3 Ways For Impact Investors And Social Entrepreneurs To Maintain Perspective
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Impact investors and social entrepreneurs are, by virtue of requirements of business and investing, in it for the long haul. In order to maintain perspective and focus on impact, I recommend three forms of supplemental volunteer service.
These three Fs of volunteering can help social entrepreneurs or impact investors remain grounded in the cause that got them into the business in the first place. Often, I’ve heard stories from social entrepreneurs that suggest that an experience doing one of the three Fs initially motivated their ongoing professional work. The three Fs are finish, face-to-face and fun.
Generally, I find professionals with a cause are tackling long-term projects that may never be finished or won’t be for decades.
Recently I spoke with Bill Gates about polio eradication, an effort the Gates Foundation joined nearly two decades ago. While long-term trends are great, reflecting a roughly 99.99% reduction in cases over the past 34 years, recent trends aren’t positive. While only 22 cases were reported in 2017, the number of cases increased 50% to 33 in 2018 and so far in 2019, 37 cases have been reported, suggesting the tally for this year could double last year’s. Gates took counsel and comfort from his friend Warren Buffett who was philosophical and reiterated the need to see the work through to the end.
For most of us, reverses, stumbles and hurdles can be discouraging and Warren Buffett may not be available for counsel. One way to combat discouragement is to tackle a volunteer project with clear, finite parameters appropriate in scale to your resources that you can finish quickly, perhaps in a single week. It could be as simple as painting the home of a shut-in neighbor without the ability to do it or resources to have it done. Depending on your circumstances, it could be building a school—or putting solar panels on one—in a low-income country. The goal is to do something of real value for someone that you can finish.
The work of professionals in the impact arena can become painfully abstract at times. As have most readers, I’ve made a number of impact investments (mine are probably much smaller than yours). The excitement of those investments wanes quickly for me. One of the pitfalls of impact investing for ordinary investors is that it is still easier to get information about financial results than impact, leaving us without a deep connection to the change we hope our money creates.
One way to address this is to do some volunteer work that puts you face-to-face with the people you’re serving. The world looks much different reflected in the eyes of people who have a vastly different life experience from you. If you do this well, you’ve worked with the people you serve to have them guide you in providing the help they most want or need in a collaborative partnership that respects them as equals.
Local villagers and volunteers dancing in Nepal CREDIT: DEVIN THORPE
“They call it work for a reason,” is something we’ve all heard or even said about our impact careers at times. It isn’t all fun and games. The impact of the work we do may give meaning and purpose to it, but it remains fundamentally work. Engineering fun into our volunteer work can help to refresh and reenergize us.
There are lots of ways to do this. A few years ago, I wrote about Fathom Cruises that incorporate service in the Dominican Republic. Such a trip is frankly heavy on fun and light on service. When I was in Nepal with a nonprofit organization a few years back helping to install clean cookstoves in homes—following the guidance of local villagers who’d asked for the help—we were feted gleefully upon our arrival, we danced and sang with them in the evenings and we took time to stroll through the trails of the spectacular Himalayan foothills. The work was backbreaking; we slept on the floor in a school, “showered” from a bucket of cold water in 50-degree weather—and we had a ball.
As I write this, I am painfully aware that I’ve suggested entirely selfish reasons for doing service for others. This poses a clear risk. If we impose our will and judgment on others by virtue of our money and resources, even if we think we’re doing good, we are certainly disrespecting those we hope to help and could very well do further harm. It is imperative that we ask those we seek to help if they want help and if so, what help they want.
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