Let’s Rethink Social Enterprise: It’s a Framework of Values

LJIZlzHgQ7WPSh5KVTCB_TypewriterThis blog post has been sitting in my drafts for almost two years now. I keep coming back to it every few months–questioning its relevance, comparing it to the rapid evolution of thinking about social enterprise that has taken place since I first wrote this, asking friends for feedback, and then deciding I’m not comfortable sharing it. While our thinking about what “social enterprise” means has certainly evolved over the past few years, there is still room to question its meaning and trajectory. More and more, I’ve been gravitating towards the notion of “organizational values” and away from entities and missions. I wrote a bit about that here, but I wanted to FINALLY share this post below, as a draft, open for feedback and improvement.

Readers: What do you think? What’s missing? Is this even relevant? Are organizations adopting these values, and would those that don’t traditionally think of themselves as social enterprises want to advertise themselves as such if they aligned with the framework below? Add in the comments or message me. I really want to hear what you think and have your help in shaping this concept further. 


“That’s a non-profit, it’s not a social enterprise.” People make this comment all too often. The definition of the term “social enterprise” widely varies, but what is often most misunderstood is that social enterprises as entities can be for-profit, non-profit, or a hybrid, and I argue in this piece, even governmental.

We should separate the legal formation of social enterprise from the values and goals of social enterprise. Let’s think of social enterprise as a set of values for an organization. In this sense, social enterprise is a framework of values for change, and we can encourage all organizations to adopt this framework.

What is the social enterprise framework of values?   (more…)

Nonprofit Fundraising Tips from CauseVox

Over on CauseVox, a crowdfunding platform for nonprofits and teams, I’ve been writing fundraising and marketing advice. Check out a few of the articles below, with more to come.

The Indispensable Guide to Nonprofit Donors (e-guide)

Two Killer Methods to Tell a Social Impact Story

How to Convert Donors Into Longtime Supporters

9 Nonprofit Experts to Follow on Twitter

5 Must-Know Tips In Selecting a Nonprofit CRM

4 Traits to Hire for in a Fundraising Professional 

Using Nonprofit Crowdfunding for General Operating Expenses

Why I Chose an MPA Program

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Columbia University

“The path is made by walking,” writes poet Antonio Machado. My path has certainly been a winding one–leading from Capitol Hill to a military analysis think tank, from ed-tech in India to a design school in New York. Two weeks ago, I began my newest endeavor–graduate school. A Master in Public Administration degree wasn’t always part of the plan, but after accounting for my experiences and interests over the years, it now seems like it was inevitable.

I’ve been interested in public service and international affairs since childhood, but as I made a shift towards the world of social entrepreneurship after college (which I explained in this essay two years ago) I became determined to pursue an MBA. Business school has become the graduate school of choice for those working in social enterprise. The good and bad (and expensive) reasons to attend any graduate school aside, the thinking goes that a strong understanding of business will enable better business models and management for social change initiatives. As you’ll see on this blog and others, there is a lot of truth to that notion, and many smart, impactful social entrepreneurs with an MBA.

But while working with social businesses in India and New York, I was continually struck by my own lack of knowledge about socioeconomics, despite a BA in Political Science. And I saw how business and its tools–without a dedication to iterating on theories of social change and understanding socioeconomic dynamics–cannot alone solve the complex problems we face. As I explain in this Huffington Post article, “a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon.” Furthermore, after seeing social enterprises in action, I realized that policy and social justice, and integration of social initiatives with policy change, is more important than ever. (more…)

Social Entrepreneurs Need to Think Beyond the Business

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Originally published on Huffington Post Impact

In the past few years, the social enterprise space has evolved rapidly from a concept that required explanation to a trend everyone is eager to join. Business schools have drastically increased their social entrepreneurship course and club offerings, and many businesses and startups can get away with calling themselves a social enterprise. While grateful for the rise in people and businesses caring about making a positive social impact, I’m concerned that an over-emphasis on business solutions overshadows the need to address root causes of societal problems.

Social enterprises can become easily distracted building and managing their business instead of focusing on the problem they are trying to solve — even if the solution involves running a healthy business. A strong business model and management-style is critical to success, and I proclaim their value to a sustainable social enterprise as much as the next person. Yet, a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon. (more…)

The Community is the Project

“In societies under stress, where basic systems have broken down and the very social compact that binds people together is under strain, the project we need to undertake is not the bridge—or the road, or the banking system, or the sanitation system, or whatever. The project is the community. The specifics of projects that people undertake in the chaotic coastal slums we’ve been discussing are actually less important than the community cohesion, sense of solidarity, and common purpose that those projects generate. These are not side effects of a successful project—they are the project.”

- David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla 

Cultivating Empathy and Internal Awareness for Social Change

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“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?…Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.”

— Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

In what David Brooks deemed an “empathy craze” of the past decade, several bestsellers exalted the values of empathy, followed by a series of widely circulated opinion pieces questioning the limits of empathy. Schools and social entrepreneurs preach the value of teaching empathy. The core of trendy human-centered design is empathetic listening and design. I too, caught on to the hype—seeking to better understand empathy as it relates to my own work in social enterprise and social design. Here is what I’ve begun to understand.

Empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change; it will enable us to become more collaborative and respond more thoughtfully to social issues. We can cultivate and teach empathy—with intentionality, or willed effort, not diminishing its power—and we can encourage empathy without requiring action or agreement. But before empathy can achieve it’s full impact in our lives and in positive social change, we must cultivate internal awareness to understand our own context in the world.

Through my exploration of empathy, I remain with more questions than answers, and know that my opinion will evolve and change over time. I offer my thoughts here because this subject is important to the public discourse on social change and personal development, and I hope that others wiser than me will offer their own ideas and feedback in response. (more…)

5 Good Reasons to Consider Turning Down a Job Offer

Photo of sticky note courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo of sticky note courtesy of Shutterstock.

Over on The Muse I wrote about when turning down a job offer might make sense for you and your career. Just over a year ago I turned down a seemingly-perfect job because it didn’t seem like the right fit, and I haven’t regretted it a day since. You’ll want to consider mission, growth opportunities, warning signs, timing, and money. Read my advice here.