I was mesmerized by this report on the Social Enterprise World Forum in Rio last October, the first such in Brazil. Put the energy of the social enterprise movement together with the joie de vivre of Brazil, and you get—let me tell you—the most explosive murals-cum-session-notes and the most exuberant challenge winners and awardees imaginable. NESsT, an organization that knows its social enterprise stuff, organized the event, and part of me wishes I had been there.

Another part of me, though, is feeling increasingly queasy about where the social enterprise concept and practice is heading. For context, I should mention my own relationship to the field. My background is journalism, political activism, and nonprofit rabblerousing. In 1987, I started a nonprofit called CompuMentor to connect nerds to nonprofits. My idea of sustainability was grant funding. At a certain point, we were rescuing extra review copies of software from computer magazines and letting nonprofits pick them over for $5 apiece. That morphed into TechSoup Global, which is best known for administering the product donations of more than 75 technology companies in 59 countries, with nonprofit partners in most. An admin fee makes everything go round, and 90 percent of our $28 million budget comes from this social enterprise. I tend to sum up my experience as: “Two weeks ago I couldn’t spell social entrepreneur, and now I are one.”

Before I get back to the “queasy,” let me say how much I like the social enterprise movement. It has unleashed massive creativity, not the least of which are new social funding mechanisms. It has opened a pathway into the social sector for highly skilled younger people who would otherwise have flowed seamlessly into the private sector. And it has developed what might be thought of as a ”philanthropy methodology,” enabling a new breed of high-net-worth individuals to feel a sense of ownership of their philanthropic moment.

And now here’s the Big Queasy, in the words of Mathias Craig:

There is no app for this. You have to get out there and do it—and you have to have the staying power to be at it long enough to have a real impact. Leading people on with the idea that there is a widget or a model or a process that will short-cut this leads to quick burnouts, ineffective allocations of funds, and ultimately less impact.

Mathias founded blueEnergy in 2003 to connect “the most isolated poor to the renewable energy, clean water, and sanitation services needed to improve their own lives.” It’s been ten years of slow achievement, some major recognition (CNN Hero, Ashoka fellowship, Fulbright Nexus Scholar), financial support from a personal network when times were lean, a variety of forays into fee-for-service offerings, and now, after all these years, it’s still a steep climb. This “making a difference” stuff can be a real grind, as it turns out.

But the conferences don’t talk very much about the grind. There is a peculiar symbiosis between the social enterprise, tech startup, and tech innovation memes—a collective hypnosis at times. You know: With the right level of innovation and the right business modeling, the mere absence of money need not prevent the poor from constituting a semi-lucrative market for products that will, eventually, help them out of poverty. And it will all be sustainable, with patient capitalists paid off fairly for their investment and with the social entrepreneurs themselves doing quite well in the bargain. To all of this, Mathias says:

What seems to be lost is that creating meaningful long-term impact in the social space is still really about the people [who] are willing to stick with the hard work and bounce back every time they get knocked down along the way, which is an almost daily occurrence.

blueEnergy Executive Director Mathias Craig (left) tests water pumped by a blueEnergy system in Nicaragua. blueEnergy Water Technician Vladimir Pao (right) discusses the well drilling process while the well and filter owner looks on.

Meanwhile, I chanced on the online persona of a British social entrepreneur named Liam Black. The cognitively dissonant mix that Liam presents mirrors the contradictions of social enterprise. On his business site, it’s all, “We create outstanding bespoke study tours and events,” and “By 2007, having created/led some dozen social venture businesses, I had become a bit jaded of the CEO life … ” But in a post titled “Letter to a Young Social Entrepreneur,” Liam is candid:

I can see clearly that a core part of what drove me was … huge enjoyment at the attention [that] came with being in the vanguard of the UK social enterprise movement. It feels very good to be talked and written about and even better if there are awards and baubles.

He is also passionate about social change. He did me the enormous favor of leading me to the meditation of the Brazilian Archbishop and inspiration behind liberation theology, Dom Helder Camara, written toward the end of his life when it was unclear to him whether his work had mattered at all:

We must have no illusions
We shall not walk on roses
People will not throng to hear us and applaud
and we shall not always be aware
of divine protection
If we are to be pilgrims for justice and peace
we must expect the desert.

Most aspiring social entrepreneurs would not characterize themselves as anticipating long desert sojourns. Admittedly, that’s a bit of a dour projection for even an idealistic young Stanford grad. But they shouldn’t anticipate a quick exit either. In my next post, I’ll take a look at how we might better manage our social entrepreneurial expectations.

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