The Biggest Lessons of 2016 from some of the Biggest Minds in Social Entrepreneurship

March 15, 2017

“We have a visceral reaction to the idea of people making a lot of money helping others. Interestingly, we don’t have a visceral reaction to the idea that people should make a lot of money not helping other people” ~ Dan Pallotta

2016 has been a challenging year. Not only for us at Incitement, but also for the rest of the world. The ups and the downs of everything going on in this world affect the business of helping people, and every year there are lessons to be learned.

Early this year an article went out with predictions from 12 of the brightest minds in the social business industry about what 2016 would be like. Today, some of the biggest names in this industry are closing this year’s chapter with the biggest lessons for 2016.

So without further ado, here they are.

The 8 biggest lessons of 2016 in social entrepreneurship

Dan Pallotta

Inventor of the multi-day charitable event industry, author of bestseller “Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential” and his latest book “Charity Case“, weekly contributor to Harvard Business Review, and TED 2013 speaker with his talk ‘The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong’ being 100 most-viewed TED Talks of all time.

“In early 2016 the New York Times and CBS News raced each other to release a sensationally negative story about Wounded Warrior Project, the largest veteran’s charity in America, and one of social entrepreneurship’s great modern success stories. In fifteen years Wounded Warrior Project went from non-existence to become the largest single private source of philanthropic funding for veterans in America. They did everything right – they made big investments in fundraising so they could achieve big leaps in service provision and impact. They sent satisfaction surveys to all of the veterans in their programs, achieving 95% plus satisfaction rates.

But CBS and the New York Times decided they could grab viewership and readership by playing onto the public’s illiteracy about the importance of fundraising investment, by quoting a group of former disgruntled employees, some of whom were fired for stealing, and by sprinkling inaccurate and malicious anecdotes about wasteful spending. Donations held steady. Until the Wounded Warrior Project Board, reeling from the negative stories, decided to fire the CEO, for reasons they could not explain, and after an independent audit issued a clean bill of health. And they shut off the advertising to show sympathy for the media point of view. The result? It looks like Wounded Warrior Project donations will be down by 50%, or $200 million this year.The big lesson? The nonprofit sector has to start standing up for itself and its peers if it truly wants to change the world.

Daniel de Guijter

Cofounder and CEO of Incitement, an award winning global movement with chapters in 45 countries, and cofounder of Liter of Light Malaysia. Incitement has been featured on Forbes, Real Leaders Award, Talent Unleashed, World Summit Award, CNN, and more.

Starting a business is already hard enough as it is. I think every entrepreneur can agree with that. Starting a social business is equally complicated, if not more. There are added layers of complexity.There’s constant pressure to convince your customers that the money they spend on you is indeed spent on your beneficiaries. This leads to your profit margins being under immense pressure all the time. And your integrity being questioned when they feel you aren’t “charitable enough.

Especially in a country like Malaysia… A country that despite the many, many millions pumped into “developing the public sector,” has no legal social business framework. Not even an open-source framework like B-Corp, despite lobbying efforts. In other words, the fact that businesses can thrive in profitability because of the impact they create, not in spite of it, is not acknowledged by the organizations that are supposed to push the industry forward.

Social businesses are the most sustainable way forward to create an inclusive economy. One with more opportunities for more people. Because responsibilities are distributed fairly among all stakeholders. It instills a sense of ownership in businesses and consumers. It will force governments and (i)NGO’s to review their often slow, bureaucratic, and utterly inefficient processes. It will allow the humanitarian sector to attract better talent, resulting in stronger teams and more robust businesses. This will lead to investors being more driven to fund socially responsible businesses instead of the umpteenth food delivery service.

But because legislation and policy making in Malaysia are failing, effort in CSR is failing, too. Funds, grants, and charitable donations go to exactly those organizations with slow, bureaucratic, and inefficient processes. This leads to lesser impact for those in dire need. Lesser incentives for brands who do CSR. Bad volunteering experiences. And an industry that isn’t pushed to innovate one bit.

As a social business (in Malaysia) you’re swimming against the current. Fighting an uphill battle. Not only do you need to build a sustainable and scalable business model like any other conventional business out there, you also need to find creative ways to work around a flawed ecosystem which you are completely left out of. If you don’t, you are unlikely to receive funds. And there’s a high chance that the money you could have spent on creating tangible and sustainable impact (and growing your business because of this!) ends up being spent on dumb sh*t like painting murals. Because really, who needs food and shelter anyway, right?

My biggest lesson for 2016?

