This past class featured Dina Buchbinder, the founder and CEO of Education for Sharing (Educacion para Compartir), an international nonprofit organization founded in Mexico fifteen years ago. Dina is a good friend, an extraordinarily accomplished social entrepreneur and a disarming speaker, and she started off her remarks by noting that she had no idea fifteen years ago that she’d still be doing this work. I particularly appreciated Dina’s candor as she described her journey as one that had unfolded organically, responding opportunistically to invitations to expand the program, and investing more deeply in areas where they found traction.
Dina’s talk hit many of the themes that we have been discussing as a class – the importance of the team in building a social enterprise (despite the narrative focusing so much on the social entrepreneur), the critical nature of the business model (beyond merely revenue generation), and the power dynamics that impact who has access to the resources that facilitate leading social change efforts. In describing the work of leading her own organization in different countries – and within countries, in different regions – Dina talked about the importance of recognizing and incorporating context in all aspects of an organization’s operations.
Dina noted her preference for unorthodox approaches and a dispositional resistance to following the rules. It’s been a theme that has come up now with all of the speakers – an abiding sense that the rules were a part of the problem and basically fungible. And, true to form, Dina was quick to shift the conversation from a description of her own story to a questioning of the students about their respective passions and the origins of these passions (which made me wish I had thought to ask the students the same questions earlier).
One of the things I realized last year in teaching this course was that the students possessed a number of misconceptions about the nonprofit sector. While our discussion of social entrepreneurship isn’t limited to nonprofits, it became clear that myth-busting around social entrepreneurship required some clearing of confusion around how nonprofits actually function. To this end, during the second half of class we walked through some of the more prevalent myths about nonprofits – that they can’t make a profit, that all employees are volunteers, that overhead is evil, that they can’t lobby (this actually appears only to be a myth within the sector; outside humans haven’t ever really thought about it), and that US nonprofits get all their money from foundations.
In walking the students through all this, I was struck by how strange it is that while 10% of the population is employed by nonprofit organizations, there is so little understanding and awareness of our sector. This obviously has huge implications on everything from our ability to hire people to attitudes impacting philanthropy, and in teaching this course it sometimes creates what feels like a tension between fostering awareness vs. designing a rigorous learning experience. It is my hope that both can be achieved, but I am aware at three weeks in (out of fourteen) that it will not happen unless I make a concerted effort to encourage the students to go deeper.
One timely topic that came up during the discussion of the myth that nonprofits can earn a profit was the Patagonia sale. In describing the key difference between nonprofits and for-profits as the prohibition on nonprofits from distributing its profits to an individual, one student noted that Yvon Chouinard had essentially created that same condition for his for-profit with the recent announcement of his donation of ownership. This prompted a good discussion around nonprofit compensation - what, exactly, is reasonable? And regarding the Patagonia decision, we talked about the implications of the complicated legal machinations involved (why do we make it so hard to do something like this?), and an international student noted that it was interesting to contrast the differences and implications of lower taxation rates in the US. I was pleased to see that the students were thinking more broadly about what actually makes a social entrepreneur, and the significance of legal/corporate structures in creatively addressing social issues.
For this coming week, the students are preparing for their first presentation on a social entrepreneur of their choosing and we will be joined by Dune Lankard of the Native Conservancy and our Readings (and listenings) include: Podcast: Kelp, condors and Indigenous conservation https://news.mongabay.com/2022/02/podcast-kelp-condors-and-indigenous-conservation/
Readings: 5 Ways Social Entrepreneurs are Promoting Sustainability Around the World, PBS News Hour
Begin reading Three Cups of Deceit, Jon Krakauer (to be discussed at our October 3 class)
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