Sustainability for the Citizen Sector 2008 | Entrepreneurship | Social Entrepreneurship

Sustainability for  the citizen sector 

Seshie Richard Ahedor 

Voluntary welfare organizations, non profits and not-for-profits are part of a more inclusive sector. Whether we call it the civic, social, social service or the citizen sector1; many of its pertaining organizations have been instrumental into the provision of what can be so called 'indigenous social stewardship 2.0': indigenous for our native capability to had had roots with people and gain their trust; social stewardship as we earned a place in the social value chain delivery by capturing people very local needs and responding to it; and the 2.0 added is that long before, we as a sector have put into practice the fact that a participatory approach with the beneficiaries is of a complete matter. The citizen sector as 'citizens seen as the active ingredient, tens of thousands uplifting millions others' today encompasses VWOs, non profits, not for profits, cooperatives, social entrepreneurs and other new legal forms exploding everywhere2. Our emergence has earned us a standing amidst the public sector and the business private sector. Our three sectors are now learning how to entrepreneur together for human good, while not overlooking their own interests and bringing into synergy their competitive advantages. Competitive Advantage, that is said! Ours have been I recall it to be since decades at the lead of delivering ' indigenous social stewardship 2.0' to millions in need and build strong citizen bases for our organizations. While materializing our way, Governments did too little fearing we would threaten or replace them and the business sector didn't perceive the importance to put his financial and management mastery at our service neither were we totally prepared/willing to; this leading to the obvious fact that our organizations today are constantly at risk relying heavily on grants, donations, unimaginative limited fundraising approaches and poor human & organizational capacity. Fortunately, the landscape is changing fast and in our favor. In this paper, we first bring more awareness among on new mindsets, disruptive ones' that should happen within our doers and leaders in citizen organizations, and only then suggest some innovative approaches that could be explored into building more solid organizations, be it for the peace promoting grassroots in Kisangani3 or the youth empowerment organization in Dalat4.

1 The term citizen sector is a term coined by Ashoka Innovators for the Public; please visit 2 Examples of the new hybrid forms Social Enterprises, CDCs, L3Cs...can be found here 3 Kisangani is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo 4 Dalat is located in Singapore

Is Sustainability relevant for the citizen sector?
‘‘I can still recall one of my friends founding last year a voluntary organization he called Love the Human5 - in my country. Because he has been successful in his previous projects, a lot of people volunteered to join him. Soon after; for their first meeting, they had to ‘borrow’ the office of another organization and they kept doing it. After 6 months of unsuccessful fundraising (with great time and some money devoted); scarcity of resources became evident and members dramatically left. The last time I met them on a meeting, my friend was with 3 other newbie's in the university garden. On request, he wrote to me back a week ago saying he still struggle and think of shutting it down.’’ This outlined experience of my friend represents more or less the reality as lived by thousands of organizations that cannot even pass the crucial step of institutional funding; and if they do, are confronted to many other hurdles. Lets' do this - if we alter on one hand the well known definition of Sustainability6 bringing it closer to an organizational perspective as: "the ongoing responsible operations that meet its interests of the present without compromising its own ability to meet its future interests" and secondly, should we assume the actual ultimate interest of the sector is to generate value (social or a mix of social/economic); it suddenly makes a complete sense for any citizen organization to backbone Sustainability as being worth it for its living. Lets' then be practical - For organizations caring for their living; will mean being good at those three (3) exercises: how to acquire resources, how to build successful organizations and how to achieve impact. Here, we will broaden our understanding of resources not only seen as attracting financial capital but as well as social capital, human capital and showcase the importance of Technology at work.

