A Useful Yardstick

Friday, August 1, 2008 (All day)

My old friend, Gary Bess, provides smart counsel to numerous public interest, health and human service groups. Several years ago, Gary earned a doctorate from the University of Southern California, turning his keen eye as a researcher to the features that distinguish early-stage start-up ventures. In a paper he wrote, Gary cited six instantly recognizable attributes. Taken together, they comprise a useful yardstick against which those spearheading, funding or aligning themselves with new ventures can measure their leadership, their investment or their affiliation. Here are the attributes, modestly explicated:

A Prime Mover. An individual champion or small founding group acts as the chief driver of any emerging organization’s early activities. Echoing anthropologist Margaret Mead, nothing ever gets done unless someone bothers to set things in motion.

Entrepreneurial Activities. While entrepreneurism always entails risk-taking behavior, social or civic entrepreneurship involves risk taking for more than mere material gain. Frequently, social entrepreneurs start by placing their own personal and professional prestige at risk. They chance failure and humiliation by advocating new ways of dealing with societal problems.

Marshalling Resources. Champions and founding groups dedicated to launching a new venture draw widely from many different resource wellsprings to get up and running. We commonly think start-up social ventures hinge only on securing philanthropic grants and, indeed, money frequently factors into success. Still, good ideas gain power in action the deeper their intellectual roots; knowledge, research and analytic rigor form the basis for their strength, vitality and relevance. Similarly critical: the willingness of people of civic stature and credibility to voluntarily lend a cause the precious asset of their personal regard, protecting and nurturing it in its vulnerable infancy.

Multiple and Diverse Ideas. Social entrepreneurs tied inflexibly to single solutions, limited knowledge or unquestioned ideological assumptions may miss important social, political and cultural opportunities and contingencies upon which the chance of success might depend. Provided no one gets hurt in the process, finding the right idea often means generating and experimenting with alternative approaches for addressing unmet needs.

Flexible Coordination and Planning. At first glance, this attribute can appear tricky. What? Not plan! Fail to keep order? But social entrepreneurs understand that the host of changing conditions in the civic arena deserves respect, even deference. They also know there’s more than one way to skin the public interest cat. Detailed planning and fine-tuned coordination, can evolve in tandem with proving what works on the ground. This tends to explain why successful new ventures settle on a fleshed out, multi-year business plan only after engaging for a while in loosely managed activities intended to appeal to and test relations with varied interests.

Formation of a Niche. A springboard to next-stage growth and development for most entrepreneurs lies in either aligning their ventures with or differentiating them from others already occupying niches of their own. Sometimes a venture provides benefits so great that other providers cannot help but embrace it as critical and complementary to what they do. Other times, a venture may so radically alter the civic or social paradigm that it stands entirely alone, perhaps even fundamentally re-defining a field with others following the new leader or falling away completely. But these two extremes represent the exception. Most of the time, niche distinctions mean a venture succeeds in:

  • Meeting, extending or expanding geographically focused or population-specific needs;
  • Combining service approaches or systemic responses in better, more efficient ways;
  • Achieving visibility to resource-rich publics (like grantmakers or political bodies) in clever, appealing and advantageous ways; or,
  • Deepening already proven approaches in ways that compel other providers, even competitors to follow suit, even if grudgingly.