The thrill of releasing untapped potential: An alternative come-from for social enterprise.

As I get more and more familiar with the non-profit space, I’m becoming more aware of a way in which my core motivation for being in the field seems to be in the minority. Let me explain.

A typical description of the motivation for non-profit causes can be found in the classic SSIR article Social Enterprise: the Case for Definition by Roger Martin and Sally Osberg. About half-way into the article they lay out a very well-articulated three-part definition for social enterprise. It was the first part of the definition that really caught my attention and pushed me to think about what energizes me about social enterprise.

Part one of their definition is as follows:

We define social entrepreneurship as having the following three components:

(1)    identifying a stable but inherently unjust equilibrium that causes the exclusion, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity that lacks the financial means or political clout to achieve any transformative benefit on its own;

It was the word “unjust” that I reacted to. Underneath the word “unjust” I project that there needs to be a villain who is intentionally creating this justice, and a victim who bears the weight of this injustice. And I’m sure that there are many situations where this is clearly the core dynamic that’s going on.

However I propose to you that there are also a number of other important situations where poverty is happening because of less intentional and less nefarious circumstances. Furthermore I propose that the angry energy that often goes hand in hand with social justice isn’t the only way to bring about change.

In fact I speculate that in some situations, a come-from based on anger would make it that much more difficult to hear and understand all players, making negotiation difficult. Thus it’s critical to size up a situation and consider “which frame will best serve this challenge?”

So I think it’s very fair for somebody to push me on this with, “okay so if social justice isn’t what motivates you, what is?” To put it very simply, what excites me is untapped potential. I believe that in these populations of impoverished people, there is a lot of hidden talent and capability. One can look at India for example, and how in spite of the many challenges, a lot of talent bubbles up into the information economy. It gets me thinking about what untapped talent there must be in rural Cambodia.

Along these lines there is a very exciting idea in the field of talent development which says that a person’s innate ability to manage complexity is something that is deeply embedded in them—as deeply embedded as their eventually height. But even if someone hasn’t had much education, nor have they had much work experience, their inner capability to manage complexity will continue to develop as they age, and will be ready to go when the opportunity arises.

So if this idea is true, it means that there is this gold mine of talent sitting within underdeveloped countries like Cambodia. These people simply need guidance, best practices, and opportunities in order to take their rightful place on the world stage and play in the global economy.

Granted, I’m not saying that every farmer out in the countryside is going to become an amazing programmer or a world-class project coordinator. This isn’t the case in any country. But I am saying that there are some kids out there who absolutely have the potential to do fantastic things on a global scale. If we can identify these people and we can get them on the path to entering the world stage, then they can transform their own lives, the communities which they come from, and the countries within which they live. That is incredibly exciting to me. And in fact this is precisely what DDD is doing in Battambang, Cambodia.

Thus while for some people the social injustice frame is a motivating one, for me personally I find the untapped potential frame to be thrilling and motivating. I have nobody to save, I have nobody to rescue. I simply want to go out and find people who are my intellectual peers, and help them get to where they belong on the world stage.

One response to “The thrill of releasing untapped potential: An alternative come-from for social enterprise.

  1. Pingback: Wondering how to find your place in the non-profit world? | Paul Konasewich, MBA

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