The entrepreneurial mind abhors a vacuum. Market failures, unmet demand, even the maddening lure of a blank napkin--all beckon as explicit invitations to invent. What defines an entrepreneur (as well as an entrepreneurial organization) is that relentless problem-solving approach, not the specifics of the problem itself.
We typically associate such ingenuity with the transformation of problems into lucrative, shareholder-enriching companies. But the entrepreneurs you'll meet in this story are responding to a different sort of void. It could be the absence of medical diagnostic labs in the developing world, which is driving one organization to create a portable, disposable lab that fits on a plastic card. Or it's the empty shelves of a Nepalese children's library, which inspired another man to start an education juggernaut, building nearly as many new libraries each week as Starbucks opens latte-slinging storefronts.
These problems might exist outside the traditionally defined realm of business, but the solutions are elegant, creative, and entrepreneurial to their core. ["Filling the Void."]
So starts the announcement of the Third Annual Social Capitalist Awards in the Jan?Feb 2006 issue of Fast Company. From 278 nominations, 53 finalists and 25 winners were selected through evaluations of an organization's performance in five categories:
Social Impact: The measurable social value it creates.
Aspiration and Growth: The desire and ability to achieve greater impact over an extended period of time.
Entrepreneurship: The disciple to galvanize resources and exploit "the discontinuities created by change."
Innovation: The originality and strength of the organization's "Big Idea" and/or business model.
Sustainability: The ability to maintain the social impact achieved over an extended period of time.
The 25 winners were drawn from a variety of social change sectors including Antipoverty, Community Revitalization, Education Reform, Environmental Advocacy, Human Rights/Labor Advocacy, Literacy, Microfinance, Social Investment and Technology Development. Links to the finalist and winner organizations are available here.
Among the best practices identified by some of these successful social entrepreneurs were:
Thank your customers. Then thank them again.
John Wood, CEO and Founder, Room to Read We make it a policy to almost "over-thank" our donors with as many creative gestures of appreciation we can imagine.
Let your customers sell for you.
Paul Rice, CEO and Founder, TransFair Our model is to mobilize consumer demand for products that pay farmers a fair price so companies that distribute our certified products are rewarded for doing the right thing. That means that our customers are our most powerful advocates.
Recruit the right customers, in the right networks.
John Wood, CEO and Founder, Room to Read Apart from the kids and communities we serve in developing nations, our "other" customers are our volunteers. We think of these folks as our buzz agents: they talk us up in circles of influence where people are interested in international development and have money to spend.
Do your market research in the field.
Christopher Elias, PATH Getting real feedback from users in the field as early on in the product development as possible is critical to successful adoption.
Understand the emotional appeal of your brand.
Paul Rice, CEO and Founder, TransFair I've learned since then that the story of Trans Fair is as much about empowering people in the U.S. and giving us a voice in this country as it is about empowering farmers. People are looking for a way to make a difference. They're concerned about the direction the world is going in... Most people don't have time to write a letter to the editor or go to a demonstration, or even vote, if we look at the statistics. But they do have time for a cup of coffee.
Take a few minutes to study some of these profiles of successful social change agents either in the magazine or at their web sites (maybe over a cup of fair trade coffee). This awards process might also provide ideas for some readers who are trying to increase social entrepreneurship in their own organizations, communities or countries.