The Digital Civil Society

connectionIf you haven’t yet read the recent reports from Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab, do it. Now.  Then come back and read this–or don’t. This post is way less important than those reports.

They came out of the research done by Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich through their #ReCodeGood series, which explored the ramifications of the “open data” movement on nonprofits and civil society. Their new Digital Civil Society Lab continues the research on how to use innovative technology to improve transparency and effectiveness in the nonprofit/social sector. (Examples of activity in this burgeoning field, include: Markets for Good, which explores how data can contribute to a more connected social sector; a recent partnership between GuideStar and the Foundation Center to improve nonprofit data collection; and an open online course on better philanthropic practices.)

The Digital Civil Society Lab reports cover topics on policy, the social economy, and the blurring of sectors between nonprofits and for-profits. In their report on the changing nonprofit policy landscape, they conclude by stating:

The framework for nonprofit institutions that emerged and thrived in twentieth century America focused on the resources of that age—money and time. The global digital infrastructure of the twenty-first century has brought forward digital data as a new type of resource. The economics of this resource—how it is used, shared, stored, and kept secure—are different in fundamental ways than its analog predecessors

This sums up the challenge for the social sector of our time: How do we better use the new resources presented to us?

However–this conclusion relies on one fundamental assumption: That our digital activity is a resource, similar to money or time. I do not disagree with this assumption–the rise of Facebook and Google as business giants clearly show digital interaction can be capitalized–but there is another way to look at our digital lives: As a process, not a resource.

Digital interaction has fundamentally changed the way we behave. It has broken down time and space barriers between individuals and organizations like no other technology (telephone, television) has done before. This restructuring of the way we interact makes it easier for us to be collaborative within our organizations and between our organizations. For example, Markets for Good, mentioned above, not only uses digital resources (demographic information, feedback on nonprofit programs) to increase the responsiveness of nonprofits to their beneficiaries, it also would not exist without the digital process that makes those resources possible. It is a collaboration between three different organizations–something that would have been very difficult at its current scale a few decades ago. I’ve talked with people involved and they are amazed at how much they rely on the barrier-eliminating tools we know and love–email, Skype, Twitter, etc.

The organization I am privileged enough to run, UnSectored, also wouldn’t exist without the digital processes of our time. We are a team of four working part time, and our primary communication interface is email and text, and the primary way we interact with our community is Twitter and Facebook and our blog. We literally could not have existed before the social media explosion of the last few years.

You draw different conclusions once you view our new digital activity as fundamentally a process, not a resource. The folks over at the Digital Civil Society Lab ask the question “Do outcomes matter more than the organizational structure through which they are achieved?” in their report on the blurring of lines between sectors. They conclude that yes, we need a clear division between the responsibilities of the public sector, nonprofit sector, and private sector,  since we rely on complex and sometimes contradictory social values when working on social causes.

However, when examining the fundamental digital process available to all organizations today, rather than the resource product, you see that the question of boundaries/outcomes is less relevant than the question of leveraging what we have today to produce more effective, collaborative organizations. (Which I believe will be inherently more socially focused.) This conclusion is not incompatible with the Digital Civil Society Lab’s, but a different take on the same observed phenomenon.

I have not seen much study of the impacts of collaborative digital processes on organizations (both internally or externally). We must research these developing organizational structures to reach the full potential of our new social economy.

Photo credit: TempusVolat


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


What’s your question?


What’s your question?

I spoke with Lucy Bernholz recently, and she said something that dramatically shifted the way I think about my professional life. Lucy is someone I greatly admire and, in my opinion, is one of the leading thinkers and doers of the social sector. During our conversation, she told me she never sat down and charted a path for her growth. She never came up with quarterly goals or yearly plans. Instead, she has always followed the path of what she called her “one question.”

She said all of her career has been built around the answer to this one question that has been nagging her in the back of her head for years. She said she didn’t know how to articulate it at first, but over time she has been able to understand it more clearly.

To her, that question is “What’s private, what’s public and who decides?” If you know her work, that question makes perfect sense. If you don’t, you might not understand what she means, but that doesn’t matter, because she understands it. And she has been working to find the answer, or at least get closer and closer to the answer.

