Social entrepreneurship isn’t all TED Talks, fellowships and field visits. Devex spoke to Blair Glencorse, founder of the Accountability Lab, to glean some firsthand insights about the trials and tribulations of being a successful global innovator.
Glencorse, who founded the Lab four years ago to educate and empower citizens to fight corruption and build the accountability of governments, is now an established entrepreneur with a string of accolades including being named a “50 Under 40’ Changemaker and Stanford Business School Social Entrepreneurship Scholar. He’s expanded the Lab from one country to four — Liberia, Mali, Nepal and Pakistan — and pioneered innovative projects such as Integrity Idol, a spin-off of the popular singing contest with government officials battling it out to be crowned most honest on national TV.
Setting up and running his own nonprofit hasn’t been easy for Glencorse, but as a committed accountability practitioner, he is more than happy to share the lessons he and his team learned along the way. Here are eight insights Glencorse shared with Devex:
1. Be ready to work really hard — for a long time.
Glencorse admits he “had no idea” what he was getting himself into when he set up the Accountability Lab, and he certainly didn't expect it to be as hard as it has been.
“This isn’t meant to put people off, it’s a fantastic thing to do, it’s just worth being realistic about what’s involved,” he said. “I also underestimated how long it would take us to get established. Initially I imagined that if we were doing good things we’d quickly attract partnerships and funding. In reality, it takes a long time and a lot of repeated interaction on the ground to build the reputation, trust and relationships you need in order to succeed.”
The Lab is now four and a half years old, and Glencorse said he’s only now beginning to feel like things are falling into place.
“I’ve come to realize there are no quick wins, it just takes time,” he said.
2. Take care of organizational health.
Having to work on fundraising and the organizational health of the Accountability Lab was a steep learning curve, Glencorse said.
“When you start your own organization you imagine yourself out in the field implementing, talking to people and doing all the other fun work,” he said. “But in reality, I ended up focusing on fundraising and internal management of the Lab. I didn’t know much about the nuts and bolts of building and running an organization — how to hire the right people, how to manage a team, how to manage accounts, all of which is extremely important.”
In retrospect Glencorse wishes he’d started thinking about the “internal systems piece” much earlier and advised budding nonprofit leaders to “read books and talk to people” about how to create and run a strong organization.
3. Fundraising is about more than transactions.
“One of the things I’ve realized about fundraising is that it’s not really about raising money, it’s about developing meaningful partnerships with people,” Glencorse said.
He advised others to see funding relationships as more than just “transactions,” but as “partnerships of equals" and said that this has enabled the Lab to build productive and effective relationships with funders based on mutual interest and collaboration.
4. Be open-minded and define resources broadly.
Glencorse said the Lab has benefited from a lot of high value support which hasn’t come in the form of grants.
“We’ve been lucky enough to receive pro bono support in a variety of ways such as communications, building websites, etc,” he said.
5. Don’t get distracted by shiny objects.
While it is tempting to chase after the many prizes, fellowships and competitions on offer for social entrepreneurs, Glencorse counseled new organizations to be strategic in which ones to pursue.
“The chances of winning are slim, the applications can be hugely time consuming, and a lot of the time you won’t know what the judges are looking for,” he said. “In my opinion, that time is better spent building relationships with funders who really understand and are interested in what you’re doing, rather than applying for glitzy prizes.”
6. Keep learning.
For Glencorse, one of the benefits of being small and flexible is the ability to be a “true learning organization.”
Having the opportunity to “try new things, get things wrong, iterate and adapt” is something he is committed to preserving within the Lab.
“We have the unique opportunity to try things out and then share our learnings with the development field — that’s part of our contribution and something which some larger organizations are perhaps less able to do.”
7. Build a strong board.
Building a board of directors can be intimidating and Glencorse admits he was initially worried a large hands-on board would be difficult to manage. Now, having set up boards for each country the Lab works in, Glencorse says he appreciated the value of a strategically chosen board which he says can “improve your organization's own governance but can also catalyze its work.”
In terms of who to have on the board, Glencorse advises leaders to “map the skills you have and the skills you need, and find people who have the interest and time to dedicate to your organization and put it all together.”
While big names can be a great addition to a board, Glencorse recommends initially recruiting people who have more time and energy to devote to your cause.
8. Measure your impact — and then tell people about it.
Understanding how to measure impact and then tell stories around it is vital to a successful organization, according to Glencorse. The Lab has developed it’s own process for measuring impact both annually and as an ongoing process in real time. The key to good impact measurement for Glencorse is to “involve as many people and get as much feedback as you can.”
“I recommend organizations start doing this as soon as possible,” he added. “It doesn’t have to be complicated and there are lots of free resources and tools out there you can use - even very simple approaches like regular online surveys.”
The entrepreneur also stressed the importance of making sure organization’s then use the data they’ve taken the time to collect “not just for a report, but try and be a true learning organization and integrate what you’ve found out back into the way you operate.”
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Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.
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