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My Professional Eureka

My first professional eureka hit me in January 2012. I was skimming the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) job board when I stumbled upon an exciting job, and an even more exciting idea. I immediately knew I had to talk to the organization that posted the job—even if they didn’t offer it to me—because the concept it introduced—social enterprise—was everything I had been looking for. Let me explain why.

The summer after my junior year of college I was super, super excited to score my first paid internship at a Twin Cities nonprofit. In this internship I was asked to (cue ominous music…) solicit silent auction items. My supervisor told me, “Hey, call places up and ask them to give you stuff, because we’re a good cause. It’s gonna be awesome.” (That’s actually not at all what she said.)

The phone took on epic proportions. It grew so big I couldn’t lift it. It got hairy and grew fangs and occasionally hissed malevolently at me when my back was turned. In short, I realized that asking people I don’t know to give me stuff gives me legitimate anxiety. Because of this, I wasn’t sure if I could hack it at a nonprofit after graduating.*

So I graduated college and started working in customer service at a giant nationwide corporation. Guess what I did all day? I called people and asked them to do stuff they didn’t want to do. It felt just like calling people and asking them to give me stuff, except without a mission-driven cause. (I was also only allowed to use the bathroom for 9.5 minutes per day. On average. They actually tracked this.).

So I quit.

I realized I disliked working at a for-profit corporation; I needed a mission to guide me. I also felt incapable of cold calling, which made me nervous about fundraising. Career counselors and mentors throughout college had told me that it’s just as valuable to learn what you don’t like as what you do like - but where could I turn?

That’s when the seemingly innocuous job board gave me a jolt and revealed to me my professional eureka moment: You can fulfill a mission without fundraising. This magical ideal is called a social enterprise: a business whose primary purpose is the common good. In a perfect world, a social enterprise would fund itself through business income; the need for donations would be gone! I felt like I had found the thing I had been searching for, that beautiful and elusive intersection of the Venn diagram.

Even better: My self-focused excitement that developed upon finding the type of organization I would enjoy working for bloomed into more. Social enterprise also represented a structural and systems change I believed in. I learned that social enterprise envisions a world in which the economy is built on purpose, not shareholder value. Where MOST businesses work towards a social or environmental mission. Where profit means scaling, which means more impact. Where a mission-focused executive doing well financially is a sign of a successful, impactful organization, not a sign of misdirected funds. Where mission-driven organizations could publicly question ethical weaknesses in corporations without having to then turn around and ask those same corporations for funding. Being a social enterpriser means joining a movement that aims to upend the economy and the currently entrenched systems of privilege and power.

Continuing to learn about social enterprise turned my exhilarating professional eureka into my moment of obligation. I’ve had to temper my naive optimism: At this point, most people don’t even know what social enterprise is, and traditional nonprofits remain necessary. Certain missions are best fulfilled by operating on donations and grants. And most social enterprises still fundraise to supplement their earned income. The world that the social enterprise sector envisions does not yet exist.

So there is the uphill battle: doing something about it. Because doing something is what matters.

I urge you to reflect: What was your professional eureka? Your moment of obligation? Through these discoveries, what did you learn about yourself? What is the world you envision?

What is the something you are doing now?

* I recognize now that this impression was totally false. Cold calling is not a requirement of every nonprofit position–nonprofits need people with all types of strengths!

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