The Easy Way

I once told my friend Lucy something I secretly had been thinking about for a while.

I told her I wanted to get rid of the few things I keep around in life, and move to the Dominican Republic to work for Esperanza International – an anti-poverty institution that I love and admire.

I’d spend half my time at headquarters, helping to improve operations and fundraising. And I’d spend half my time in the field, working directly with the women who are empowered by Esperanza.

It’s so compelling to me. For the rest of my life I would know that I had helped, hands-on, some of the most vulnerable people in my human family. I would forever have those memories, being shoulder to shoulder with the women and the field workers, changing lives. I would have the incomparable experience of helping to build a first class poverty fighting institution.

Lucy is one of the most practical people I know, so I thought she was going to tell me that wouldn’t be very wise for my career or retirement plans. But that’s not what she said at all. Her eyes flashed, and she spoke sharply, so I would remember it.

“Salah! You’re being selfish!”

It wasn’t the reaction I expected after just explaining that I wanted to get rid of all my worldly possessions and move to another land to help impoverished women.

Lucy said, “You’re mixing up feeling good about what you do with actual impact. There are many people who can go help the women of Esperanza. There are less that can help improve the operations of Esperanza, but there are still a lot. But you told me that you are working on a business model that could enable thousands of entrepreneurs to impact the lives of millions of people around the globe.”

“Your problem,” she said, “is that you are scared that you might fail. If you strive for something really big and really difficult, the likelihood of failure is high. You might waste precious years in your effort to create a platform to empower millions of lives. You might be left with nothing to show for your work. But if you don’t make the attempt, you will certainly not achieve your potential.”

“If you go to the island, the likelihood that you will help a few people is very high. It will certainly make you feel good. But you will be squandering any chance you have at making a big, worldwide impact. There’s nothing wrong with that – but see it with clear eyes. It’s selfish.”

If you are a social entrepreneur, I hope you have a Lucy in your life. Whenever I have a difficult decision to make, I remember what she showed me that evening. It helps give me the courage to go all-in. It keeps me from accidentally taking the easy way.

Thanks Lucy!

I’d like to hear your stories about risk taking and impact. Comments are open, or e-mail me at salah@soaphope.com, or connect with me on Facebook.

Solving The Puzzle

Jenny is VP of marketing at a $150 million company. Each year for the last three years, her CEO has given the senior team a set of measurable goals. They get a huge bonus when they meet the goals. Every year they’ve met them.

Some of this year’s key goals:

– $30 million in new revenue.
– Double the number of small-business customers.
– Do this without impacting profitability.

Jenny is confident she will meet the goals this year.

And that’s how I know the people in Jenny’s company are passing up a huge opportunity to improve our world.

Huh?

That’s right. Follow me:

Jenny’s company has a simple but powerful formula for financial success that works every year:

– The CEO sets goals that are easy to measure (all numbers).
– He fully empowers his team.
– He pays them a big bonus when they succeed.

The goals are like a puzzle – they only fit together in certain ways, and when the team solves the puzzle they get a big reward. They bring all the creativity and hard work necessary to solve the puzzle.

Last year’s puzzle included, “Do this without impacting profitability.” It would be easy for Jenny to generate the new revenue by lowering prices, or running a massive ad campaign. But the puzzle is harder than that: she has to find ways to reach new customers without spending too much or lowering margins.

Remember, Jenny told me she is confident she will reach her goal. She’s done it three times before. The team has already come up with multiple creative ways to go after new customers.

Now, here’s where Jenny and everyone else in her company is missing an enormous human opportunity.

Jenny’s company will make no measurable impact on any of the biggest challenges in our world: poverty, clean water, clean energy, conflict, education, disease. The company has no social focus at all.

Why? Because there’s no social impact goal tied to their bonus. It’s not a part of the puzzle. Jenny won’t spend any time on it. None of the team’s creative potential will go toward it.

My critic says, “But Salah, it’s not the role of a business to solve social problems. Whatever energy they would use to solve social problems could be used to make more money, which is the purpose of the business. You’re just making the business less effective by injecting extraneous requirements.”

That’s a fallacy that is preventing us from using the vast human capacity in businesses from making big strides toward solving our world’s greatest challenges.

Let me show you how:

Give Jenny this extra goal: “Reduce the number of children who are hungry every day next year by 1,000.” The last part of the CEO’s puzzle is still, “do this without impacting profitability.” Jenny can’t just donate a million dollars to meet the childhood hunger goal, any more than she could just lower prices to meet the sales goal.

The worst possible way to meet this goal is to figure out how to earn more money as a company and then donate the money to organizations that feed children. That will cost over a million dollars. If that were the only way to solve the problem, I would have to agree with my critic.

But that’s not how Jenny is going to solve this puzzle.

Jenny is going to develop creative solutions that integrate the goals – just as you would approach traditional company goals. She will use the social goal as a tool to help meet the financial goals, and use the financial goals as leverage points to meet the social goal.

