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I moved to Austin in the mid-1990s as part of an expansion of BSG Corporation, a company for which I was a co-founder. In 1996, two things happened that shaped my engagement in community and social ventures for the next 20 years to present day.
First, BSG was acquired by another large services company for several hundred million dollars. Second, I was accepted into the 1996-97 class of Leadership Austin.
Up until then, my only community activity had been supporting my church and the schools my young children attended. Outside of those activities, all of my energy was poured into helping BSG grow and succeed. Consequently, while I traveled around the country to our offices in locations like New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle, I didn’t even know the names of the streets on the adjacent blocks around my new home in Austin.
So, when we sold BSG, I had a hunger to get to know my community better and was blessed with the means to take the time to do it. After some discernment, mightily enabled by my Leadership Austin experience, I thought that lending my services as a non-profit leader could be a worthwhile way to get engaged in a high impact way.
Long story short, I interviewed for and won the CEO position (equivalent to Executive Director for many non-profits) at Easter Seals – Central Texas. This is the “Exercise” part of good impact investing, per this post’s title.
Being the CEO of a major regional non-profit (we had a multi-million dollar annual budget with a 22-county Hill Country territory) gave me the opportunity to see the social services sector from the inside, for which I’m grateful.
The experience was critical for learning the importance of exercising head and heart in different ways. It also enabled me to see how business practices I had learned and considered second nature were under-valued, under-represented, or completely absent in social services.
What I Learned
At the end of my one-year tenure as CEO, performing the real-life exercise as a hands-on social venture leader also helped shape the opinions that I carry today about the strengths and weaknesses of the sector.
Since so much of the non-profit sector competes for social venture dollars, I’ve learned to guide my criteria for judging an organization’s ability to succeed by criteria that are not unlike those of any other new venture I evaluate — non-profit or for-profit.
In fact, I don’t really think in terms of non-profit or for-profit. I think of high-margin, low-margin and no-margin ventures… to me, the financial side of evaluating a venture is all about growth and sustainability.
But, even before the financial sustainability question and its corresponding element, the business model, the four most important issues that I look for can be summed up with the acronym DIET, standing for: Demand, Idea, Excellence, and Team. (Yes, this is where the “DIET” part of the DIET and Exercise title comes from.)
Looking To the Future
Having been a both social venture leader and in the business of launching new ventures, as I have for years as a principal with Powershift Group, I’m looking forward to going deeper on the DIET and Exercise concepts, sharing my perspective as an impact investor, during our SXSW panel, Sunday, March 15.
PS: If you have a moment, and are an educator, a student, or the parent of a high schooler, please take a look at one of Powershift Group’s most recent social venture projects: the Wannabe mobile app. You can download it (free) for all iOS devices, from the iTunes App Store.