The Tao of Social Enterprise

The Tao of Social Enterprise

Social enterprises are fundamentally different entities than standard enterprises.  While certain outward features may seem similar, or even identical in some cases, the underlying motivations driving the two are totally different.  Just as diesel fuel in a gasoline engine can take you only so far before your vehicle breaks down, so too the motivations and tools of the capitalistic system can only drive a social enterprise so far before it breaks down or disintegrates.

The formula for a great social enterprise is CIDER-NoTS+PJ, and is best encapsulated by the diagram below.

Compassionate Engagement
This is the critical, non-negotiable prerequisite of a social enterprise.  Its founders must feel the pain of others as their own, and operate from a space of seeking a remedy to collective suffering.

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  -Lila Watson

A social enterprise is lead from the heart because compassion is its driving force.  Integrity means aligning the head and hands with the heart.  The founders must continually apply their intellect and sweat in service of their heart’s voice, and reduce the separation between heart, head, and hands.

“In separateness lies the world’s great misery.”  -Buddha

Compassionate engagement and integrity form the spiritual foundation of any social enterprise.

‘Do-Nothing’ Design
‘Do-Nothing’ does not mean that founders actually do nothing, but rather that they recognize that everything they need is right in front of them, and they begin without seeking external inputs.   A social entrepreneur is fundamentally engaged with re-writing the social contract in a compelling way such that their solution or innovation self-organizes toward efficiency and scale by making use of the preexisting elements and energy of society. They nurture an ecosystem larger than themselves or their own venture to allow many-to-many producer-consumer relationships to propagate the idea, rather than attempting to setup a top-down one-to-many system where everything is centrally controlled.

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”   -Albert Einstein

When attempting to do something good for society, generally a third of the population is against you, another third would like to take credit for everything that you do, and the last third is totally apathetic.  A social enterprise with an ego can be dangerously derailed by any of those three forces.  Egolessness is necessitated from the recognition that every moment and all things are co-creations of which the entrepreneur plays only one small part.  Energy is not wasted in defending against criticism, fighting for recognition, or convincing the apathetic of the significance of prior accomplishments.

“In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.” -John Ruskin

Radically Open
Someone who knows the answer is an ‘expert’ and may be better suited to the ivory tower.  A social entrepreneur is driven by the question, and remains open to new and better solutions, often from unexpected places.  They move increasingly from the modality of “plan and execute” to “search and amplify”,  finding the positive elements of what works all around them and adding strength to the best patterns.  They are organically open to amplifying solutions that are not their own, yet prove practical and sensible along their journey.

“Men plan, and God laughs.” -Author Unknown
“You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.”  -Indira Gandhi

Do-nothing design, egolessness, and radical openness are the practical tools that inform every step the social entrepreneur takes.  They save the entrepreneur from much wasted time, wasted energy, and disastrous pitfalls.

No Exit Strategy / Cashing Out
Since compassion and the question of how to reduce suffering drive the social entrepreneur, they do not think about how to ‘get out of this business’ and move on to the next thing. Nor is there any attempt to parlay their efforts into personal money, power, or fame for their own sake.  Their commitment and (com)passion remain ever-steady at their core.

“You cannot motivate the best people with money. […] The best people in any field are motivated by passion.” –William Taylor

Think Small
While issues in the macrocosm may drive the social entrepreneur, they are intimately focused on doing many small things that reduce suffering in their own microcosm.  Every step they take is a valuable destination in and of itself, rather than an attempt to realize some pre-fabricated and narrowly specific goal. Ultimately, they recognize that if they cannot reduce suffering in small ways around them, they are not equipped reduce suffering in bigger ways either.

“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”  –Mother Theresa

No exit strategy and thinking small are the fuel of internal sustainability that keeps the social entrepreneur going in difficult times.  Otherwise, they ‘jump ship’ when the going gets tough, or exhaust their energy or commitment in trying to put something large and complex in place rather than renewing and strengthening their motivations through the joys of many small successes.

Personal Journey
The venture of the social entrepreneur is an integral part of their identity and purpose in the world, inseparable from their life’s mission.  At this level of clarity, everything they do serves their purpose, otherwise it would not be done. The energy they expend constructively interferes with itself the way that wavelengths of light in a laser are aligned, adding great force to every action.  There is no separation, and the entrepreneur begins to be a living symbol of their own work.

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”  –Mahatma Gandhi

Only when the social enterprise is an inseparable part of the founder’s personal journey that the venture can rise toward greatness.

Many of these elements are interrelated, heavily dependent upon one another, or mutually reinforcing.  It is also important to recognize that each element is a process which can be continually deepened and strengthened, and must be constantly renewed.  Just as bones seem to be solid and unchanging, but are highly bio-active and continually remade, these processes must be held in the skeleton of a particular arrangement (beneath a myriad of perhaps wildly different external skins) for the resulting creature to be rightly called a social enterprise.

Every social enterprise I have witnessed that is worth naming has these elements at its core.  Simultaneously, I’ve seen a handful of ventures in the social realm fall apart, and the root-cause traced back to a violation of one or more of these processes.  While the symptoms of a social enterprise ‘headed for failure’ are easy to detect well before the collapse, the processes that underlie success can be engaged with at any time.  Its important to suspend judgment, and recognize that self-correction can usually happen at any point along the journey.

For a time, progress can be made by neglecting or even faking processes lower on the hierarchy, but ultimately this leads to a weakness or imbalance that will either kill the social enterprise or force it to evolve.  When and how the lionness of circumstance pounces upon the weak or deformed buffalo of a social enterprise is impossible to predict, but natural selection comes in many forms and herd evolution marches uninterrupted towards a more perfect beast.

Perhaps because of glamorized success stories of social entrepreneurs reaching the mainstream, or the rapid proliferation of business schools and pundits eager to jump on the social enterprise bandwagon without being (driven by) social entrepreneurs themselves, misinformation about what makes a social enterprise continues.  The popular myth of  slapping business principles on a social problem to save the world has a persistent and seductive power.  We want to believe in doing well by doing good.  And like most things in our convenience culture, we want it to be easy– to operate within a paradigm we are already very familiar with.  Ironically, social enterprise is always about new paradigms.  And though its processes can be joyous, the endeavor as a whole is not easy because founders must be willing to put in the heavy lifting of continuous personal growth from which all other efforts radiate.

Enterprises are simply ampifiers of human will and intent.  Without changing the will and intent at the core, no external strategy can result in outcomes that benefit all.