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Social Entrepreneurship is Gambling for People with a Conscience

Posted By Jonathan Lewis, Opportunity Collaboration, Tuesday, June 27, 2017


Social Entrepreneurship is Gambling for People with a Conscience


Posted by Jonathan Lewis, Author, The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur.


Failure is not contagious. You don’t get it from toilet seats. It’s not transmitted by airborne pathogens. You don’t catch it from talking about it.


Nevertheless, in polite conversation among social entrepreneurs, failure – total, complete, abject failure – is taboo territory. It seems to go against human nature to readily acknowledge a mistake, let alone a failure. To twist a line from the poet Oscar Wilde, failure is the social entrepreneurship that dares not speak its name.


Unexamined failure is a social sector scandal, a cover-up as unproductive as failure itself. An un-scrutinized mistake leads to more of the same. Every airplane crash is automatically investigated by a team of taxpayer-financed independent experts. Industry-wide safety improvements ensue as a result, which is why, when I am in an airplane at 35,000 feet, it usually doesn’t fall out of the sky. Professional sports teams debrief after every game. Military maneuvers are unpacked in war colleges. In Silicon Valley, failure is practically a badge of honor; without a few failures under your belt, no one thinks you’re innovating enough.


In contrast, when a social enterprise crashes, we hardly hear about it. Without postmortems, quality improvement in the social sector remains elusive. Deprived of case studies about failure, we’re left with the probability that our social ventures will be the next road kill, and the next, and the next.


We keep our failures hidden to forestall becoming social sector pariahs. Failed organizations don’t get marquee billing at social change conferences. Workshops about failure are ghettoized, not lionized. We know that success compounds (called the cumulative advantage effect); conversely, underdogs (by class, by race, by gender, by physical appearance and – yes – by past performance) suffer a cumulative disadvantage effect. Failure can prefigure our future prospects.


Another reason to conceal our failures is that grantmakers, government decision-makers, board members, the media and everyone else prefer Hollywood endings to life’s uncertain nuances. Good triumphs over evil. Boy gets girl. Social venture solves social problem. It’s thorny to attract donors or impact investors with a story about mistakes, missed cues, fizzles and fiascos. Few funders fund R&D; fewer still will underwrite a flunking project for a second attempt.


Chiefly, change agents dislike discussing failure because it filets open our fears, cutting close to our insecurities. In comparison to everyone else’s boastful press releases and proud Facebook postings, failure makes me feel small and unattractive. Worse, failure makes me feel unworthy of the causes I fight for.


In both the social and non-social business categories, I have architected several prime-time fiascos. Moreover, in the nooks and crannies of my professional accomplishments, I’ve accomplished a thousand failures of character. At times, I failed to make a decision when one was needed. Other times, I acted impulsively, forgetting to pause long enough to consider all the factors indispensable to making a fully-informed judgment. I have failed in friendships and flagged in kindheartedness. Sometimes, I failed to live up to my own principles. Much to my surprise, I’m not perfect.


When I am rejected (by the marketplace, by funders, by whomever, by whatever), my thoughts whirl with questions: What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? Will I be stigmatized as incompetent? Am I worthy of social entrepreneurship? Am I worthy, period?


Whether we’re a CEO-Founder, or one of the vital middle managers, consultants or volunteers working for an NGO or social venture, we each have our own ingredients to add to the collective stew of failure. With all the headlines and hype about social entrepreneurs and scaling innovations, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that winning (or losing) at social change is a team sport. We can all succeed at failure.


Failing sucks. When a project fails, if we care enough (and of course we do), then it’s heartbreaking. As if replaying, over and over again, a failed friendship in my mind, I never quite get over a social venture crash and burn. The wincing memories and recycled self-doubt remind me that I’m human and vulnerable. They also remind me to treasure the heart-filling, awe-inspiring psychic rewards of social justice work.


If you get the choice, I recommend success over failure. Be that as it may, be prepared to make mistakes. Failure is how we live our lives. Things go wrong. It happens in life, in business, in government and, yes, in social justice work too. It behooves us to get good at the art of managing and mitigating failure; in my book (from which this blog is excerpted), I offer a few survival tips: Hug a colleague. Avoid self-delusion. Mess up early and often. Share your failure. Maintain perspective. Hang in there.


Social entrepreneurship is gambling for people with a conscience. Realizing with absolute certitude that I’m going to lose (probably more than once) is liberating. Accepting the prospect of failure means that I can shed paralysis-by-analysis and get started right away, right now, on my social justice work.


The anatomy of social change, and the core of our social entrepreneurship, depend on taking risk after risk for our convictions. Daring to fail is part of our job description.



 Jonathan C. Lewis is a life-long social justice activist and accomplished social entrepreneur. He is the founder of MCE Social Capital and the Opportunity Collaboration, and co-founder of Copia Global. He is a trustee of the Swift Foundation and general partner of Dev Equity

Jonathan may be contacted at his website: His twitter handle is @SoCentClinic.

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Rosanne Whalley, AHL Venture Partners says...
Posted Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Excellent article. I couldn't agree more, that the sector would be higher performing and impactful, if organisations were honest and open about their failures.
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