In a world of five-year plans, goal setting and key performance indicators, it is refreshing to meet someone driven by pure curiosity. Sometimes, we can get too focused on a particular goal or a particular action that we forget why we are doing it in the first place. Entrepreneurs especially can become trapped by the tunnel vision of execution and lose sight of the broader problems they are trying to solve.

I’ve never been fond of goal setting. I do it, because can be useful for certain things. But when setting off on an ambiguous path without clear metrics, I’ve found it less useful to set time-sensitive goals for myself. Following a question—such as, “How do I make this organization sustainable?” or “How do I achieve more work/life balance?”—can be more helpful. Using a question as a guidepost centers you back to what you ultimately want to achieve.

Lucy took this one step further and used a question to guide herself through her professional life. This question became her guidepost as she explored the world around her. She never turned down the opportunity to have a conversation, whether that was in an amphitheater full of people or as a part of a small dinner group or through a blog post. Not only has her question helped her create a successful career for herself, but by following it every direction she could, she’s explored areas she didn’t think she would and contributed to the betterment of society in new ways. Rigid career goals wouldn’t have allowed for that.

I’m still figuring out how to articulate my question—I think it’s something along the lines of “Why don’t we work together to solve problems?”—but after re-thinking how to approach my career I feel much freer to pursue what excites me, and I’m not so driven by what I think should be constructing for myself: yearly goals to speak at five different public events, writing for ten different blogs. Instead, I’m pursuing my question and finding ways to talk with people about it. Success will come to me the closer I get to finding my answer.

I think we’d all be happier if we could stop focusing on a strict career path we (or others) lay our for us, and instead find one question we are passionate about a pursue it to the extent we can—maybe that’s through work, or maybe that’s in our spare time.

So, what’s your question?

Photo credit: omcoc




Nonprofits, B corporations, government, and more!

lightblubsDepending on where you work, you may notice something interesting about the social sector these days: It isn’t full of just nonprofits anymore.

The social-good sector is expanding. In addition to nonprofits, many businesses, social enterprises, and government agencies are leveraging social innovation and cross-sector collaboration to tackle some of our most pressing problems.

For social change, this growth presents an opportunity to leverage the strengths of each sector. Nonprofits can serve populations others can’t and be more aware of community needs, where as businesses can quickly adapt to shifting demands. Government brings massive amounts of resources to any project and can help things scale. No single sector can accomplish sustainable change on its own and working together, organizations from all sectors can achieve way more than they could alone.

For job seekers, this growth presents an increase in opportunities to create change, but also a new set of questions and challenges. Here are some tips on how to navigate the new social-change landscape.

Go beyond passion

According to a Net Impact study (pdf), social impact is becoming a prime motivator for employees, particularly students about to enter the workforce, so odds are your competition will be just as passionate as you are. Having generic motivations for giving back will not get you far in an interview process. Instead, learn the specifics of the organization as an effective change agent, how it’s making an impact, and why. Focus on getting your hands dirty as often as you can through volunteering and internships at mission-driven organizations so you better understand how organizations are working in this new ecosystem. Think about what talents and skills you bring to help the organization move forward. Bringing this knowledge out in the interview process will put you far ahead of your competition.

Understand other sectors

While the reality is that the sectors have always worked together, in these times of scarcity, if you want to accomplish large-scale change you need to reach outside your organization to work with others. More and more, social-impact organizations need people who understand other sectors and leverage what is going on outside their organization to supplement internal programs and activities.

This doesn’t mean you need a career in banking before pursuing your social-impact career. Understanding the language of different sectors and paying attention what’s happening outside your own areas of interest can go a long way in connecting with others. To start, subscribe to some of the websites that talk about trends and opportunities in each sector. You can find a few by searching through categories on alltop.com and reading cross-sector websites like Stanford Social Innovation Review and Aspen Institute. When crafting your resume and cover letter for potential jobs, let your knowledge of the position shine by using the right language.

Be nice

Ok, so this is just good life advice. But it’s even more important when creating social impact today. Working well with others, both internally and externally, is a must in our more collaborative society. Organizations need connectors and facilitators, and doing this effectively can be more challenging than you think. Cultivating facilitation and networking skills will serve you well throughout your career, no matter where you end up.

The sooner we can embrace this shift toward working together, the sooner we can accomplish big things.

A version of this post appeared on Idealist Careers.

Photo credit: Peshkova, Shutterstock


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