I spent the end of last week at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford (my other posts here, here and here). You can also see a video of Patrick Meier speaking in the opening plenary. Perhaps one of the most interesting discussions that I had was with Sally Osberg, the CEO of Skoll Foundation, where we talked about scale, sustainability and the accelerating speed of change globally.
We talked briefly about how Ushahidi is working to offset some of our grant-based income with earned revenue, and it was here that Sally really departed from the traditional answer to that. In discussing the sustainability of an organization, especially a non-profit one, that we sometimes put self-sustainability on too high of a pedestal. In other words, sometimes it makes sense and you should do it, other times it doesn’t as the traditional market approach will not support the social goods being provided – even if they are needed.
She said, especially in the social entrepreneur space, “sustainability is a shibboleth”. Having grown up in a missionary background, I vaguely knew this term, but decided to look it up.
“The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary: A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group.”
Like any good word, the history of it is as interesting as how we use it today. The term shibboleth originates from old testament biblical times, where the Ephraimites and the Gileadites had a battle. The Ephraimites lose, and the Gileadites set a verbal trap for all those trying to escape.
“Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.”
—Judges 12:5-6, NJB
Today, we do the same thing. We have an “in” way of speaking, it’s our way of saying we’re part of a tribe and it helps us communicate internally and identify those who don’t belong externally. Whether it’s the mobile social good crowd, real estate agents, the social entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley blogs, or corporate speak. We all recognize it, especially when we don’t know the right words.
In the social entrepreneur space, the funders and the entrepreneurs, set up the term “sustainability” as an in-group term. For, after all, if someone is willing to pay for the services that an organization offers, no one can doubt that it is viable and valuable.
I agree with this in many ways, as there is nothing like opening up to the market (or community) to get feedback on what really needs to be done to make a product better.
What Sally followed up with was the need to not setup our organizations with the ultimate goal being sustainability, but to always remember that impact comes first, and that sometimes we don’t know if there is a sustainable model to underpin it. Sometimes the formula for an organization is a mixture of self-earned revenue and grants (like Ushahidi), sometimes grants only, and sometimes pure market based income. What matters is the funding formula and the impact, not the revenue generation alone.