January 25, 2018


Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up, and Make a Difference. By Kathleen Kelly Janus. Da Capo. $27.

     Here is a book that self-limits its audience in at least five ways. It is 1) for millennials who 2) have an entrepreneurial bent and 3) want to use that inclination in the nonprofit sector by 4) creating do-good organizations that will 5) attract funding and 6) make a difference in the world. All right, that is six ways, but that is the point: Kathleen Kelly Janus has created a book for a very, very specific, highly targeted audience – a very small audience, but one that will surely welcome some level of guidance from a fellow member of the select group (Janus and six friends co-founded a gender-equality-focused nonprofit).

     Every generation finds its own way of working on the never-ending parade of societal ills. In the past there were great fortunes that became the basis of foundations: the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation. There were others used to create or re-create great universities: Duke University, Carnegie Mellon. In more-recent times, the self-made super-wealthy have created groups of their own or announced plans to give away their fortunes to existing ones: Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Tim Cook of Apple. But there have always been people without great wealth who have wanted to make a major difference in society: leaders, largely religion-based, of the civil-rights movement, for example, and effective community organizers. One of the latter, Barack Obama, even showed how it can be possible to parlay grassroots do-good impulses and organization into great political power – although his story is also a cautionary tale of the limits faced once that power is attained. What Janus offers in Social Startup Success is a model for the largest current generation in the U.S., the millennials, to parlay their particular strengths in thinking and organizing into a new set of organizations whose aim is to improve various aspects of society.

     In truth, much of what Janus recommends here is not new, although it is presented as if no one ever thought of it before. Among the tried-and-true ideas here are to learn from failure instead of being dismayed or disheartened by it; find ways to measure your impact and parlay those into greater effectiveness; and create and tell compelling stories that will engage people and make them eager to help either as participants or as donors. On the other hand, some of Janus’ suggestions are tailored directly to what she sees as the strengths of millennials: gather a great amount of data and use and leverage the information; build a team and empower all members; decentralize management and flatten or eliminate hierarchies; search for funding models that not only use now-standard approaches such as crowdfunding but that also reflect the goals of your group. Of course, Social Startup Success is packed with examples of social-startup entrepreneurs who have done things right – but it would have been a better book if it had also included numerous examples of well-meaning people and projects that failed, and had analyzed the reasons for those failures. Most startups, for-profit or nonprofit, do fail, and an understanding of that reality is (or should be) foundational for anyone who wants to found and develop an organization of any sort.

     Janus’ writing does get into the nitty-gritty of organizational structure and management – this is no mere feel-good-about-what-you-do book. “While elaborate columns of data can be oppressive, a dashboard really can be as remarkably powerful a tool for internal tracking and program improvement as it is for external validation,” she writes at one point. On the other hand, Janus never loses sight of the fact that she is writing for people primarily focused on doing good rather than making profits. For instance, she approvingly quotes one entrepreneur who says, “Every single person on the staff has to have one reason for being there: to accomplish the mission,” although she herself writes, a few paragraphs later and somewhat contradictorily, of the importance of “developing a culture where people have each other’s backs and feel connected to the organization, not just the cause, in an emotional way.”

     Not everything in Social Startup Success is useful or particularly realistic, at least as Janus presents the material – there are key elements missing here and there. At one point, for example, she writes of a California woman “from humble roots” who “didn’t let that stop her” and spent “many of her early days driving over the hill to Silicon Valley where she could network with tech executives.” She just drove over there and hobnobbed? How did that work, exactly? Is it doable today? How did this woman with no prior contacts make them in that rarefied world? Can others do the same? How? There is much less of this prescriptive information in Social Startup Success than readers may hope to find. The specifics of running an organization are comparatively well covered, but the bootstrapping elements, especially when it comes to initial fundraising, developing a key basic level of supporters and employees, and creating a small but well-functioning system that can then be parlayed into something larger, are less than clear. The many examples of people who have been successful in creating socially conscious startups will be encouraging to people trying to get their own going, but hearing success stories only shows that this sort of thing can sometimes be done – without explaining much about the many ways the approach can fail and the many pitfalls that social entrepreneurs need to avoid. Millennials will be heartened to discover the successes here, but would have benefited more from learning of the vastly greater number of well-intentioned people for whom things went awry.

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