Real social innovation isn’t going to come from NGO’s, especially not the large, supposedly well-established ones. They’re either too comfortable because there’s no accountability on their impact, incompetent because they fail to attract proper talent due to resource constraints, or they end up being stigmatized by the public for trying to grow like a business while ‘they’re supposed to be a charity.’

Real social innovation isn’t going to come from governments either – and that includes so-called ‘entrepreneurship hubs.’ Government initiatives are doomed to fail because they’re driven by hidden agendas. This attracts people who ‘play the game,’ only making matters worse. And those who have genuine intentions are either swayed over quickly or showed the door.

Real social innovation has to come from businesses who can find creative ways of financing themselves through the product they create: social impact. For a social business, impact is the only form of sustenance. And because there is a constant need for accountability from every stakeholder, the only way for a social business to grow is to create lasting, sustainable social change.”

Guistina Mizzoni

Executive Director of CoderDojo

“Communication, seeking feedback and correctly prioritizing feedback, are the core lessons we’ve learned throughout 2016. CoderDojo is diverse and unique. Just five years old, the movement is made up of passionate volunteers who joined at various stages in its life cycle seeking to make a positive contribution to their community.

During the initial life of CoderDojo, planning for the long term scalability and sustainability through the development of infrastructure and resources wasn’t a core priority as there was no central team tasked with this responsibility. Within the first six months, a need arose for a platform, to at its very basic function act as a global database to find and join a Dojo. Version 1 was not built for scale. Version 2 created in 2015/2016 sought to redevelop the platform putting the future scalability of the movement at the core. The initial plans were ambitious; redevelop an entirely new platform and add multiple new features. In hindsight, it was too ambitious. Relevant for the development of any project is understanding both what your minimum viable product is, and what you are trying to achieve. Second to this, understand that the loudest voice is not necessarily the voice of the majority.

To overcome these challenges, we’ve learned to communicate better, ask for feedback, encourage contributions, prioritize our resources better and not to overreach too far into the future. Now, the platform, like the global community has evolved considerably. We are in a position where we can plan with greater foresight. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for volunteers worldwide to join the community. Ultimately enabling them to equip young people with the knowledge to be active participants rather than passive consumers in today’s connected world. Together we can sustain and scale the movement; reaching more young people and enabling them to change their world.”

Alok Shetty

Founding Principle of Bhumiputra Architecture and Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia winner in the category Social Entrepreneurship.

“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”

I read this quote a few months ago and after the recent events with Brexit and the US presidential results this couldn’t be truer.

I believe that all global citizens (including me) who have access to the internet on a daily basis have become complacent and jaded with the massive amounts of information we receive every day. Social media has become our crutch. We read only bits and pieces of articles, don’t fact check the sources and begin retweeting, reblogging and sharing, with an entitled sense of gratification for doing our part in spreading this “so-called information” when in fact, I believe we are only adding to the tangled web of misinformation that’s being circulated.

The biggest lesson for me from this past year and going into the next one is to deeply involve and engage myself with the facts surrounding any issue. Read, learn, observe before arriving at conclusions and forming opinions. Our responses must be more measured and come from a place of knowledge rather than the love of hearing one’s own voice.

I hope to have a better understanding of the problems affecting the underprivileged communities that I work with. Getting to the root of the problem and designing solutions which rely heavily on community participation, involvement and feedback.

My hope is that we all understand the dire need to be aware of current issues pertaining to local and global communities, and use that information to help each other and those in need.”

Yasmin Rasyid

President and Executive Director of Ecoknights.

“One biggest lesson and it’s probably not a lesson, but more of an outcome for 2016 is the power of collaboration where it’s not just about getting things done better or proper, it’s about the amalgamation of great minds, great ideas, and a fusion of passions of all sorts. 2016 has been a great year of seeing how various entities, be it NGOs, entrepreneurs, start-ups, local government and private investors set their indifferences aside and work towards a shared goal.

I have been privileged to lead some of these initiatives and I am proud to say that Malaysia is gradually more accepting of gender equality and that’s one area that can encourage better collaboration across all sectors. The biggest challenge and perhaps even a lesson in 2016 is to intricately and delicately balance the religious conflicts and divide to work for a shared and common good for all of the humanity.

Dr. Rajiv Bhanot

Managing Director of H2GO – Since its launch in 2011, H2GO has brought clean drinking water to over 1.5 million people trapped in water poverty worldwide.

1. Passion

When starting any new venture dealing with any issue or cause, the desire to work on it has got to be a burning desire that comes from within. When working with passion and having the right positive mindset, waking up to work 7 days a week isn’t an issue and the productive mindset will start to show results in no time.

