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  • Rich Tafel

Social Entrepreneurs Must Achieve Not Survive

Every week, I read about another social entrepreneur contemplating closing down business due to the recession. Imagine a world where that could be good news. In fact, imagine a world where on the same day a social entrepreneur launched their organization, they closed it down.

Farfetched? Maybe not. We’ve all been to a fund-raising dinner where the executive director wraps up his speech by boldly saying, “Our mission is to put ourselves out of business!” The emotional audience jumps up and applauds. The leader basks in the praise. But what if a business owner really did that—intentionally?

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successfully People, Stephen Covey says to “plan with the end in mind.” When I trained as a FranklinCovey coach, I learned an exercise that carried the point: We all had to write about our own funerals: Who was there? What was said? It sounds morbid to some, but by clearly envisioning how we see the end of our life, we can become more intention-driven in the present. The same could be said of world-changing leaders.

When social entrepreneurs came on the scene in a big way in the ’90s, they were reformers not institutions. They pledged to lessons of the business world to address injustice and change systems. Ironically, the part of corporations they’ve most imitated is the desire to build an organization and keep it alive at all costs.

Businesses are built to last; social entrepreneur efforts should not be—they should shed light on necessary reforms, offer solutions, and change systems.

Social entrepreneurs’ priorities typically shift over time. When they begin, the priorities often look like this:

1. Create awareness of injustice 2. Create a model that remedies injustice 3. Raise the funds to fund the program 4. Build the talent to implement the model

Over time, the mission creeps away from tackling the injustice to institutionalizing the model the company created. The new priorities:

1. Raise money to keep the program going 2. Hire staff members who can raise money 3. Keep the program going sufficiently to raise money

Ultimately, many nonprofits exist purely to fund-raise. The world-changing model has become like the set on an old movie—it’s just propped up to put on a show. The commitment shifts from changing systems to paying the bills. All things related to fund-raising get elevated, while program concerns and changing policy fall by the wayside.

Imagine what would happen if social entrepreneurs announced on their organization’s launch day, “We will increase literacy in this city by 5 percent over the next 10 years. We’ll succeed or fail with our reforms, but either way we’ll shut down in year 10.” There could be four big benefits:

1. Donors would be more likely to invest funds, because they know there’s an end game. 2. Social entrepreneurs would stay focused on long-term strategic systems change. 3. Funding for the next generation of social entrepreneurs would be freed up when their older, sister organizations shut down. 4. When organizations did shut their doors, we could celebrate their great accomplishments and disruptions instead of shaking our heads in sadness as we often do now.

Keeping the focus on the mission—not the institution—may not be as hard as it sounds. Michigan Corps, founded by Anuja and Rishi Jaitly, launched as a nonprofit in 2010 with a seed grant by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.

Redefining social entrepreneurship, they announced their mission as purposely bringing local and global Michigander’s together to change their home state. From there, the Jaitlys intentionally moved out of their leadership roles and into advisory roles—they moved to the organization’s board after year one.

They saw results quickly. Last spring, they were heralded by former President Bill Clinton at his Global Initiative Conference for fostering a first-of-its-kind connection between Michigan social entrepreneurs and Kiva, the world-famous micro lender. The organization has also set in motion countless instances of leaders collaborating in new ways.

When I asked them how they see Michigan Corps in existence, they said: “We built the organization in response to unlocked potential among pro-Michigan leaders everywhere; as the engagement of Michiganders evolves, our organizational role must necessarily shift too. We need to keep our eyes on the mission and off the perpetuation of one entity.”

By creating an organic organization that rises up to meet challenges and goes away after it fosters connections, the Jaitlys are offering a new way for social entrepreneurs to address issues.

Maybe social entrepreneurs don’t need to announce on day one when they plan to shut down. But the sector needs to shift the definition of success from those organizations that survive to those that actually achieve their missions.

So the next time you hear a social entrepreneur say an organization’s mission is to put itself out of business, ask the obvious question: “When?”

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