Raising the bar

10 years ago, if you wanted to get into the social impact/social enterprise sector, it was enough to say “I think I want to find ways to take a business approach to solving social problems. That makes so much sense!”

5 years ago, if you wanted to do this work you needed to show that you had some direct, relevant experience, a spike of some sort that allowed folks to connect the dots between things that you’ve done and the work you’re proposing to do now.

Today, the expectation is significant direct experience that matters.

If you want to work with social enterprises in the developing world, the expectation is that you’ve spent real time in the developing world doing related work – a couple of years, not a couple of months.

If you want to be a marketer for a great cause, the pool of applicants shooting for that job have been in the great cause marketing business for a while already.

If you want to invest overseas, the expectation is that you have both investing chops and a direct understanding of the markets and businesses you’d like to invest in.

The great news is, unlike 10 years ago, when you had to a make a giant leap, there are countless opportunities for smoother, more gradual transitions.

To start, it’s never been easier to form a group and take free online courses for social changemakers. Our +Acumen courses are designed for just this, and in the next month you can learn about Lean Data Approaches to Measure Social Impact, Storytelling for Change (available in English or Spanish), and Social Entrepreneurship 101.

Or maybe your path will take you to a mainstream firm that offers a rich set of pro-bono opportunities—like those offered by Bain, Ernst and Young, and PWC—or you’ll go to one of many progressive nonprofits that work with big companies—including Taproot Foundation, TechnoServe, Bankers without Borders and MovingWorlds.

Or you could work directly for a social enterprise: right now Burn, Esoko, and Seed Schools are all hiring.

And of course nearly all the top MBA programs now have social enterprise offerings, including Kellogg School of Management, Stanford Graduate School of Business, The Wharton School, Duke Fuqua School of Business, Yale School of Management and Harvard Business School.

This is what happens when a sector goes from “brand new” to “adolescent.”

Today, the bar is higher, but so are the opportunities to help you get over it.


(Big thanks to Duda and Ashley for helping me get this post over the line)

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The Power of Lean Data

In the last few months, I’ve been writing more about the evolution in how we’re thinking about impact measurement at Acumen. We call in Lean Data.

Until now, there’s really not been a good way for social enterprises to measure their impact in a way that makes sense for them and adds values for their companies and for their customers.

I think we can change that.

For the full soup-to-nuts story of Lean Data, check out the article that we published yesterday in Stanford Social Innovation Review: The Power of Lean Data. I had the great pleasure of writing this piece with Tom Adams of Acumen and Alnoor Ebrahim of Harvard Business School.

SSIR_Lean Data

If you want to go out and use Lean Data, you still have time to sign up for our +Acumen Lean Data course, which starts on Monday. And don’t forget to print out and laminate your own version of our handy-dandy Lean Data Field Guide.

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A philanthropy problem

The easiest thing to forget when you are raising funds is this:

Philanthropists have a philanthropy problem

By “philanthropists” I mean people who consistently engage in philanthropy–people for whom philanthropy an important part of what they do and who they are.

Someone who has the means, the values and the practice of being active philanthropically has, by definition, a philanthropy problem. She has a set of things she is trying to make happen in the world through her philanthropy. Her problem is that it is hard to do great philanthropy, it is hard to find great people and great organizations, and it is hard to make change in the world.

Fundraisers and nonprofit professionals forget this. Maybe we find it hard to relate because we don’t feel like we have a philanthropy problem (though that’s an easy issue to address: the more we give philanthropically the more we will get in touch with this feeling.)

But mostly I think it’s a comingling two things: an overall sense of fear and intimidation (of the philanthropist—which neither she nor we want) and our lack of empathy.

The fear is connected to our misplaced sense of worth–that somehow this thing we are doing might not really be “worth it” (in every sense) and, by association, worthy of support–and, as a result, a sense that we’re intruding on the philanthropists life and time.

