3 tips for landing a job at a social enterprise


Photo credit: Sergey Nivens, Shutterstock

I wrote another piece for the Idealist blog, this time about how to land a job at a social enterprise. I tried to stay away from the typical “how-to-get-a-job” advice, and focus on the bigger picture of building a cross-sector career. You can check it out here.



Efficiency vs. Equality in the Social Sector

eqaulityWarning: This post is adapted from one of my papers for my cross-sector collaboration and management class. It is quite theoretical and may only be only interesting to nerds like me. If you believe yourself to be a nerd like me, read on.

In the last few decades, there has been an increased focus on “efficiency” in the social sector. Efficiency in the social sector can mean a lot of things–sometimes its about cutting costs, sometimes its about using business practices to better deliver social services (here I’m using “social sector” to refer to both nonprofit and government sectors), sometimes it’s about both cost reduction and business processes unified under the mantel of “entrepreneurship.” In the “entrepreneurial” model of the social sector,  public servants fill the role as service providers for citizens (consumers) that react to market forces. This approach to governance is exemplified by Al Gore’s mid-90s National Performance Review that recommended reforms on how to get better results out of our government.

In this entrepreneurial social sector, public servants use efficient means to deliver better and more responsive services to their constituents. Basically, the role of a government/nonprofit employee is to deliver better services in a more timely manner for less money. Everyone’s happy, right? Well, unfortunately, researchers have shown that this bottom-line-focused approach to public service excludes vulnerable members of our society. By looking only at efficiency, they ignore the promise of equality that our government promises.  This tradeoff between efficiency and equality is well established in social science literature–and it makes common sense: If you’re focused on costs and the best way to provide services, you are going to ignore the most disadvantaged, because they have the most problems and are usually the hardest to reach.

But, the tenants of entrepreneurship and equality are by no means inconsistent. In fact, there is a growing movement to encourage civic engagement through entrepreneurship. The Points of Light Foundation has started a “civic incubator” that supports enterprises focused on building community wealth and citizen engagement. They have supported organizations such as Fuse Corps, which connects professionals with city governments for a one-year fellowship aimed at solving a large-scale challenge, as well as Moneythink, which teaches financial literacy to urban high schoolers. The Rockefeller Foundation launched a “100 Resilient Cities” challenge for cities around the world to compete for resources to strengthen their civic infrastructure. Of course, all of these examples fit into to the broader “social enterprise” movement, and social entrepreneurs around the world are using businesses practices to serve some of the most vulnerable.

One could argue that these social enterprise leaders are themselves public servants, using the tools of efficiency and entrepreneurship to engage with citizens and serve their needs. I believe this is the case, but I’ll save that for another post. Instead, I will focus on the role of “classic” public servants. Classic public servants (that is, those working in government agencies*) can also use the tools of social entrepreneurship to serve the public. By harnessing the power of these social entrepreneurs and serving their needs, the public servant is employing the tools of entrepreneurship through the method of service to create stronger communities, and therefore increase equity. (This assumes that a public servant has some degree of accountability and would not support social enterprises actually end up hurting the community more than they help. I think this “do no harm” assumption is a fair one.)

Taking this view of entrepreneurship, equity and service morphs the public servant’s role to one of facilitator and social infrastructure developer. The public servant works with on-the-ground social entrepreneurs to grow their programs and solutions, through connections as well as resource support. This leads to stronger communities and a more engaged citizenry. In this way, public servants can serve, be efficient through entrepreneurial means, and create a more equitable society. There is no need to make a tradeoff between any of these concepts.

And everyone is happy!

Photo credit: Emily Hoyer

*The role definitions here can get confusing when you realize that both nonprofits and for-profits can be social enterprises.

Who likes wearing suits?

suitWho likes wearing suits?

I know I don’t. Most people I ask this question to usually agree with me. Yet many get up every morning and put on a suit—or some another type of formal, restrictive clothing.


Suits were once synonymous with wealth and success. Now we have companies with no or minimal dress codes that are just as or more successful as the oldest and most buttoned-up corporations. So why haven’t people at the corporate top—who I imagine also hate wearing suits every day—overwhelmingly changed this outdated signifier of what it means to be successful and productive?

