22 February 2018 at 8:32 am
Luke Wright, someone who self-admittedly enjoys new ideas and setting up initiatives for social and environmental good, questions whether or not founding one’s own project is always the best thing for the world.
I’ve been wondering lately if the present-day fashion for start-ups and entrepreneurialism, along with the endless public applause for the “founder”, is actually delivering the positive impact we want it to in the social enterprise space.
Anyone who has started a venture of any sort will know that the time, effort and capital required to get a new project off the ground and to the point of creating real change is fairly significant.
With this in mind, it seems improbable that new always equals efficient and effective. Is something being lost in our affection for the next novel thing?
I think it’s fair to say most new enterprises that crop up in the doing-good space are simply putting a new spin on tackling age-old themes – homelessness, joblessness, hunger, to name a few. Important issues, all of them, but perhaps we need to consider if we’re being blinded by the mystique of the start-up in our bid to cure them.
I wonder – and I’m genuine in my interest here – what would happen if the focus of innovators, funders, intermediaries and others shifted from regarding TED-talking founders with fresh-seeming ideas as the answer to social and environmental issues, and instead we redirected the energy and dollars towards properly bolstering those already-established organisations doing the work right now?
I was recently talking with the CEO of a charity that has for decades provided critical services to the homeless. It was pointed out to me in this conversation that when a new, social-media-savvy enterprise pops up that, say, gives shoes to the homeless (and soon gets TV attention and wins awards and attracts grant money), then the charity that has been helping the homeless for the last 20 years – including giving people new shoes, as well as critical health care and professional emergency support – is left scratching its head as to why all the attention and money is going elsewhere.
Surely, from a cost-benefit point of view, whether you’re an individual donor or a grant-giving body, it’d be much more sensible to support the charity in this case? Perhaps, though, if we’re willing to admit it, we’re all attracted to bright and shiny new things.
This line of thinking has lead me to consider my own past work experiences and put some research time into how I might go about doing things in the sector in the future.
In looking at this stuff, I came across the United Nation’s impact themes. Here we see there are five overarching areas in which action is required from for-purpose organisations:
- Climate Change (climate action, affordable and clean energy)
- Empowerment (gender equality, education, meaningful work etc)
- Basic Needs (no poverty, zero hunger, good health etc)
- Natural capital (life on land, life under the water, responsible consumption etc)
- Governance (peace, justice, partnerships etc)
With this in mind, when approaching any new project or idea for social/environmental good, I now want to make sure I ask myself the following questions:
- Does my idea fit within one or more of the above five impact areas?
- Is the impact area of this idea already being tackled by other organisations who’ve been through the pain and cost of start-up?
- Is my idea actually unique?
- Can I deliver impact more efficiently than those who are already doing the same thing?
- Would I be willing to join and help another group doing a similar work rather than duplicating the effort?
- And if the answer to the last question is no, am I willing to delve honestly into the why not?
Conversations about duplication and subsequent resource inefficiencies in the not-for-profit and social enterprise space are, of course, not at all new. And grant-givers and donors are deeply implicated in this malarkey. Their strategies can often fuel the waste and fragmentation in the sector.
It must also be said, though, that the central point put forward here is not made in an attempt to stifle innovation. Some ideas are genuinely original and ground-breaking and will provide much-needed change. Bring them on! A diverse ecosystem is a healthy one.
However, we in this space must always keep in mind the end-game of delivering the most impact to where it’s most needed, in the most efficient way. If this means deeply questioning our fascination – some might say, our over veneration – for entrepreneurialism, for founders founding things just for the sake of it (and doing so despite knowing road-tested vehicles for good already exist), then let the chat begin right away.
If we do this, if we look closely at our actions and motivations, we might find amid the very discomfort of this conversation, something truly sparkling and new, and together we just might be able to create some change.
About the author: Luke Wright has founded several social enterprises and businesses in the past. He is currently living, working and studying in Myanmar.