The lack of empathy is connected to that fear–this time our fear that we will fail in this meeting, which causes us to be centered on our selves and our worries. This chatter overwhelms our clear thinking and our open hearts. So we close our eyes to the experience of the person with whom we are trying to connect, and we lose sight of the fact that we are showing up with a solution to her problem.

Since colorful stories and images are the best way to cement memories in our brains, here’s a too-loud version of this situation from This American Life Episode 319: Cars. It’s not a perfect analogy by any stretch–there’s not a lot of heart opening and genuine connection in the car-buying business–but it shines a light on how easy it is to forget that the person in the “showroom” is there because she is has a problem she’s come there to solve.

The speaker is Sal Lanzilotta, a manager at the Chrysler Town & Country dealership in Long Island. He’s giving his salespeople a pep talk:

Sal Lanzilotta

Customer says they’re not ready to buy a car. They’re all not ready to buy a car. Let’s go over it again. They’re in a car dealership.

They got in their car, drove through hell to get here, looked for a parking spot for 10 minutes, parked, got out of the car, and walked into a car dealer, not because the coffee’s good. We went over this, because the coffee here is not good. They came here because we sell cars, and they want to buy one.

The philanthropist is sitting across from us with a philanthropy problem to solve. We are sitting across from the philanthropist with a solution that makes difference. Why do we act like we have to start with an apology?

When we boil it all down, I wonder if where we keep tripping up is in forgetting that what we have on offer is way more valuable than a car.

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INSTEAD or AND philanthropy

This is the age-old cannibalization question, the sleeping giant we are terrified to wake. It’s the specific story, the individual program that connects with a donor in a deeper way BUT might pull them away from precious, scarce, unrestricted support.

Do we, in telling that story, lose the donor forever to the cause as a whole?

I don’t think so. Not most donors, not most of the time. But it is a risk.

It boils down to a question of share of philanthropic pocket and share of philanthropic mind.

Most of the time, for most of our funders, we are a small portion of their philanthropic mindshare and their philanthropic pocket. This is because most of our donors are under-engaged, because they are busy and because, for most of them, we show up when it’s time to ask for something and then we disappear. Shame on us.

The more specific story – or more specific program – is powerful because it’s usually more visceral and it feels more real. In telling that story in the right way, we have the opportunity to create a deeper connection. And, when we do it right, we will tell the specific story as an illustration of the whole, and ask for funding for the whole. This is the best way to fundraise, and it requires passion, discipline and practice to get it right.

But that won’t work for everyone. Some funders – either because that’s their mindset or because that’s where they are in their philanthropic journey with your organization – want the more specific. That’s OK too if the more specific will ignite their passion, will enable their deeper connection to their work, and will transform them from passive to active supporters. Even if the dollar amount of their support remains unchanged, a wildly passionate supporter is worth ten times (a hundred?) an unengaged but consistent supporter.

If you succeed (yes, succeed, because it’s a win) in generating this sort of shift, your job is to recognize it and invite that person fully over to your side of the table, to take their newfound passion and energy, along with your much-clearer understanding of how you can truly partner with them, and enlist them in the countless ways they can help: to improve your thinking, bring other resources to the table, help spread your story…whatever else they can do beyond writing a check that will really help the cause.

While all this is true, it’s also true that sometimes this is a tradeoff – an INSTEAD rather than an AND.

Some funders are engaged and care already and are giving significantly, and then they hear a particular new story and they will choose to trade between the broad (or unrestricted) and the narrow – at least for now. That’s OK too. In this case, the only thing to do is to have a clear conversation about what’s going on, and, if there’s space for it, to ask whether they would consider an AND rather than an INSTEAD donation for that new program. Even when you do this all perfectly, don’t forget that sometimes resources (time and money) are finite, which means that sometimes one thing gets traded for another.

I believe that this last case is the rarest, and that even when it happens it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because this is a long-term game, and ultimately our job is to build an army of supporters who care deeply and are with us for the long haul, not an army of check writers who care a little.