Probably because it isn’t about the suits. Our corporate/success dress code is really about the constrictive routines we fall into. Instead of opening up offices to true innovation, we fall back into old patterns because it’s easier than sticking our neck out on a new idea. Instead of trying things like flexible work time, extended family leave, less hierarchical management structures, or revised dress codes, organizations (particularly large ones) tend to rely on what they know.

And we suffer the consequences. Innovation and new thinking drives growth, and it’s difficult to be open and collaborative in a constrictive environment. Allowing employees to set their own boundaries and to pursue their own ideas within the parameters of organizational goals will only help the organization in the long run. If they want to wear suits to work—great. If they want to wear old Led Zeppelin t-shirts, who cares? As long as they keep driving co-workers and the organization forward with new ideas, what does it matter?

So will we ever see the death of the suit? Probably not, but we will see it lose its prominence in the collective cultural unconscious as our society becomes more open and collaborative, and we disassociate success with constrictive standardization.

And good riddance, too.

Photo credit: bagsgroove

I am not an entrepreneur

entrepreneurPeople tell me I am—I have been involved with starting two organizations—but for some reason, I can’t stomach calling myself an entrepreneur.  I have many entrepreneurial friends who are wonderful people motivated by making the world a better place, having a flexible work life/balance, or pursuing an idea they are passionate about. But to me, they don’t fit the entrepreneur archetype that’s stuck in my mind.

It reminds me of sport coats with jeans, whiteboards with primary-color diagrams strewn about. It brings up images of Silicon Valley—where I’ve never been—and the endless churn of innovation, profit, innovation, profit, innovation, profit. When I think “entrepreneur,” I think slick, hype, exclusivity, excess, greed.

Entrepreneurship has been corrupted. I don’t know when—maybe it was with the release of the film the Social Network, maybe it was the tech bubble of the 1990s— but entrepreneurship has become a lifestyle, rather then a means to an end. It’s now “cool” to be an entrepreneur. People are drawn to the entrepreneurial scene, and there are countless conferences on entrepreneurship and “innovation” to fill this desire. Search around the internet for just a few minutes and you’ll find too many blogs spewing advice on how to start your business and grow it—without care to the most important question an entrepreneur should ask: “Why create in the first place?”

Entrepreneurship is all about solving problems. Finding a need in society and filling it. This is why I see no distinction between social entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship—if you are a moral individual, your offering as an entrepreneur by definition will solve some kind of societal problem, whether that’s clean water accessibility in Zambia or ease of sharing photos amongst your friends.

But now we have a fetishization of the entrepreneurial lifestyle, with people wanting to quit their jobs because they think it’d be fun to go out and start their own company—or worse, they think they should go out and start their own company. They see entrepreneurship as a symbol of honor, a badge of courage. It isn’t. It’s one way of many to get stuff done.

For example, myself. I’ve helped create two organizations, but I didn’t set out to found anything. Instead, I saw needs and tried to do the best I could to fill them. In college, I realized that there wasn’t a lot of discussion or awareness about microfinance among the student body. I brought some friends together and we started what is now the Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell, which has loaned out over $50,000. After I graduated, I became fed up with the blogs I was reading focused on sector-specific social change and decided there needed to be a place to discuss social change from all perspectives. What came from that need is now UnSectored, where we partner with organizations to help them critically examine issues related to their work.

Of course, there are many different ways to solve these problems. You don’t have to start a new organization to fill a need. Intrapreneurship harnesses the existing resources of organizations to develop new products and services. Cross-sector collaboration and public-private partnerships combine the strengths of different organizations and sectors to offer new services, improve communities, or research and develop new products. Community organizing leverages the power of individuals to push other actors into changing behavior.

These are all options for you if you want to change something. (And it’s totally cool if you do not—as long as you aren’t hurting people, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.) But if you do, I ask that you continue to ask this question of yourself: What am I trying to solve? Let that be your guiding path, not what seems cool or interesting. Stick to this question and maybe we can re-claim entrepreneurship for its true purpose: Solving problems.

