In 2009, Tom Dawkins and I first connected around our shared passion for how technology — used in innovative and empowering ways — can create incredible social change.
In late 2010, Tom and I began work on StartSomeGood.com, co-founding the crowdfunding site together over late night, caffeine-fueled working sessions in his San Francisco apartment.
From 2011 to 2013, we exchanged thousands of emails, logged hundreds of hours on Skype and communicated through everything from Twitter DMs to old-fashioned post.
And while we got a lot done, I always relished those moments where we would step back from our daily work and philosophise about the future of social entrepreneurship and creating a world filled with more changemakers. In these moments, Tom stood out as an absolute visionary, one of the very most exceptional people I’ve ever met for seeing what’s possible and how we might get there.
In 2013 I stepped back from daily operations and Tom stepped into the CEO role where he has brilliantly led the team in pushing the boundaries of social impact funding and supporting changemakers around the world.
So, when I wanted to look ahead to the future of the field of social entrepreneurship, I knew exactly who to contact. And after a Tweet, a couple of emails and a Skype, our conversation is below where you can get Tom’s astute insights for where we are headed. Enjoy!
What’s the state of the social entrepreneurship field right now, and where are we headed?
I see a few key trends, most of which come down to the mainstreaming of social entrepreneurship. I feel like social enterprise is going to get more and more mainstream and then it will simply become invisible, because then it will be so mainstream it won't need a separate sector — but right now we are still in the early stages. I’m seeing a few key markers, from more funding opportunities to new social enterprise certifications and legal structures, such as B-Corps, to greater participation across sectors, which suggest it’s becoming more established.
For instance, mainstream investment firms have set up impact funds. And recently we had the first IPO of a B-Corp with Etsy. StartSomeGood just became the 1500th B-Corp internationally and I wouldn't be surprised if that number doubles very quickly. I went to the SOCAP conference for the first time in three years and it was really eye-opening just how huge it had become.
And the government is playing an increasingly key role — especially the UK — showing how the public sector can serve as a catalyst for social innovation.
And how about when it comes to accessing capital?
Crowdfunding is playing a key role in funding emerging social enterprises, particularly at an early stage. Crowdfunding is becoming the place where the most exciting social enterprises often launch today. And that's increasingly the case as people are beginning to bring more capital into the industry and they are looking crowdfunding success as a signifier of an enterprises community support and competence and a validation of their business and team.
One of the really exciting development we’re seeing and pushing is to link together different fundraising methods for greatest impact. So combining philanthropy and crowdfunding, for instance, as we do with our Crowdmatch partnerships which see an institutional investor match the funds raised from the crowd. This can extend to the investment space as well. We recently launched a partnership with the Social Enterprise Finance Authority which – and I believe this is a worlds-first – is using crowdfunding as a qualifying instrument for an investment.
StartSomeGood was founded to support social change innovation and social enterprises in particular so it’s exciting for us to know that we are contributing to the development of this ecosystem by providing both capital and validation.
Is there a risk as some of these bigger banks and traditional financial players come in? Should changemakers like us welcome people with open arms or should we be cautious as the field becomes more mainstream?
I think changemakers should always be welcoming — they should be alliance-builders and community-builders — which means accepting when people come from different places and have different things to contribute to creating change. That said, there can be a trade-off between maximising profit and staying true to one’s core principles and so I think there's a need for social entrepreneurs to be particularly mindful about the possibility of co-option.
But there is absolutely huge potential in working across sectors — for instance our partnership with ING Direct Bank. We got in the room with them and started to work together in the spirit of believing that they were in it for the right reasons and also understanding that we needed to deliver business value to them. It became clear quickly that ING Direct is a bank which has had a social conscience from day one, so it was a great fit for us — but of course every bank might not be. In the end, I do think there are risks, but the upside outweighs the downside — it’s important to enter discussions with an open mind, but remaining true to your changemaker principles. The ING Direct partnership – a funding opportunity for Australian social enterprises called Dreamstarter – has so far provided almost a quarter million in funding for innovative projects, and helped them raise more than that amount again on StartSomeGood. So the benefits have definitely outweighed any possible risks!
You’re perfectly suited to answer this next question since StartSomeGood has been where 600 new social ventures and projects got started: what trends are you seeing in terms of areas of focus — either geographic or topical — that you think will be especially exciting to watch in 2016?
We work with all kinds of social good groups at StartSomeGood, including charities and non-profit community groups, but I’m really noticing a shift in the proportion of projects on StartSomeGood that are honest to goodness social enterprises, with well-developed products and a strong customer development focus.
The old social enterprise model was that in buying a more socially-focused product you had to be ready to make compromises. Compared to a non-social-enterprise vendor, you might have to pay more, wait longer, have something less fashionable — whatever the case may be. The new social enterprise model is to create a product that is as fashionable, as convenient and as affordable as your competitors, but then much better on social impact. Those are the kinds of products and services that we are seeing more and more on SartSomeGood — where the social mission is wrapped around a great product simultaneously delivering a great experience as well. Just in the last six months we’ve seen educational, food, stationary, training, soap and beer social enterprises, just to pick a few. And geographically they’re coming from all over. The United States and Australia have always been our two biggest markets but we’re seeing more and more social enterprises aiming for an international market come out of South-East Asia as well.
And finally, now that are are a few weeks into 2016: if someone made a resolution to become a changemaker this year, where do you suggest they go to get started?
I think the starting point is to begin connecting with fellow changemakers, wherever they are. For me, Twitter have been really, really key to how I've gone about creating change over the last few years because of the people I’ve met and the conversations I’ve had there.
Next you might decide to invest in the skills you need to take the next step. We live in the “golden age” of self-education: the amount of fantastic content, curriculum and opportunities online right now is just incredible; whatever you feel you need to learn, there is definitely a place you can go to learn it for free or at a very reasonable cost. We just launched our course on Udemy, teaching a ‘master class’ on crowdfunding for changemakers, for example. That’s ours, and it’s a great way to learn everything you need to run a successful crowdfunding campaign on your own time. And there are a lot of other places well, from Kahn Academy to The Great Courses — there has never been a better time to learn and connect online.
And, of course, if you are ready to raise funds for starting or growing your own social impact or project, we would love to help you connect with the capital and community you need to make it a reality at StartSomeGood!