Social entrepreneurs grin ear-to-ear at peer-to-peer

the open road can be daunting

There are a few peer-to-peer groups, like the Young Presidents’ Organization, which are made up of business leaders (in the case of YPO – over 20,000 from more than 100 countries) who dedicate some of their “spare” time to reviewing, critiquing, discussing and shaping each others’ plans and ideas. These forums are meant for unedited and nonjudgmental idea exchange and learning.

In the non-profit world, however, there are fewer (dare I say none?) forums of such size and status to identify common issues and debate key ideas. This lack is due, in part, to the way in which organizations are funded.

Because non-profits rely mainly upon government and foundation grants or charitable donations, there is little incentive to air or share any problems with their sponsors or peers (who are often going after the same dollars).

This funding model sets up a “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” situation between granter and grantee. Talking publicly about struggles, hardships or even failures is not a comfortable position.

I have been conducting a series of interviews with people considered Social Entrepreneurs of the Next Generation (TNG). TNG refers to the number of years they’ve been in business, not necessarily their age. The questions cover everything from “What were your first steps?” to “What were/are your biggest challenges?” and “What would you do differently?” A common theme throughout has been mentorship — namely, the need for it.

Inherent in the word “entrepreneur” is the notion of going it alone, of being a pioneer and charting unmarked territory. But despite the taking road less travelled, most of these entrepreneurs actually want allies with whom they can speak candidly. They need advice from people who, in their words, have “been through the trenches.”

Talking to someone from a government department about social entrepreneurship may be like visiting an optometrist for a stomachache. For advice, feedback, insight (or a huge wake-up call), business people can turn to large online discussion groups, high-profile competitions and top advisors. They even have the aptly named television reality show, “The Dragons’ Den“! Social entrepreneurs, by contrast, are having a tough time knowing when and where to turn for advice.

That’s why the Global Social Venture Competition caught my attention. GSVC is the largest and oldest MBA student business plan competition providing mentoring, exposure and prizes for social ventures from around the world. Its mission is to catalyze the creation of double and triple bottom-line ventures, educate future leaders and build awareness of social enterprises. Organized by the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in partnership with Columbia Business School, London Business School, the Indian School of Business and the Yale School of Management, the competition boasts an impressive list of success stories.

A business school competition seems like a great fit for peer-to-peer learning. After all, for many business students, it’s common practice to go through rigorous rounds of writing, analyzing and critiquing business plans. So it only seems natural to hold a forum in which they can compete. But what happens in the “real world?” What happens if you never even went to business school?

The closest thing would be npEnterprise Forum, an email based forum designed for organizations to share ideas on earned income strategies and different enterprising models. I’ve been receiving the Forum’s emails for about four months now, and as great as it has been in terms of suggesting successful social enterprise models, the system works more like a one-off question and answer process, rather than a detailed discussion of the issues. It is advice without insights.

The feedback thus far from social entrepreneurs TNG has pointed to the need for a peer-to-peer, been-through-the-trenches-type forum. Along with these interviews — in which TNGs have been “spilling the beans” for 1-2 hour animated discussions — the hope is to create a more constructed space for feedback as well as build the capacity for social venture mentoring here at MaRS.