All of this is to say that there’s a lot of nuance here, and a huge amount of space between “support the whole cause” (which is wonderful, powerful, and is the way we hope all philanthropy will happen, but is hard to sustain) and “we have 18 programs you can support and if you support just that we’ll run out of operating money in 6 months.”

It’s up to us to manage this gray area with grace, clarity, and love.

(Oh, and in case you haven’t yet been a passionate, engaged, connected reader of this blog, you can still spread the word to your NYC friends about the Catalyst for Change event this Thursday at 7pm where I’ll be speaking.)

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Geeking out Next Thursday

I’m looking forward to speaking at the Catalyst for Social Change event this coming Thursday, November 12. I’ll be speaking together with Jake Porway, the founder of DataKind and Samuel Sia, one of MIT’s Innovators under 35.

The event is at Fordham Law School at 7pm, and there are still a few seats left – you can get tickets here.

We’ll be talking about innovative approaches to data and measurement, and using them to make the world a better place. It should be a lot of fun.

While I don’t know exactly where the conversation will go, I suspect that if you’re the kind of person who finds this image funny then you’ll have a blast. Hope to see you there.


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Meaning it

I just received johnson banks’ quarterly newsletter. This is the first paragraph:


This is the autumn edition of johnson banks did this, heavily skewed to a project that’s taken up most of our year so far. If our electronic epistle arrived by mistake, just unsubscribe and our apologies for the intrusion. Alternatively, if you enjoyed it, please feel free to forward it to others who might be interested or want to subscribe.

The message is: we actually care if you want to receive this note. If you do, that’s great. We are happy. And if you don’t, we care, because we’re not interested in bothering you.

It’s amazing how, more than 20 years after the “SPAM” was first used to refer to junk email, actually caring rather than just acting like you care is still all it takes to truly stand out.

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Pricing you

Classical economic theory tells us that the market-clearing price for a product is the one at which the last customer, the one with the lowest willingness to pay, gets exactly the value from the product that she pays for it. Her “consumer surplus” is zero: for a product that will give her $50 worth of value, she pays $50.

But what about pricing for a unique product, one that is the opposite of a commodity – things like tree-house building, editorial services, or the work your social enterprise is doing to change the world? In the broadest sense, there’s a market out there, but only if you let that happen. Really your whole job is to be un-comparable to everyone else, to make people understand that there’s only one you in the world and that you are uniquely worth paying for.

So how do you price you?

A friend once told me that that if I’d never gotten kicked out of a fundraising meeting then I wasn’t asking for enough money. It’s true. We undersell ourselves for two reasons: we don’t have enough market feedback to know what we’re really worth; and we let our fear of not making a sale overcome our desire to sell at the right price.

We can overcome this. The trick is to use each subsequent sale to build out the demand curve for our work. Each time we sell, we push a little further to find out where that ceiling is. By going beyond what feels comfortable, we discover the gap between what we’re asking for and the price the customers we want are willing to pay.

We can be told this time and again, but it often only hits home when we feel the frustration from delivering work we’ve undersold. The pattern is familiar: we make a sale for too little and then set out to do our best work. This best is harder and takes longer and requires more sweat and tears than we ever imagine – because what we do is special and we always do it with love and passion, even when today’s economics would suggest otherwise. We end up proud of the work but exhausted, because we did the work with too few resources and we know that we can’t do it this way forever.

If we can hang on to that sense of frustration, we can use it to discover our own value. This is the key step. It’s only when we truly believe in what we are worth that we can look someone in the eye and says, “Yes, this is the price for this. And what you’ll get in return will blow you away.”

I remember the first time I looked someone in the eye and asked them for a million dollars. I could barely choke out the word and my palms started sweating. I didn’t believe it the first time, but I did believe it eventually.

This happens in fundraising, and this happens whenever it’s up to us to tell the world the value of the work we do. First we must believe ourselves, and then they will too.

Because what we’re saying about what our work is worth is true.


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