The Social Entrepreneurs’ Dilemma – Letting Go

let-goIn the past few months I’ve met up with friends who are social entrepreneurs in South Africa, Switzerland, Egypt, United States, Turkey and China who are all going through or have gone through the process of letting go of their role in organisations they’ve founded. Many have attached their identity to their work, carry guilt in leaving or are not happy with the direction their organization has taken.

Pioneering in the social change field usually comes from a place of deep conviction in observing a lack of equality in the world. Social and economic injustice clings to you like a foul smell and you cannot rest until you step forward to do something about it. Taking action does not come easily, it’s often the most uncomfortable position that you can place yourself in. When stepping into the unknown you’re confronted with self-doubt, sacrificing financial security, planned career progression and feelings of isolation from family and friends who do not support your decision. The journey of caring and taking action therefore comes with immense risk and acted upon because it’s your God-given calling so it’s the only thing you can do at that time.

Acting from a pioneering space means that there are no or few successful examples or approaches to draw from. Your primary source of support is often meeting up with like-minded people who resonate with the course and may be willing to step into action with you. It’s a creative process that stretches you beyond your known limits and is often spirit-breaking when your desired impact does not come to fruition and you test test test along until an experiment shows some form of success. In order to create social change in the area of our work, we develop movements to galvanize a paradigm shift.

While creating a paradigm shift is often the work of the activist, in order to get support for our work we need structures in order to attract resources. Before you know it, your intended movement needs a business model and given the limits of current legal forms, we soon have a registered organization and follow the principles/rules/mantras to govern the entity. Having started something based on our deeply held convictions takes on a new life form. Part of the beauty of these structures is that they can scale radically and many success stories exist from the impact that we’ve created. The downside for pioneers is that we may lose connection to the original purpose of our work when caught up in busyness of administration during execution. It is also common for us to suffer from burnout as there is little escape with world problems not being neatly condescend during working hours, we tend to overextend ourselves.

The intended impact takes precedence over the founder where shareholder value does not derive the same meaning in a social enterprise as it does in a traditional commercial enterprise.  Sometimes we create governance structures that allow for a “the more the merrier” inclusive decision-making process. Many other times our growing organisations default into traditional governance models because a new funder or impact investor requires a seat on the board. Unfortunately, we have not yet created new forms of organizing ourselves to sustain and grow our work beyond what’s accepted.

Success can be a double-edged sword when we need to invite new partners into the work because of new skills sets required or to access new opportunity. The organization blows up and may become a mainstream brand, you receive several accolades and media attention which is fantastic unless there is true values alignment between all the stakeholders who have a legal or other influential voice. Steering the ship in the direction of why it was founded in the first place and the importance of the process of how to get there often needs to be carried out with the seed of the founder’s heartbeat in mind; that’s what attracted stakeholder engagement after all. On the other hand, sometimes the founder needs to let go for the organization to realize their vision and achieve its full potential.

The question that many of my friends and I reflecting on is when to let go. Many of us have taken our work mainstream from unknown pioneering spaces to kick starting industries or new ways of engaging with communities. While this counts as success, we’re still a long way from eradicating global inequality and to a large degree things are getting worse. We may need new language to describe our work as adoption by the mainstream sometimes loses the meaning behind the work. How do we use the social capital and perhaps accumulated financial resources we’ve gained over the years? Do we now have the freedom to go back into the movement and less institutional space? Do we start new projects? Do we take jobs and make a difference as intrapreneurs through other stable platforms? What emerging networks can we support?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. My greatest learning over recent years is that our values that lead us to create our social enterprises are deeply embedded in us and will be a gift to the world in whatever way channeled. Perhaps it’s a season to go back to our Ghandian basics “Be the change you want to see in the world” that inspired us to start in the first place.

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