Yin and Yang: the top 5 balancing acts for social entrepreneurs

Duty_calls It feels like such a busy and fast-moving time at the moment, that it's been difficult to take time and reflect, and get the head up to look around, meerkat-like. Which has got me thinking about balance, and the different areas that social entrepreneurs need to balance.

1) Passion and pragmatism:  I was speaking at an UpRising event recently, along with Young Foundation Director Geoff Mulgan, about the Big Society and how to react to it. There were some passionate reactions in the room, and those encouraging direct action and activism rather than engaging with the movement. I made the point that engagement with policymakers was about understanding their perspective, holding true to your values / principles / opinions, and seeking a constructive way forward. Sometimes a constructive way forward requires disagreement (and constructive criticism), but when that blurs into anger or aggression, the dialogue isn't there…and any opportunities dwindle. That line between passion and pragmatism is always key.

2) Self and organisation: The balance that gets talked about most in this context is work-life balance, which tends to ignore that for many social entrepreneurs (indeed, entrepreneurs of all types), work and life are not that easily divisible. It might be that this is more about ensuring time is portioned off for non-work, for friends and family, for rest and reflection. Inevitably, it's at the busiest times when this gets squeezed, and it's at those times when it is most valuable. Focus requires concentration and good health; somehow it's never easy to drink more water, sleep enough, eat well and do a bit of exercise. But we all know it works. And we also know that people need to earn a living, even if it's a job they've created themselves.

3) Mission and money: Very much the core of social enterprise + social entrepreneurship, the balance between mission and money is crucial: especially for decision-making. Some now talk about it as "impact-first" and "finance-first" (particularly in the realm of finance), but even just having that level of awareness about different choices is important. Some opportunities might bring in money that allow you to cross-subsidise activities that would have more impact in line with mission. It's the awareness of where the decision lies and why it's being taken. [see slides 9 + 10 in this powerpoint which has a mission-money matrix + the same matrix in tough economic times]

4) Attention to detail and big picture: I find this a tough one, personally. It's easy to get bogged down in the detail of things that aren't really important (as with the cartoon above) or to get very focused (rightly) on delivering to the highest quality; but sometimes that comes at the expense of looking a little long-term and thinking strategically. That's particularly true right now, when the climate is forcing people to act hand-to-mouth and day-to-day. But those who can think about thriving in 2-3 years as well as surviving the next 6 months, will be in an advantageous position. Having said that, I also have huge admiration for those people who in the midst of intense periods of activity, still remember to reply to a (less important) e-mail, write a letter of congratulation, or make an introduction they think might be useful. Well, I did say it was tough….

5) Objectivity and subjectivity: This takes me back to the Big Society and that debate, and also a little to the line between self and organisation. It's about judgement, and trying to take the 'personal' out if it. Thinking about the organisation's best interests and taking out personal feelings and interests as far as possible. Not easy when your contract or grant has been cut, or someone else wins the contract over you; and not easy when that organisation is "your baby", but important. To be ready for the next opportunity, to be on the front foot (not dwelling on what's just happened), to maintain relationships, to think about the intentions of those making the decisions, and to put things in context. Judgement isn't just about what to do and when to do it, but about what you say, how you communicate, and your ability to empathise. Which gets tougher at tough times.

So what's the advice? Take time to reflect; be a bit selfish (otherwise it won't happen); have people near who put things in perspective; keep money + mission at the forefront at all times; look ahead. Which is all a lot easier to write than do.



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6 thoughts on “Yin and Yang: the top 5 balancing acts for social entrepreneurs

  1. Shouldn’t you be watching TV with your feet up at this time of the evening/week, Nick? (balanced comment…!) (from someone who was watching tv and thought maybe twitter has something better to offer, ok then.. and seeing your tweet title made me put things in perspective…spot on, as ever. So thanks again!

  2. Fair cop, Servane! Just been trying to write this post for a while, but (somewhat ironically) haven’t managed to find the time. So yes, Sunday night avoiding Downton Abbey seemed like as good a moment as any…. :0)

  3. Very good delineation of the areas in which opposing forces can create trouble in the life of a social enterprise. As traditional sources of money — government funding in particular — dry up, the one you emphasize, money vs mission, becomes ever more important. We are all tempted by the off-mission grant.
    We can help each other a bit, however, by investing our own resources — endowments, portfolios, etc. — responsibility, in a way that will get money to values-driven businesses rather than aiming only for the biggest Euro return.

  4. Don’t disagree with any of this. 5) is particularly good. I’ve had difficulties in the past with (initially) positive side of personal stuff – you meet a nice person who’s doing good work, they say let’s do a project together and it’s really difficult to say “no, that’s a nice idea but there’s not enough in it for us”. But it’s very important in the long run not to get saddled with projects that won’t work because you like the people involved.

  5. I would add platform vs. brand to the list, as perhaps an extension of mission vs. money, as many social entrepreneurs (and enterprises) have a tough time balancing the development of their platform vs. developing the brand around their platform… which inevitably leads to some taking the brand farther than the platform will support

  6. This all sounds rather like the concept of the “Tryanny of the OR” and the “Genius of the AND” discussed in the well-known book, “Built to Last.” While the book discusses the principles that visionary companies are build on…..I think the same can be said for visionary social enterprises. In fact, I think social entrepreneurs really embody the term “idealistic pragmist” in the fight to make profit AND do good.