5 Love the Human is a registered NGO in Ivory Coast. Acknowledgements to Guy Gnali for allowing me to refer to his organization. 6 The Brunt land definition, the most quoted and well known definition of Sustainability can be found here

Why Entrepreneurial + Meaning + Citizen Base = Gold Mine
Entrepreneurial We Are I again recall the experience of my friend with Love the Human. When Guy decided that the official launch of his organization will materialize through a press conference; negotiating the venue, writing proposals...attracting attendees, when all this means working hard until 10.00 PM leaving behind the taste of a good lunch and sometimes dinner, what was he doing? Poised to succeed or not, didn't Guy and his supporters took action and risks along to give birth to their organization? Now, what if his organization on its turn initiated a big literacy campaign, giving birth to a school in a remote area? What are those if not vivid examples of entrepreneurship in the citizen sector? Here is the first mind shift. VWOs and non profits should understand their nature as being Socially Entrepreneurial Organizations. Simply put, our organizations are in the business of doing social good. It is also said that Leaders in our sector are exerting Socially Entrepreneurial Leadership7. Ashoka8 also exemplify in its own way these leaders, this time in possession of certain attributes that are called Social Entrepreneurs. In Bill Drayton9 own words: ''Social entrepreneurs focus their entrepreneurial talent on solving social problems -- why children are not learning…...why pollution is increasing, etc. [They recognize] when a part of society is stuck and [provide] new ways to get it unstuck. [They attempt] to solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. '' Up to date, Ashoka network is comprised of over 1,700 social entrepreneurs in 62 countries. More than 60% of them by relentlessly pursuing their ideas and driving their organizations to be inner-entrepreneurial (intrapeneurial) have changed national policies to turn positive, beneficial within five years10. Only when we assume our entrepreneurial nature , will come along that incisive curiosity to learn within our own and from other sectors worst and best practices, be it - this will mean grabbing managerial skills of businesses or dialoguing with Governments in modeling legal forms that matches the singularity of our organizations. We can actually see it11.

7 Please visit 8 Ashoka Innovators of the Public is the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs; please visit 9 Bill Drayton is the Founder and CEO of Ashoka 10 Please visit 11 Just one example is the role the UK based Social Enterprise Coalition played in the creation in 2005 of the 'Community Interest Company' new legal form in UK; please visit

What is your Unique Meaning Proposition? Change is a buzzword in our sector. Exposure on the field allowed me to hear of such words like Be the Change, Change makers, agents of positive Change, systemic Change. What is all this fuss about change, I told to myself? As one knows: one is born, grows and dies and his entire life is spanned of change. So, with or without the sector, the individual like the society will keep transforming as Change is an inevitable law. Again, what's in the Change that grips the whole sector? Change is in the sector as we are inclining its orientation by shaping the social agenda (no new substance here); but there is a completely different AHA moment when you report change, this time in relation to the people we serve. When given an option to decide, Change is only adopted by people when it carries a dose of MEANING in their eyes. MEANING is then the ultimate link that holds us to people between our original willingness to take care and the value generated by our common efforts at end. In Between, Change is the road to reach there and MEANING the vehicle that a citizen decides to embark upon for the journey.

If MEANING is then how people interpret the end value and find it worth being a part of the change; every citizen sector organization (CSO) should then capture and stand on his Unique Meaning Proposition. Our native capability, this direct exposure allows us to capture the very real meaning out of the end value we wish to offer to people. As our strong social missions incline us to give benefit to the largest number of people, then into building a strong citizen base; a Unique Meaning Proposition (UMP) formulated and perhaps explicitly promoted will be the glue to citizens’ trust, loyalty and engagement; in short our way. On a lighter note, a Unique Meaning Proposition is easily distinguishable from a Unique Value Proposition (UVP). It is not how we profile the uniqueness of our products/services vis-à-vis competitors and sell; but how we convince people and win them to embark on our way of creating Value, as we recognize they are our first assets in the beginning and in the long run as well as we often start from the scratch and do not enter the arena with huge capital and markets pre-established . UMP could be a sub-element, be coupled with or fundamentally replace the UVP as its identical brother within the citizen sector. It could be 'statement-formulated' and be a part or redefine even the theory of change of any CSO. Yet, more has to be explored in that concept but UMP will be especially useful for new entrepreneurial citizens and virtually for any CSO.

