Saturday, October 20, 2007

Triple Crown Winners

I'm going to riff off one of Dana's recent posts about Triple Crown Winners, especially in light of my recent participation at Pop!Tech and the announcement that Pop!Tech is launching its own Social Innovation Fellows program.

The social enterprise trend is still a pretty nascent phenomena, and at its ethos is the concept of solving root problems with scaleable or sustainable solutions. Ashoka really began this trend by identifying and investing in social entrepreneurs -- individuals with the vision and skills to implement pattern-changing solutions to sticky problems. Originally, Ashoka invested in these early stage social entrepreneurs while they were in the start-up phase of implementation, a little financial and technical assistance could go a long way. Ashoka's theory of change banked on the impact that modelling and celebrating this amazing work could ripple into the community and enable anyone to see themselves as agents of change.

As the social enterpreneur trend began to take off, other organizations began to emerge to fill out gaps in the lifecycle ecoystem. The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Skoll Foundation began investing in social entrepreneurs in the scaling phase, Acumen Fund began investing in social entrepreneurs who used market-based approaches to scale their social change solutions. I know from my work at Ashoka that all three saw their work as complementary. To some extent, Ashoka became a pipeline for other programs which is why, as Dana points out, we began to see many social entrepreneurs wearing different hats of recognition (and this is a good thing).

As these solutions gained in popularity, however, it is my opinion that social innovation award/fellow programs began to emerge as fundraising strategies rather than integral contributions to the ecosystem, and as part of that trend, organizations began to compete for recognition/branding of the individuals they worked with as "their" Fellows -- it became an "either/or" recognition rather than an "and."

Utlimately, I think this is damaging to the ecosystem exhibited in the early days by Ashoka, Acumen, and Skoll -- if we're not careful, I think it can also be an inefficient use of resources. Simultaneously, I believe that more recognition programs are important because they bring with them resources -- and therein is the ultimate need: we need more social entreprenerus with access to more resources. (Interestingly enough, in the private sector the emergence of "more" would be a good thing because it would inspire more innovation and more co-opetition. In the nonprofit sector, donors see more as a bad thing -- too many organizations basically doing the same thing competing for resources... As if Ashoka alone could/should invest in all the emerging social entrepreneurs around the world).

A key component of the ecoysystem, however, is the efficient flow of information. The Tech Museum needs to be able to access and assess the visible social entrepreneurs out there who are using technology to benefit humanity. Pop!Tech and its Project Masilukele needs to know about and be able to access other social entrepreneurs working in Kwa Zulu Natal who can complement their work by bringing enterprise based health distribution mechanisms, e.g. Riders for Health.

GlobalGiving is the perfect platform for this type of information flow (and it would be even better with a reputation system that aggregates and displays how this organization is growing within the greater ecosystem).

Given the ecosystem that is already in place, organizations like Ashoka or Pop!Tech should never feel its their role to own the market on identifying social innovation. They have their own role to play in advancing it.

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