Social impact

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…)

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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…)

Why Design for Social Innovation Matters

Have you heard the hype about design? It was popularized by IDEO and is well-known as design thinking or human-centered design. It now seems to be appearing everywhere, given the popularity of Acumen and IDEO.org’s now second-installment of their online Human-Centered Design course; examples like the Nike Foundation, which several years ago instituted a design division to better utilize design to develop their Girl Effect programs in Africa; groups like the Design Gym; and increased interest in design graduate programs (like where I work at MFA Design for Social Innovation); among other anecdotal evidence. After learning about design two years ago from the team at ThinkImpact, using the HCD process in India, and working with designers for the past nine months at MFA DSI, here are some thoughts on why design matters. 

I just call it design–design of everything, from micro-interactions, to products, services, and strategies, to systems. There are similar processes that overlap with the design ethos and tools in many ways–lean startup, Agile SCRUM, ethnography, participatory development, community organizing, among others. In fact, as this article explores, what we call design thinking is as ancient as Homer’s tale of the Iliad: “For what bigger co-creation of the solution to a public service problem could there be than stopping the Olympian gods spreading disease? Surely inventing the Trojan Horse was the world’s most famous episode of the techniques of prototyping, experimenting and testing that we will be hearing more about over the next few days.”

This Core77 article does a good job of explaining how the design process was used to explore the problem of over-fishing. It discusses not only using the design process for evaluating the problem and understanding the users, but also using it to design human interactions, and prototype a solution, whether that be a conversation or a new product, service, or system entirely.

Three main factors characterize why I believe design has great potential for creating solutions for social impact: identity, context, and making. (more…)

How to Assess a Social Enterprise (Huffington Post)

My article originally posted on Huffington Post Impact. 

A friend transitioning from the corporate world to the social enterprise space recently asked me how to assess a social enterprise. How do we really know when an organization is doing quality work we should rally behind and having a real, positive impact, versus just using the right buzzwords?

The short answer is you can never really know. But there are a few aspects of a social enterprise, beyond their mission and approach, that you can critically examine before deciding to join or support one.

How do they talk about impact?

There are numerous ways to measure impact, and entire firms dedicated to doing so. There is no one “right” method, but the way a social enterprise talks about their impact may be an indicator of their operations and worldview.

Let’s say there’s a social enterprise that uses all the popularly accepted words about sustainable and holistic community development. And then when they talk about their impact they say, “We’ve built 100 schools in five countries in the past 10 years.” Maybe they have a video or slideshow of “people whose lives they’ve changed,” but not much more than general statements, and certainly nothing to prove sustainability or transparency. Maybe it’s just another case of Three Cups of Deceit. Or maybe they’re revolutionary, but how are we to know?

There is nothing wrong with statistics. They’re great. Here is how Educate!, a social enterprise operating in Uganda, talks about their impact:

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Getting Social Impact Advertising Right

You’ve seen this type of advertising so many times now that you’re desensitized to it. There’s a sad song playing in the background as you watch a slideshow of dehumanizing photos, while the narrator simplifies the issues and urges you to “make a difference.” You see it for charities supporting public health, orphanages, and even pets. You saw it in campaigns like KONY 2012. It’s known as “poverty porn.” There have been a number of clever video campaigns mimicking or combatting poverty porn.

But I haven’t come across anything as effective, funny, clever, or powerful as this 2012 ad from the Rainforest Alliance. It’s entertaining and relatable. What I love most though is that it has a strong and easy call to action at the end.

To learn more about storytelling for social impact that is not poverty porn, check out the work of the great team at Regarding Humanity.

On Measuring Impact

Two recent articles on measuring impact of social enterprises deserve close attention.

One article was in the Guardian, co-authored by Dr. Pathik Pathak and Zoe Schlag. Citing research they conducted in India, the authors explain that:

“Conventional social impact frameworks emphasise the need to isolate impact (what have you changed that you can prove you did alone?) but fail to ask how social entrepreneurs might scale impact through partnership. The whole notion of attribution is irredeemably flawed when it comes to making sense of the social economy and needs to be ditched in favour of something more attune to the dynamics of collaboration, partnership and exchange.”

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