Our Citizen Base is our Gold Mine When we recognize our entrepreneurial nature and build large ownership among the community with help of meaning and value, our Citizen Base is our most precious Gold Mine. Ashoka with its Citizen Base Initiative12 and the Schwab Foundation with its annual social entrepreneurship awards13 provide us with a collection of case studies of how CSOs mobilize the community and generate capital out of this to reach financial sustainability. Interestingly, we will point out to organizations like The Blind Light Foundation14, Honey Care15 and even Cinepop16 who achieved self-financial sustainability by respecting those two conditions. Let's talk of the Blind Light Foundation. They initiated the 'blindekuh' restaurant which is a reversal role immersion experience in the dark, of sighted dinners guided by a staff of blinded employees. ‘-The Entrepreneurial move: responding to the miscommunication gap between blinded and sighted people by seeing it as an entrepreneurial opportunity -The meaning for its citizen base (Blinded persons say): regarding us as able citizens where we can be active, we earn wages and we reduce our dependence vis-à-vis government and others; we are in. -The value for the community: with full salaries at the market rates and interaction, the blinded persons felt more ownership to the society, the people are happy with a new experience, the CSO sustains itself and the government can tap into this model to better fulfill its duties.’ Although a very able enterprise, Blind Light Foundation would have created more value by giving ever more meaning to its citizen base. Yet, they empower visually impaired and blinded people but did they ask to themselves if that blindness was permanent or not, curable or not, a matter of funding or not? They could have perhaps contributed in offering medical assistance to the concerned so they could recover their view in a long run. This will be of exceptional meaning for them and few clients of the 'blindekuh restaurants' wouldn't agree to pay an extra more, understanding this matter of meaning and the new personal happiness coming along and beyond the 'darkness' experience of the moment . In case this did not apply to their employees, they sure could explore other options of making the life of their employees easier by enabling street, web accessibility or encouraging adaptative houses or skills for the family. This is a truly win-win-win situation.

12 Please visit 13 Please visit 14 Please visit 15 Please visit 16 Please visit

Governments in Action
Speaking briefly, here are some ideas where Governments and the citizen sector could foster their collaboration. One is about scaling on the potential of National Civic Service Programs growing everywhere in the world. In 2003, we counted around 210 civic service programs in 57 countries, with 22 percent administered by government agencies and engaging more than 77 percent of youth17. The idea is to revisit the end utility and the decision-making process as part of national civic service programs with CSOs now being the core recipients and the individuals given the freedom to decide - the government seeing its role as a regulator and offering its trusted brand as an umbrella (a national coalition of CSOs could do also in the event of careless signals from governments). Practically, with help of technology, we could have an online exchange system where concerned citizens and CSOs hungry to host volunteers meet in one (market)place, the first exerting their skills and experience and the second the domain of intervention and compensation package if any. This system (backboned with strong guidelines) could work within a compulsory or voluntary civic service, extending the scope of volunteers beyond youth to include virtually every citizen and the volunteers could join the CSOs on an individual, group basis or even virtually within short or long term assignments at any time. Along, the Government could be a full player and appeal to volunteers by showcasing the relevance of its programs just as any CSO will do on the online system. The second part is about how Governments redistribute our common wealth. Public Private Partnerships have grown as a way for Governments to fulfil public tasks in partnership with private enterprises. PPPs in the social services sector now coined as public social private partnership (PsPP) 18 is emerging and CSOs here have a 'natural' role to play. By exploring the potential of PSPPs that brings Government, social enterprises and private enterprises together to deliver social services, each one is leveraging on its core competencies, the 2 last inviting resources for themselves. Another way to encourage the sector to self-sustain is through public contract bidding directed to the own public administration. Governments could recognize we can play a role in providing good and services and one good way to start as we could certainly not compete at this stage with the private sector would be to reserve a portion of these public contracts to CSOs or consortiums of CSOs-private enterprises/municipal enterprises. Finally, Governments are finding new wealth in Sovereign Funds19 more aggressive in financial markets worldwide. There is much need to pay attention in their future capability to drain social value as well20; and where the citizen sector could fit into the picture.
17 From the Report 'The forms and Nature of Service, a global Assessment'; please visit 18 Please visit 19 Please visit 20 One example is the Africa Investor Social Index demanding to Sovereign funds worldwide to dedicate 1% of their investments into socially responsible businesses operating in Africa; please visit

