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A big, but unspoken, irony of social innovation

Social innovation in the nonprofit sector has gotten a ton of attention lately — new approaches to tackle persistent social challenges.  A big irony, however, is that a concept designed to help a lot of people through bold leadership is very limiting in who is able to actually lead.

If you’re a young leader with a new approach, resources are scarce.  And if you’re someone from a low income background who can’t borrow money from parents to pay rent, don’t have a well-connected network, or have massive student debt, how can you ever be expected to launch a new idea?

When I was starting my organization, I knew that I could fall back on family if things truly fell apart. I never wanted that to happen and didn’t work any less urgently, but I knew I wouldn’t “go hungry.” In fact at one point during the worst of the recession, I had to take a loan from a family member to keep my organization alive.  It sucked and it felt demoralizing, but I had a backstop.

Seth Godin, who I cite frequently, calls this the “privilege of risk” — and that’s something that many young leaders with important ideas and perspectives don’t have.

That’s a big problem on my levels:

1) The nonprofit sector is not cultivating diverse leadership that reflects the communities where new approaches are often needed most.

2) Many young leaders are systematically held back from putting their ideas and experiences into action.

3) We’re selling communities and the country short of breakthrough ideas.

Great innovations often come from employees at bigger companies.  They’re on the front lines of a particular field, they see an opportunity unmet, and they create a new company to seize it.

But young, energetic, talented leaders who come from the front lines of vulnerable communities and who have the perspective to create breakthrough services, too often don’t have the “privilege of risk.”

A few ideas on how we can change that:

1) Dramatically increase organizations like Echoing Green that seed new social change ventures with capital and support.

2) More foundations could create pools of money designed for first-time social entrepreneurs.  So many foundations require some inside connection, a track record, and a bigger budget.  Parameters have purpose and foundations need a focus — I totally get that.  But big foundations that can afford risk should take more risk on diverse, young leaders.

3) Big nonprofits could incubate new ideas that fit their mission — an office, advisers, a little seed capital, and a support network go a long way.

In Hollywood, it’s expected that only 1 of 5 movies will do well; in tech startups, angel investors know there’s a small chance of success (1 in 20? probably less).

It’s okay to take risks on movies and tech, but risk capital to tackle pressing social challenges from leaders who might be the best equipped — but least resourced — is too often neglected.  And it’s not for a lack of money in philanthropy — there’s plenty.

We need to keep innovating in our communities, but need to be sure all the right people have the opportunity to lead.

The Benefits if Your Start-Up Fails

If you have the opportunity to launch a new venture, I think it’s an easy choice for one reason: you’ll end up way ahead regardless of its fate.  (Note: by “have the opportunity” I mean a clear reason, purpose, or vision — not launching a start-up for the sake of it.  That’s rarely a good idea.)

Top four reasons I passionately believe this:

1) Incredible learning

Nothing is a better teacher than doing.  And nothing gives you both depth and breadth as leading a new venture.  In a given week (and likely a single day) you’ll work on long-term strategy, accounting, program design, vendor negotiations, fundraising, cost of printer cartridges, board development, website/social media, office space, presentations, networking, the cheapest way to take a business trip, and how to get more for free.

All of this will be an incredible reservoir of knowledge for future jobs.

2) You’ll have a great network

As a leader, you have a permission slip to talk to anyone (or to at least try).  In doing so, you’ll meet a ton of people in a range of places and professions.  And those people know more people in a bigger range of places and professions.  Whatever you do after you’re failed start-up, this network will be a huge asset and probably how you’ll land your next job.

3) Leadership experience

All jobs have some degree of leadership.  But at a young age, it’s unlikely any “regular position” compares to leading a new organization.  Future employers and colleges will recognize this and you should sell it.

4) More likely to get hired

It’s often said you learn more from failure than success.  If your start-up fails, wear that as a badge of courage during future interviews and don’t be sheepish about it.  Proactively bring it up in job interviews — it shows leadership, courage, humility, and a range of knowledge (see #1).

If these aren’t enough benefits to mitigate your concerns, remember this: jobs and school will always be there.  When choosing to launch a start-up, you’re not at a fork in the road — you’re at an escalator.  If you get on, you’re going to better places regardless if it breaks down before you want it to.

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