2. Getting your message heard

In order to build the right momentum, and for your work to gather a following, you need to get your story heard. We are very fortunate to be living in an era where a strong message can reach millions within seconds simply by a few clicks, so take advantage of it!

3. Always keep pushing

Start every year setting out impossible targets to achieve and make them possible. I remember saying in an interview recently, when I first started out, the biggest problem that I was faced with was dealing with myself because I was never satisfied and kept pushing.

4. Understanding the world

Many of the communities that we engage and work with are living in very remote, rural parts of the world. Many of these people have lived in a very isolated and exploited environment. We spend a lot of time getting to know the groups we work with, building trust in the process. This is important so that we maximise the impact when we do work with them, while empowering them to look after the systems that are installed for their community.

5) Build strong foundations

Be focused on your strengths as an individual and as a company. Growing too fast and wanting to be everywhere too quickly is a problem. When H2GO first took off, we spent a good 3 years only focusing on the ASEAN markets that were close to us, understanding the roll-out processes and improving our systems. It was only after this 3 year period when the foundations were strong, and a strong team was built did we move into other markets. Today we are actively present in the ASEAN region, India, Ghana, Guinea, South Africa, Congo, Peru, Colombia and Panama.

6) We are never too insignificant to be change makers

Never allow yourself to think one person is too insignificant to make a change. We are all in the position to do nothing we allow ourselves to believe we can do. Break away from the comfort zone that we tend to always find ourselves in and avoid feeling the need to be validated by everyone around you when making a decision on how you want to approach life.”

Diletta Marabini & Lorenzo Olivieri

Diletta is a Business Manager for Mindvalley Italy and renowned Life Design Coach. Lorenzo is the founder of Chakruna, and inventor of the Digital Event Organizer job category in Italy. Together they are the founding team of one of Incitement’s most buzzing chapters in Europe – Incitement Italy.

Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry. ~ Bill Drayton

Incitement Italy was started to transform the profound Italian crisis into the greatest opportunity for young people.We believed in the power of “importing” from different and more innovative realities a transformational mindset, and a set to inspired & concrete actions. Because we thought that would have been the best way to teach young people “how to fish”.

But the truth is the world doesn’t need anymore new lessons. The truth is the world just need us to listen, to care and to build a safe discomfort zone where people can feel free to express their greatest talent and strongest passion. This is the best lesson we learned since we started Incitement Italy in January 2015.

We organized 8 events with over 1,200 people, started to support 3 disruptive social project in different areas: School 3.0, the #WeCanMakeItReal Song Project, and the Incitement Regional Labs. None of these started with usual business model or a pre-standardized mindset. The reality is that we co-created every single event and project together with our followers.

Everything is based on the For-Giving Economy where the leadership is nothing but participative. Because in a world defined by the fast-paced research of solutions for broken issues, we learned that the secret lies in creating a new shared reality in which all of us act together.

We learned that we do not need to revolutionize anything at all. But instead let the re-evolution flow naturally from people themselves. All we need to do is share a social community-based platform where we can be heard and be ourselves. Then this extraordinary limitless energy will inevitably manigfest itself into new, concrete realities.

Suzanne Ling, Kim Lim & Swee Lin

Cofounder of the Picha Project. A fast growing and promising social enterprise empowering refugee families by commercializing authentic recipes from their country of origin and sharing the profits with them.

“Being new social entrepreneurs for the past one year, a great lesson that we have learned is that the most important element to run a social enterprise is nothing but this – passion.

Throughout the year building and operating The Picha Project, we had countless moments where we want to give up. Starting a business is stressful and challenging, but starting a social enterprise is tougher as there are beneficiaries involved. In The Picha Project, low sales directly mean that families will have no food on their table for their next meal. The stress of reaching sales and taking care of the beneficiaries can sometimes be too overwhelming for us to bear.

Marketing challenges aside, the roadblocks that we face running the daily operations are extremely exhausting, both mentally and physically. And there’s when we realise this – it makes no sense for us to be running The Picha Project if it’s not for the passion that we have for the cause, the refugee community and the people that we serve.

Having that said, there is no use having a great passion with no competencies to run a business. Along with your passion, be sure to be humble always to learn from the experienced social entrepreneurs or take up courses, and finally, be prepared to fail and get back up again.

If you want to start a social enterprise, know where your passion lies. Find the purpose of starting your social enterprise – because at times when things are tough, passion is the only fuel that will keep you going on.”

Article source: The Incitement

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About Incitement
  • Founded 11-11-2011
  • Chapters in 43+ countries
  • HQ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Recipient of Social Progress Award Malaysia
  • On Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2016
  • Listed on Real Leader Top 100
  • 72,239 volunteers worldwide