Two Memoirs to Inspire and Educate Social Entrepreneurs
I am returning from Istanbul, where I attended and spoke at a historic meeting of microfinance leaders from around the Arab World and from Turkey. A long layover in Amsterdam is giving me the opportunity to return to this blog while I prepare to head to Haiti via Washington and New York over the next two days. It has been a whirlwind fall for me, but my book on Fonkoze has never been far from my mind. Professor Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank and my mentor, was the most recent person to ask me about it when we were driving to a university in Turkey where he gave a speech two days ago.
Loyal blog readers will recall that one of the things I have re-learned about book-writing is that part of the process is voracious reading. Not just about the subject matter of the book you are writing. It is important to read books that can provide literary inspiration and/or a sense of what the reading public is responding to in terms of broadly similar titles (in my case, related to international social enterprise).
The two books I finished most recently are The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz (Rodale, 2009) and The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook by Rupert Scofield (McGraw Hill, 2011). Both are essentially memoirs by leaders in the social entrepreneurship movement who have strong ties to microfinance. (Disclosure: I have met Novogratz briefly once, while Scofield is a friend and mentor over many years though we are not personally close in the sense of socializing together and so on.)
The Blue Sweater, a New York Times bestseller, was written by the founder of the Acumen Fund, a leading non-profit social investor. Novogratz has a compelling story to tell about her journey from being an international banker to an ostracized expatriate in Africa and finally to starting a successful microfinance institution in Rwanda – all as a prelude to getting Acumen Fund off the ground. Her prose, especially when describing the sights, sounds and people of Africa, is beautiful and sometimes soaring. Sweater is far more than a PR piece for Acumen Fund, which only enters the picture in the last third of the book.
Her insights into why she succeeded and failed at different points in her career took courage and wisdom to tell. Indeed, Novogratz allows herself to be quite vulnerable and open about her youthful mistakes, which humanizes her and makes it seem more feasible for younger readers to imagine themselves becoming international humanitarian leaders through their own efforts, trial and error. This is one of the most important aspects of the book in my view (a strength that Scofield’s book, in its quirky way, shares — more on that below).
Towards the end of the book she profiles some of the social enterprises and entrepreneurs that Acumen Fund has invested in – a few of which I have dealt with through Grameen Foundation (that I founded). The profiles are fascinating and in general, ring true. Her writing about returning to Rwanda after the genocide and seeing who and what survived – and who did not – is heart-wrenching and compelling. Her chapter on “Taking it to Scale” is impressive, effectively cutting through some false dichotomies that often masquerade as conventional wisdom in the social enterprise arena.
I highly recommend this book despite a few things the rubbed me the wrong way. Presumably Novogratz got her start in microfinance by getting a job with Women’s World Banking (WWB), a respected organization that collaborates with Grameen Foundation from time to time. However, she only mentions “chancing upon a nonprofit microfinance organization for women based in New York City.” Remarkably, WWB is never mentioned by name in the entire book. By the time she gets to Rwanda, the only international organization mentioned as providing significant support to her team is Unicef.
I searched the Internet and read many biographical sketches of Ms. Novogratz and not once was WWB mentioned. I asked her about it several times but never got a response. I asked the leadership of WWB about it and they expressed puzzlement regarding Novogratz’s distancing of herself from them. Perhaps she had a bad experience there or maybe her public relations advisors at Acumen didn’t want her to name what they consider a competitor. But it still seems to me that failing to acknowledge the organization that gave someone their start in what became a distinguished career is disappointing and stingy.
She writes several times variations on the phrase “microfinance is not the only answer to poverty” – as if anyone had ever claimed that it was! In another case, Acumen Fund partnered with Grameen Foundation to support one of organizations profiled in the book, but GF’s role was not mentioned. Again, once senses the PR team at Acumen Fund applying zero-sum thinking by encouraging these insertions and omissions. Still, despite these flaws it is an impressive volume.
Scofield’s book is a memoir covering a longer journey that has culminated in leading FINCA International since the late 1980s. The writing is not gorgeous in the way that Novogratz’s can be, but it is colorful, lively and at times a bit shocking in its directness. About two years ago I introduced Scofield to my literary agency and they along with the publisher convinced him to write his memoir in the form of a handbook for current and aspiring social entrepreneurs working in any sector, not just microfinance. This turned out to be a great idea.
Indeed, putting Scofield’s anecdotes in the form of “teachable moments” for those running non-profits today and those hoping to do so works tremendously well. If there was one book I wish I had read when I started Grameen Foundation in 1997, it would have been this one (though it did not exist then). Scofield is remarkably open about his and FINCA’s mistakes and his views about what caused them. He gives incredibly practical advice about fund-raising, recruiting and managing staff, financial stewardship including hiring good Chief Financial Officers, how field operations can “go rogue” and what to do about them, information systems and much more.
Frankly, virtually anyone running an international non-profit or social enterprise will benefit from reading this practical advice written in such an accessible way. Scofield also has a section that gives excellent pointers to young people wanting to break into the field, making it relevant to a growing population of idealistic young people uninterested in earning earthly riches on Wall Street, etc. and seeking social meaning and impact instead.
There are a few issues, large and small, on which my learning journey has led me to very different conclusions than Scofield has come to. I’ll leave it to my own memoir to detail those divergences some day. However, I will note that I am unlikely ever to think that the way FINCA has structured its international operations is consistent with the principle of local institution building – a core philosophical value of mine. As I am familiar with some of FINCA’s history, I noted a few factual errors. But these points detract little if anything from this remarkably useful book that I have been recommending to many people since I completed it just a few short weeks ago.
If my book can be true to the Fonkoze story, told in my own voice, and match the strongest elements of these two outstanding books, it will be something very special. Between now and the end of this month I will visit Haiti again and spend four concentrated days writing. Hopefully we will be much closer to realizing this vision when we enter 2012.