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A Special Series for the 2015 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship

Each year at the Skoll World Forum, nearly 1,000 of the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs, key thought leaders and strategic partners gather at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to exchange ideas, solutions and information.

We asked a number of speakers to discuss the critical issues, challenges and opportunities underpinning their sessions in advance of the Forum to ground a richer debate both online and in Oxford.

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Rescue Yourself Before Rescuing Others

Rescue Yourself Before Rescuing Others

March 17, 2015 | 4543 views

Social and economic justice work is for me an enriching personal adventure. An elixir. A curative for the empty, indolent life. A recovery program for life’s earlier mistakes.

When I reflect on how astonishingly cool it is to do social change work, when I’m a fierce advocate for my core values, when I feel the warming pride which comes from earning admiration from friends and family, it fulfills me as a person. When I remember that, because of something I did yesterday, moms are feeding their kids today, I’m rescued from the Lesser Jonathan.

Some of us become social entrepreneurs for the same reason some people fall in love:  to be recognized, to be heard, to be seen, to feel alive. As social animals, it’s natural – actually unavoidable – that we understand ourselves in the context of community.

Avowals of humility aside, the desire to be accepted, praised, and respected – maybe even to brag obnoxiously about our triumphs – is a basic human instinct. I derive a palpable sense of contentment from the thought that my neighbors and colleagues judge me a good-hearted person.

Most giving is “impure altruism or warm-glow altruism,” conclude Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in SuperFreakonomics. “You give not only because you want to help, but because it makes you look good, or feel good, or perhaps feel less bad.”

As saints and sages testify, community service – from classical charity to conscious capitalism – produces an electrifying rush for the donor, giver, impact investor, or volunteer. In the common and paradoxical formula, “the more you give, the more you get.”

For the most part, the social entrepreneurs I hang out with are pretty ordinary individuals. Sometimes we do extraordinary things against extraordinary odds, but none of us is all that special. It’s our moral imagination that makes social entrepreneurs different, that distinguishes us from the mob.

At economic development and social entrepreneurship conferences, we talk endlessly about the need for good management and big ideas, but talk infrequently about the need for the learned attributes of good personhood.

“We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say,” notes New York Times columnist and social critic David Brooks in The Social Animal.

Social entrepreneurs – like other professionals – require a measure of personal ambition, ego, vision, and fire in the belly, but also reflective life perspective. In politics, we sense the candidate who is – or who is not – comfortable in his or her own skin. Changing the world demands self-rescue before rescuing others.

Tiffany Persons is the creative director and founder of Tiffany Company Casting, a Hollywood casting agency, and the founding CEO of Shine on Sierra Leone, a rural village school program. Tiffany was headed to nursing school until a bad grade in organic chemistry forced her to change direction. She took a film class, where she discovered documentary film-making. Interviewed for the Café Impact video series, Tiffany reports:

“I receive an email every day from an amazing person who is pouring their heart out about being unhappy about where they are in their life and wanting to do something with meaning. It’s not about you getting into the social sector so you can feel good about helping people. That’s a void that you’re trying to fill for yourself.”

“Every moment of every day has incredible meaning, but, if you don’t know that, when you jump into the helping sector, you’re going to find yourself where you started – unhappy and unfulfilled. If you don’t find happiness where you are right now, you are going to be unhappy in the social sector.

“Be prepared to transform yourself without attempting to transform others to be like you. Be prepared to grow yourself. Don’t get into the [social sector] thinking that you know everything and you are coming to transform someone’s life,” she says, adding emphatically, “Into what? Into being you!?!”

Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg is the director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) and a former political science professor. She’s also the founding CEO of Akili Dada, a girls’ leadership program in Nairobi, Kenya.  As a little girl growing up in Kenya, Wanjiru didn’t aspire to be a professor. She dreamed of being a pilot, a doctor, or the pop star Madonna. Also on camera for Café Impact, Wanjiru weighs in:

“You are most efficient, effective and reach people deeply when you’re acting from a place of self-consciousness and self-awareness. It’s about trying to heal the world from what you [personally have] experienced. It is not about ‘the other who is poor,’” cautions Wanjiru.

“The most useless people are people driven by guilt. The most useful people are driven by a sense of abundance. What do you care about? What is your story?”

Embrace the human contradictions which characterize you and every other change agent. She reports with a grin, “I spend all day running an organization empowering young women and relax at night by reading romance novels about women who get carted off into the sunset by burly men.”

“It’s all worth it, but do I have doubts? Yes. I go through moments of doubt, but my calculation is where my life brings the most value to the world.”

“Do not copy/paste someone else’s life,” recaps Wanjiru. For one thing, you might copy and paste the wrong person.


© 2015 Jonathan C. Lewis. This text may not be reposted or reproduced without the permission of the author.


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