Until then, I think that dirty feeling I get whenever I hear the word will stick around.

Photo credit: Mark Darnell

Three Traits of Millennial-Run Organizations

ImageI have been fortunate to spend a lot of time with millennial entrepreneurs. I myself lead a millennial-run organization, UnSectored, a community platform for re-thinking social change. Through my experience, and by observing the great work of my peers, I’ve noticed something inherent to the millennial generation that hasn’t garnered much commentary: We build distinct types of organizations.

There are three criteria of millennial enterprises (both nonprofit and for-profit) as I see them:


The folks at Viacomm’s Scratch blog have defined sidepreneurship as the tendency to pursue activities (paid or not) outside of a full time job. They claim this is inherent to the millennial generation: Many Millennials look for fulfillment outside of their jobs, whether that’s art projects or a nonprofit consulting firm or DJing on the weekends.

I disagree with Viacomm’s inclusion of creative projects in this definition (pursuit of creativity in youth may be the only consistent trait across generations), and I wonder if “sidepreneurship” rates are any higher today than they were in the past. Regardless of its uniqueness to the children of the 80s and 90s, many of us are riding the sidepreneneurship wave. I have met countless entrepreneurs who are slowly growing businesses, nonprofits, or loosely formed community organizations in late night sessions, or through surreptitious email by surreptitious email in between meetings at work.

Even though it may not be unique, this “sidepreneurship” is one important characteristic of the millennial organization. But to me it’s the least important.

Open, Connected

Sidepreneurship creates the need for another characteristic of millennial-created organizations: Openness and connection.

If you are starting an enterprise in your free time, you can’t worry too much about control or responsibilities and you can’t waste time with in-person meetings. You just need to get things done. This need spawns organizations made up of people who communicate almost completely online through email or programs like Skype. I’ve met some people who manage staff they’ve never met because they are halfway across the world.

From this technological connectedness comes openness: Because millennial organizations are run through online channels, there tends to be less hierarchy. (It’s hard to exert control when your only tool is an emoticon or ALL CAPS.) And these enterprises tend to be cash-strapped and are willing to accept good ideas from wherever they come from, whether its from the founder or the new intern who is around for the summer just to run the Twitter feed.

This organizational trend is good for society for two reasons:

1. Traditional organizations could benefit from being run as an idea meritocracy. Openness to new ideas can help create innovation internally and help organizations adapt to new challenges—market or otherwise.

2. Being open and connected internally helps you be open and connected externally. As we are exploring over at UnSectored, the future of society will depend on collaboration between organizations. Organizations that tackle large problems can only be successful if they work with other organizations across sectors. It’s a lot easier to do this if you don’t have your own internal problematic silos and hierarchy issues.

Social Impact

It’s hard to ignore the current social consciousness trend—which is bleeding over from the Millennials to those more seasoned generations. You don’t have to work in the nonprofit sector or in a social enterprise to know that people are starting to care more and more about social impact. Edelman’s annual goodpurpose study found in 2012 than nearly 90% of consumers want businesses to place at least as equal focus on societal concerns as traditional business interests. Net Impact found that almost75% of students (Millennials) and 50% of employees (older folks, including some Millennials) want a job where they can make an impact.

Millennial-led organizations reflect this trend. Some businesses give profits away to charities as a part of their model; some develop products and services specifically for the underserved. Regardless of it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit, Millennial organizations have some component of social consciousness.

These three criteria—sidepreneurship, open and connected, social impact—define millennial-led organizations. It will be interesting to see if these characteristics continue, or that as we age, or our organizational structures age with us.

Generations are less distinct than people initially think they are. (It’s hard to watch Roger Daltrey sing “I hope I die before I get old” these days and not wonder if everyone just gets a little too worked up in their youth.) But Millennials have given us a new type of organizational structure that will drive innovation and help improve our communities. I hope to continue to research this topic, and that others begin to research it, se we can codify these criteria and produce data to back up the trends.

This post originally appeared on Achieve Consulting’s blog.

Photo credit: Ella Novak