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Conversations with Social Entrepreneurs

The following report summary provides an overview of the themes resulting from a series of regional gatherings of 200 nonprofit leaders, led by Commongood Careers. For a complete version of the 12-page report, please download it here.


The societal, economic, and political landscape looks very different in 2010 from that which existed just a few years ago. Faced with a range of new realities, social entrepreneurs feel that they are approaching an “inflection point,” or a moment of dramatic change for their organizations and movement. Despite diminished resources, social entrepreneurs are now working to grow in entirely new ways and at faster rates than ever before.

These conditions and goals are putting incredible stress on systems that were already running at nearly full capacity. To be successful in moving to the next level, leaders need to take the entrepreneurial skills that they used so successfully in programmatic development and focus their talents on enhancing internal operating systems.  Organizations need to build capacity, enhance efficiency, and leverage human capital in order to increase their social impact per dollar invested (as represented below figuratively, not quantitatively).

To explore how social entrepreneurs are navigating through this dynamic period, Commongood Careers and the Building Movement Project convened “Conversations with Social Entrepreneurs.”  This effort included an electronic survey study and a series of regional gatherings in four cities with a group of 200 leaders from innovative nonprofits. The conversations revealed three prominent themes, as follows:

(1) Looking for new revenue sources: Social entrepreneurs are cautiously optimistic at the moment and 73% of them plan to expand programs this year, despite foundation funding cuts and other challenges with traditional funding streams. To be successful, however these groups will need to become more innovative in their approaches to revenue generation, such implementing growth capital campaigns and social media strategies, but also especially in their government relationships where only about 30% of all participants are planning to pursue new funding opportunities such as the Social Innovation Fund.

(2) Focusing on core growth with partners: In response to resource constraints and high levels of uncertainty, social entrepreneurs are rethinking their strategic plans in order to focus on core operations and essential programs. At the same time, organizations are pursuing aggressive growth plans, with 74% of participants expanding in their current regions and 40% replicating their programs in new regions in 2010. Partnerships among social entrepreneurs and across sectors also emerged as a key strategy to increase impact and decrease costs. Participants also expressed a strong desire for additional regional convening opportunities.

(3) Enhancing human capital: Participants agreed that one of the largest sources of untapped potential for increasing organizational capacity exists within the human capital arena (including staff members, consultants, volunteers, board members and other stakeholders). In order to achieve their growth and impact goals, however, social entrepreneurs recognize that they will have to re-prioritize the perception of human capital’s importance in their organizations and embrace innovative new ways of recruiting, hiring, managing and developing talent.  Through these conversations, a number of best practices and new ideas were identified along these lines, including:

  1. Pipelining: Build year-round recruiting partnerships, career tracks for program alumni, and pipelines into constituent communities.
  2. Cross-Training: Create cross-functional teams to facilitate knowledge sharing and increase organizational cohesion.
  3. Managing Volunteers: Utilize HR systems for volunteers just as for staff (job descriptions, recruitment, screening, managing, etc.)
  4. Sharing Talent: Move away from competitive poaching and toward inter-organizational career ladders and management exchanges.
  5. Leveraging Corporations: Ask private-sector partners to share professional development trainings, systems, and technologies.
  6. Partnering and Merging: Explore sharing back-offices, staff trainings, pooled employee benefits and even celebrations.
  7. Re-branding: Collaborate to build a unified and exciting nonprofit “brand” to attract new employees, volunteers and supporters.
  8. Pooling Candidates: Develop a single talent database across many organizations to pool alumni, ex-employees and strong candidates.
  9. Engaging Politicians: Inform elected officials about nonprofit employment levels and advocate for solutions to stimulate hiring.

For a complete version of the 12-page report, please download it here.