The financial breakthrough happening
We need capital and the social financial sector has started to respond. Socially Responsible Investing21 and Innovative Financing are paving the way to a ‘for benefit’ social sector. There is a plethora of financial instruments becoming available to the citizen sector and being sophisticated everyday. Yet, the most significant either operational or promising are community investing22, social angel investing23, social venture capital24 and social stock exchange25. These new instruments and their investors are looking for a Social Return on Investment and profit as well. This is great news and now HYBRID26 organizations are emerging, innovating in their way of creating value by balancing a social and economic return. Another very interesting option represent Inclusive Business Models or Hybrid Value ChainTM (HVC) 27 where VWOs, NPOs and for benefit CSOs can self-sustain financially. HVCs are a direct collaboration between CSOs and businesses, giving a chance for their products or services to reach the Base of the Pyramid or the 4 Billion people living with less than UDS$ 2 a day. As Businesses have limited knowledge on low income individuals, find it too costly to sell on an individual basis with a low margin and for many more reasons...they can rely on CSOs who in turn tap into their citizen base, providing individuals with affordable products & services like water, housing, health - more inclusive meaning then; and still generating a profit that is shared. One successful example documented is mexican small farmers access to irrigation systems at a fair price (with value-added services like financing, commercialization and technical assistance) that doubled/tripled their incomes while Amanco, the involved water distribution company leveraged on this newly formed rural distribution channel; earning a profitable US$ 1 million sales in the first year. 28 This said; CSOs are in a unique position to partner with Businesses to serve low income markets by tapping into their citizen base (UNDP recently realizing it now supports the process since 2006 with its Growing Inclusive Markets intiative29). No selfish meaning, rather inclusive meaning is the key.

21 Socially Responsible Investing; please visit, 22 Community investing; please visit 23 Social angel investing; term coined by the author with reference to an example; please visit 24 Social venture capital; please visit 25 Social stock exchange with BOVESPA was an early initiative; please visit 26 An Introduction to hybrid organizations; please visit 27 Hybrid Value Chains™: is a concept coined by Ashoka, read about it here 28 Hybrid Value Chains™: Social Innovations and Development of the Small Farmer Irrigation Market in Mexico; please visit 29 UNDP Growing Inclusive Markets, please visit

Catching up on Technology
There is so much to say about Technology in the Citizen Sector if not to sum it up as we are the sector lagging behind. We can observe here one of Ashoka' rare pitfalls as its essential technological support to its social entrepreneurs fellow’s consists of donations for grating an access to Internet. We were pioneers in the social stewardship 2.0; we shouldn't leave the web 2.0 reality behind us. Interestingly, some voluntary CSOs after the rush for hardwares and softwares are discovering how technology can help them in attracting more resources and deliver on their value. Many cases in the use of Second Life speak for themselves. 30 For us catching up on Technology, we will need 2 more missing institutions (and perhaps many more): one that accommodate us with the language of Technology-savvy by providing meaningful knowledge; a gap that has partially and recently started to be filled upon by the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) 31 and a second institution that offers innovative financing for CSOs to acquire an end-to-end technology platform on a sustainable basis.

Apart from attracting resources, there are still big challenges we as a whole sector face, one of the most crucial being how to measure our social impact effectiveness. When I measure how effective your social impact is, resources of all kind can also flow – this will be of invaluable value to start answering this in a consistent and universally agreed approach. Sustainability Amimi Ad infinitum (Sustainability at heart to infinity).

30 Non Profits Best Practices with Second Life, please visit 31 Nonprofit Technology Network, please visit

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