enterprise is going mainstream. With all of the buzz, it’s difficult to define who is who … is this organization “impact first” or “do good do well” and are any of these organizations true social enterprises? There have been a lot of over-capitalized efforts to analyze, define and classify social enterprises. However, I think all attempts fall short of what’s needed to keep the sector impact-driven.
Incubators and accelerators are working hard to classify and accredit every newborn social enterprise while other organizations like Acumen, ANDE, GIIN, B Lab and others are centering impact terminology. And yet, across the world, whole swaths of both the private and the public sector are rushing to incorporate social enterprise principles – diversity between groups’ purposes as well as operational strategies is accelerating so rapidly that the enterprise support side of the ecosystem can’t keep up.
Furthering the obscurity spawned by an ever-increasing range of services and products being credited with impact is the reality that impact itself is easily usurped by context. Impact is a moving target. When Edward Johnson built the world’s first electric power plant, the Edison Electric Light Company, he and Edison had the benign goal of bringing the world light. At that time, they didn’t conceive of coal’s power to destroy the planet. In other words, top-down, static definitions or declarations of “impact” cannot keep the sector focused.
Entrepreneurialism is how we stay focused on a moving target. Social enterprise is not about finding a silver bullet. It is about endeavoring intelligently to make the world better and relentlessly evaluating if that is happening, each step of the way. At the sector-wide level and at the organizational level, there is a need for constant catharsis – a raw, incessantly renewed obsession with core mission.
In Sam Walton’s mind, Walmart was founded as a social enterprise. Its faith-based motivation was to make products affordable to America’s poor. On that basis, Walmart has been profoundly successful. Its supply chain and retail model has been replicated by hundreds of others and the cost of basic merchandise is ultimately cheaper for millions of end users. When looking at the whole picture, however, Walmart scores very poorly on impact due to poor employee treatment and careless, profit-maximizing sourcing and procurement strategies. Walton once said, “Our best ideas come from clerks and stockboys,” yet the company seems to have lost much of this people-oriented culture over time.
Pioneers and newcomers alike, every nonprofit and for-profit organization is in constant danger of not making a game-changing, positive impact. If reporting systems and jargon cloud out a social enterprise’s sense of urgency to make an impact, a social enterprise dies.
Rather than celebrating better metrics, definitions, research and structures, we as a sector need to focus on the entrepreneurs behind each enterprise, and the motivations behind each entrepreneur. A social entrepreneur’s power is her core, impact-inspired passion. This core passion is what drives an entrepreneur’s necessary, inhuman talent to adapt, to innovate and achieve what was set out to be accomplished.
Celebrating people’s passions is how we can strengthen the entrepreneurialism that ultimately makes an impact, and keeps making impact. Concentrating on the people who make up or lead an organization doesn’t mean we continue making celebrities out of a handful of people – we already do too much of that in the social enterprise space. It means investors focus on holding entrepreneurs accountable to core values, as entrepreneurs have defined them. And it means entrepreneurs focus on motivating staff in line with those core values.
If we are all able to stay plugged into our core passion to change the world for the better, we’ll be cultivating the exact energy we need to innovate at a speed to keep up with dynamic impact targets.
Photos courtesy of Jibuco.com.