She might use the requirement about childhood hunger to create new opportunities and tactics for marketing and selling. She might bring opportunity to customers and vendors around the childhood hunger goal that result in a financial benefit. If Jenny is effective, her team will develop a strategy that doesn’t treat the social goal as separate, something outside the main plan, something to figure out at the end. She will use the social goal to help solve the total puzzle.

If Jenny’s CEO will create a social goal that is measurable and clear, and make the team’s bonus dependent on it, he will find what I and other social entrepreneurs have found in our own business experience:

– Brilliant new creative marketing ideas arise from the team.
– New partnership opportunities emerge.
– New dimensions for business appear with customers and vendors.
– A new kind of passion and creativity ignites inside the organization as employees start to see that their work every day is human, not just financial.

Every day millions of people go to work to solve the puzzles presented to them by their company leaders. And almost none of those puzzles include working on the most important problems in our world, because leaders have made the mistake of thinking that the social goal will diminish the business results. That’s an error, and it’s leaving an enormous amount of positive social change on the table.

I challenge every company leader to try this experiment. At your next goal-setting time, add one measurable social goal to your puzzle. Give it teeth: make it as important to the bonus as everything else. Make it impactful: work on the most critical social problem you can. Help your team understand that this goal isn’t a tactic – it’s not a corporate sponsorship donation or a volunteer day. It’s to be integrated into the plan and leveraged, just like the financial and operational goals are.

See the results for yourself. You will never go back, and your whole business will become a part of solving the real puzzle: how our society will cooperate to address the greatest challenges in our world.

It’s not enough to teach a man to fish (or, Poverty is a Process)

Almost everyone knowns the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But what good is teaching a woman to fish if she cannot afford a fishing pole? If her children are sick and she cannot leave them? If a middleman buys her fish for a pittance and keeps all the profit, because she cannot determine the market price?

Most people view poverty as a problem, as a situation. But poverty is actually a process. The many intertwined aspects of the poverty process are self-reinforcing. In order to end the process, many simultaneous individual problems need to be addressed at the same time.

Think about a 28-year-old woman in Africa who is currently trapped in the process of poverty:

Unlike us, she was not taught to read. Did you ever learn anything from a book? Do you remember every recipe you will ever make? Do you ever use a list to remember what to do? Have you ever read how to repair something, or how to use a medicine?

Our friend cannot learn anything except what she experiences directly in person. She must remember everything important in her head. There is no to-do list, no planning. No recipes. No new food preservation technique unless she can remember exactly how to do it when shown. She certainly cannot make any written agreement with a buyer of goods. If her children need three medicines, she will need to remember the dosage and timing of each one by the color and shape of the pill. Can you do all this?

Unlike us, she was not taught how to do basic math. “How much feed can I afford to buy to raise my livestock, given the amount of time it takes to mature them and the price at the market?” “Given the cost of this thread and dye, how much do I have to be able to sell these shawls for to make it profitable?” It is almost impossible to operate the simplest trade without some basic math skills.

Unlike us, she does not have water nearby. Have you ever been thirsty for a few hours? Do you remember how slow you become, how tired it makes you , how it becomes difficult to think and the mood it puts you in?

Our friend cannot fetch water because it is 2 hours away, and she must be with her baby, prepare food and tend to her family’s other needs. So her two oldest sons, perhaps 8 and 10, walk with containers to fetch water for the family. It takes 2 hours to get there, and it takes 3 hours to get back. Have you ever carried water? It is heavy. The boys make this trip 3 times weekly. This trip is one of the main reasons they are not in school. They, like their mother, will not learn to read and write, perpetuating the poverty process.

There are many other dimensions to the poverty process. Chronic illness, climate change, political unrest and many other forces can create instability that makes it difficult to thrive.

Because there are so many interacting factors that work to keep people in poverty, many attempts to address poverty fail. If there are five or six intertwined problems and a program only addresses one or two, the program won’t work.

One of the most powerful tools for addressing all the elements of poverty comes in the form of nonprofit microfinance institutions. In the absence of an industry term, in my group we call it “Microfinance Plus.” Microfinance Plus institutions deploy programs that enable the local population to address all their poverty drivers. They provide small loans to women who use the capital to fund a personal business, like making something to sell at market, opening a kiosk, raising livestock, and yes even fishing. But these loans are also tied to antipoverty programs like literacy training, math skills, healthcare education, schools, and highly local needs like how to preserve an abundant local food or how to avoid a particular local pathogen.

They also provide the intangible but critical ingredient of human support – also known as “hope.” In many areas, poverty has been present for so long and is so profound that the people need to hear about the possibility for a different and better future for themselves and their children, in order to kick-start the process of working toward that future in a new way.

Now we can see that our old proverb doesn’t give us the outcome we want: the end of the process of poverty. “Teach a woman to read and to do basic math; provide her with affordable sources of clean drinking water, basic healthcare, and business training; give her human support and respect; and enable her children to go to school.” Then you don’t need to feed her for a lifetime. She can do that for herself and her family, just as we do.