Looking at Service from an Entrepreneur’s Perspective

I spend the day at the TiE.YE (www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~tieye) forum for young entrepreneurs at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley, a program bringing innovative business people together with a mix of undergraduates, MBA students, and recent graduates to discuss topics on the general subject of entrepreneurism. All the speakers were CEOs of successful, profitable start-ups – all but me. I spoke on behalf of CharityFocus.

I will not endeavor to reconstruct an hour of presentation, but here’s a taste.

My introductory remarks went something like this:

You are here, indoors, on a brilliant, sunny Saturday afternoon because you have decided that you are the entrepreneurs of the future. This says so much about you, the way you assess your talents, and how you see yourself in the world. You understand that you have the ability not simply to take the world as you find it, but have the ability to create. You are willing not simply to do what someone else might require of you, but are willing to set your own limits and incessantly push them.

This creative desire and self-motivated spark sets you apart from your peers, even as they may possess the same talents and stamina that you have.

Today you have heard – and will continue to hear – how to apply your creative instincts in a way that will build companies and, with luck, personal fortunes. That’s all good and quite exciting. But I want you to consider another application of your entrepreneurial spirit: in the pursuit of service and volunteerism.

Serving others, with no expectation or desire for reward, is a perfect outlet for the wonderful mix of talent and industry you represent. Whether you are simply pausing on your way to work to share food with a homeless person who lives outside your office building or designing some revolutionary innovation that will change the way in which non-profit services are delivered all over the world, your act of service is one of perfect genesis. Even in its most simple form, serving others brings desperately needed compassion to the world. And one thing is certain: your compassion for others will breed compassion in others. It works every time.

As business people, you surely will recognize this as the optimal mode of investment: the kind where your meager pay-in continues to multiply long after you’ve forgotten that you even made it.

Here’s the other investment-savvy aspect of service: it is the extremely rare volunteer opportunity in which you take less from the experience that you are able to give.

I’m not suggesting that you turn your attention away from the commercial dreams that are floating through your heads. I simply want to remind you that there is more than one way to create; and, should you choose to, you can make service a part of your lives without sacrificing your other ambitions.

I explained CharityFocus to the audience. I told them that they could look at our organization in two slightly different ways, each of which might bear on the subject of entrepreneurism. First, they could see the founding of the CF as an example of organizational innovation perfectly analogous to company-building. They might learn from the way in which CF has grown from a tiny start up of five volunteers into a 5,000+ member, worldwide volunteer enterprise. Second, they might look at CF as an incubator of business-like programs, including our website development program, cShops, ProPoor, PledgePage, and others. In this way, CF operates akin to the way certain venture firms help new businesses to gestate.

After discussing CF at length, assessing our similarities to a for-profit start-up, and drawing lessons from which businesses might learn from our experience, I took care to point out what I see as the critical difference between expressing one’s entrepreneurial creativity in business or in service:

In business, the conventional mode is to first identify a market need and then find a way to address it. All day I’ve been listening to CEOs exhort you not to begin with a cool piece of technology and then go looking for an application; rather, they advise you to figure out what the world needs and the technology will suggest itself.

In looking for your path to service, I’d like you to think in a way exactly the opposite to the business methodology you’ve been learning. Look away from the opportunities; look first to your passion. Howard Thurman wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Instead, ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs most is people who have come alive.” Isn’t his advice wonderfully counter to the market-driven approach?

If you want to identify where the world’s needs for service lay, you will hardly know where to begin your list. The hungry must be fed, the homeless sheltered, the naked clothed. Children and adults alike must be taught to read. The cultural and arts institutions which preserve our heritage must be supported. Our habitat requires a good scrubbing, and our wild places cry for preservation. We must work to prevent violence, and to give succor to the victims of violence. You will find no shortage of “market opportunities” in the voluntary sector. So I encourage you to take Mr. Thurman’s advise and make your stand where your passions are aroused.

In business, there is a desire to tackle the big things – to chase the biggest markets, make the biggest splash, earn the biggest profits. In service, we all do well to abandon economic analysis and heed the words of Mother Teresa: We can do no great things, only small things with great love.

So find where your interest lays, and even if it seems a small thing compared to global warming or genocide or rural poverty, dedicate your service in that direction. And do whatever you chose to do with love and a feeling of connection to the world in which you live.

Ultimately, by following your passions and making time to put service into your lives, you will continue to cultivate the very spirit that drives your entrepreneurial instincts.

This was a very satisfying event. Afterward, most of the students lingered to ask questions. They seemed sincerely fascinated with CF and many declared that they were inspired by hearing that their particular creative ambitions might be so easily satisfied by service.

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