Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Sustainability Conundruom

by R. Todd Johnson

I find that sometimes, when I'm looking for something to write about, I struggle endlessly to find the topic or the voice that gets me going. Other times, I get bludgeoned over the head with the idea.

This morning was a bludgeoning morning.

I started with a 7 a.m. breakfast with Jessica Jackley, Kiva Founder, to discuss her new start-up, the crowdfunding site and business for entrepreneurs, Profunder. During our conversation, I mentioned the two things that we never discuss (but that I always raise) at social entrepreneurship gatherings:

1. When we talk about businesses that "do good," what is "good" and how do we know? and

2. We allot tons of airspace to discussing and measuring sustainability as it relates to the environment or even to people in a macro sense, but what about sustainability for the social entrepreneur and the start-up team as individuals?

Then, in my daily perusal of blogs, I stumbled upon today's article titled "The Nonprofit Paradox" (subscription required) by David La Piana in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  (Mind you, I don't normally read about nonprofits. Read this, if you are wondering why.)

In his piece, La Piana offers a couple of examples of what he considers the paradox:
Take, for instance, a human rights organization whose mission was to prevent torture. Despite this laudable goal, one of the group’s leaders left subordinates feeling terrorized. Staff members consequently—and without awareness of the irony—described working in the organization as “torture.”
A national nonprofit dedicated to eradicating child abuse faced a similar issue. The staff perceived (with reason, in my opinion) their CEO to be abusive, neglectful, and power mad. As a result, they adopted classic abuse avoidance behaviors, such as avoiding contact with him, delaying the delivery of bad news, and generally making themselves invisible. In a family therapy context, these behaviors would be diagnosed as pathological.
La Piana concludes, in part:
The nonprofit paradox seems to have a paradoxical cause—namely, the mission drive of nonprofit sector workers. Social sector organizations attract highly motivated people with deeply held personal values. These values-driven workers pursue their chosen profession despite its inherent difficulty and significant financial sacrifice. It is commonly observed that nonprofit workers are the most mission-driven in the country.

And so goes the social entrepreneur.

Driven by a social mission to "change the world," but understanding, inherently, the need for patient capital and longer horizons for exit, the social entrepreneur is inculcated into the entrepreneur culture -- do whatever it takes, no matter what it costs, to meet the objectives -- but undertakes to do it over a much longer time horizon.

How can that be sustainable? How can we make that more individually sustainable? Who is helping the entrepreneur at keeping their passion in check to ensure that their life remains sustainable?

Somewhere, I think the Jessica Jackley's of the world would like someone to devote time and resources to the question and to develop some best practices.

Perhaps you already have. 

Then please, offer up a comment and point us in the right direction.

*Todd is a partner at the law firm of Jones Day, where he founded their Silicon Valley Office and runs their Renewable Energy and Sustainability Practice. The views expressed in this column are solely Todd’s personal views, not the views of Jones Day or its clients, and the information provided as to his affiliation with Jones Day is solely for purposes of identification and may not and should not be construed to imply endorsement or even support by Jones Day of the views expressed herein.

© R. Todd Johnson, 2010. The thoughts, ideas and words expressed in this column are the property of R. Todd Johnson and may not be otherwise used or reprinted without express permission from Todd.

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